Whenever I find myself in a situation with limited or no Internet connectivity, I immediately perceive a change in my daily habits and the whole day gets a change in shape. Unless I’m extremely busy and need to stay in front of my Mac for the better part of the day, I usually don’t feel particular attraction towards the machine, and the usual subtle urgency to stay up-to-date and catch up with email, online readings and news, fades away rather quickly. The force I call digital gravitation recedes, and looking at the open MacBook Pro in front of me is like looking at the Earth from the moon. It’s like zooming out and observing the computer for what it ultimately is: an object, a container — albeit a peculiar, powerful one.
When television was in its prime, it was often referred to as ‘the magic box’, an expression which today I feel best suited for computers and devices like the iPhone and iPad. They are containers where a lot of people basically put their lives. If you feel I’m exaggerating, just think of the personal stuff your main computer holds. Your work and private correspondence, your documents, your photos, your music, your work files, your writings, sensible data for financial transactions, your toys (in the form of computer games). Basically everything you need on a daily basis. Even contacts and friends you can interact with through the Internet and social network platforms.
A few months ago, when minimalism was the latest coolest thing geeks and nerds raved about, I read stories of people who enthusiastically claimed how they got rid of their physical possessions — especially books, vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, paper documents — to completely digitalise their lives, putting stuff in the cloud, and remove what they felt was a cumbersome burden. They sort of rebooted their lives, now being able to ‘travel light’. An exhilarating, liberating feeling. Some of them even said that their computer had become their most treasured possession — “it is my life”.
While I understand that feeling, while I admit there’s something extremely appealing in being able to fit all one’s belongings in a couple of boxes and a knapsack, I’m also a bit wary of letting computers and the online world vacuum my physical possessions. As I’ve said many times already, technological progress is driven by convenience. There’s nothing wrong in analogue photography, for instance, but digital photography is more convenient. Managing your photos digitally is more convenient. Managing the music you own and buy digitally is more convenient (despite being of worse quality than a CD). Storing, managing, watching films by loading their video files from a hard disk is more convenient than having to deal with physical supports. Managing friends and contacts is more convenient by using digital tools than keeping in touch with letters and phone calls.
We’re in a process where we’re progressively moving a lot of different things into one place, driven by the digital gravitation. It’s extremely convenient, no doubt about that. Younger generations, who’ve never experienced a world without this kind of high tech around them, feel naturally attracted by the digital gravitation.
I’m fascinated by technology and the changes we’re experiencing today, but at the same time I don’t trust it completely & unconditionally. I’m not at ease with putting almost everything into a computer and online. I am naturally drawn to feelings of permanence, and to me digital stuff represents mostly transience and ephemerality. As I’ve said in a previous piece, Books are bricks — important ones:
Here’s the thing: my books are memory triggers. Containers of both the literary work of their respective authors, and personal memories and snapshots of my past, of my history. I can pick any book in my library and remember some occasion, event, or watercolour of feelings connected to it. I usually have a pretty good picture of the circumstances surrounding its purchase (where I was, with whom, my mood and how my life was in that period, etc.), and in some cases the book triggers collateral memories and events […]. All the memories connected to my books are obviously stored somewhere at a subconscious level. Without my library, I’d probably be able to remember such things anyway, but with a greater effort, and I would surely end up forgetting a lot. My library, in a way, lets me remember more and lets me add more events to my inner warehouse. I also end up with the feeling that things get archived in a more organised way. My books are bricks that constitute an important part of my personal building. My books are not a burden. My books are not ‘clutter’ to get rid of.
In that article I was speaking of my books only, but they’re not the sole memory triggers; they’re not the only things building a tangible personal history: most of what I own does. It’s not a matter of ‘sentimental value’ nor of some kind of fetishism for physical objects or bygone eras. It’s a matter of personal coordinates, of meaning, of what I perceive as personal depth. In this perspective, digitalising my stuff means somehow levelling it, throwing it in a machine that processes differences and returns a kind of sameness to all my personal stuff. A sameness called content. Content that, once published online, is yet another drop in the ocean of transience, where it seems that only your most updated content is the important one. A shallow perspective.
I have this feeling that we’re somewhat diluting our identity as human beings — what we are and what we do — by giving too many implicit and explicit concessions to the digital world. In a sense, it’s as if our identities were growing into sedentary, obese entities largely spoiled by all the convenience digital gives us. (Some may disagree and say that the Web is the ultimate democratic environment where everyone is equally important because basically everyone can present themselves and voice their opinions, share their thoughts and views like I’m doing now. It’s true for the most part, yet I can’t help noticing how many sectors online are no different from their real-world counterparts: dominated by élites made of individuals whose actual merits are sometimes questionable. But I’m digressing.)
This doesn’t want to be another tirade about how ‘evil’ the digital world is. I recognise the value and usefulness of lots of technological advances. I’m writing from my parents’ house, deep in the countryside of northern Tuscany, with an intermittent cellular 3G connection, and I’m able to do audio chats with my wife back in Spain, so I’m not complaining for the sake of it. But these days spent largely outside my routine — opening my MacBook Pro just a couple of hours in a day to do some very basic stuff like checking email, do a bit of work, drop the occasional tweet and chat with my wife — made me understand once again how much time, energies and resources the digital gravitation is attracting. And how much we yield to this attraction. One of my fears is that there might come a time when we will basically be empty shells (or behave like ones) without this ‘digital bond’. Years ago, “I want to see the world” meant you had wanderlust; today it basically means shutting off your computer and phone. Having your life ‘zipped’ inside a computer and shared online may be convenient and even fun at times, but I can’t help feeling it’s also a bit flat, diluted, and sad.