It looks like it’s been slower around here than it actually has been, in terms of books: I’ve just been reading some big ones, is all. I’ll put ‘em beneath the cut, to save space.
I haven’t made an update here for the last few weeks, and a lot of long-promised (albeit probably not long-expected) posts languish unfinished. People are probably wondering if I went for a swim in the ocean and didn’t come back. Rest assured: I fear the ocean as much as I ever did, and am safe and (mostly) dry… just busy.
That’s the nature of job-hunting, and it’s a bit like writing: lots of sitting at a computer fiddling with details, hoping your intended meaning comes across, sending things off into the void and then waiting for responses… so you send out more things into the void. At least with job hunting, you’re allowed simultaneous submissions. But then again, job hunting in Korea does involve a lot more software interoperability problems unless you’ve got a Virtual Machine with a Korean install of Windows. My MacBook Air’s hard drive is suffering from the digital equivalent of muffin top already, so…
Anyway, I mentioned long-promised, languishing posts: maybe tomorrow, for one of those. For today, I’m going to talk about what seems to have changed in Korea during my two years away. For those people who’ve been here those two years, the changes may not be so apparent, but to me? Impossible not to notice.
For one thing, that campaign to get people to walk on the right seems to have succeeded. In fact, usually when someone unthinkingly reverts to bolting down the left side of a subway stairwell, it’s me, and I get baffled looks from old Korean men who wonder, “Doesn’t he know the rules?” The irony being that it took me years to unlearn passing on the right. The shift is contextual, of course: people follow it on subway stairwells, but not so much on sidewalks. But, yeah, that’s still a change.
On the subway train TVs, there’s also a fair amount of what you could call “sensitivity training” or, I suppose, it’s more like “consideration training”: basically it’s PSAs (Public Service Announcements) about how it’s uncool to shout into your phone, or, say, to blast music from headphones (of the now-rare variety that aren’t sound-blocking earbuds) so loudly that it annoys other people. On some lines at least–yeah, I’m talking about Line 1–things haven’t changed so much in terms of actual practice among passengers, but only so much can be achieved in a given span of time. Maybe PSAs and little campaigns are like the steady dripping of water–wearing away old habits, building new stalactites of, er, considerate behaviour? Okay, that analogy ran away from me, but the point is, the people running the train system seem to be trying slowly to chip away at the annoyances of subway riding, and, well, more power to them. If only the stuff they’re trying to stamp out got featured in some melodrama: that’d be the fastest ticket to overnight awareness, I think.
The biggest change I’ve seen is in the neighborhood where we’re staying. When we left Korea, “craft beer” (outside of the old-guard, imitate-the-Czechs type) was a tiny niche thing: there were a handful of little brewpubs, one convenience store that doubled as an overpriced bottle shop, and, well, there was a small community of homebrewers. I’d noticed the homebrew community growing online, since I never detached from that crowd, online, but returning to Korea, I was shocked to find how much of a force craft beer had become… at least in the Itaewon/Haebangchon/Kyeongnidan area. Craft beer everywhere; bottled beer all over the place; practically every place on certain stretches of road have at least one thing they’re selling as craft beer. And it’s not all beer made out of pure hops and American sweat, either: we enjoyed a nice chestnut brown ale (brewed, apparently, by “the Table”, whoever that is?) the other night at a place called Four Seasons, and one of the first beers I had was a passable Gose at Magpie. I even managed to find a beer named after the jazz musician I’ve been thinking about most lately:
That’s not all that’s happened in the area. Churros have apparently become a thing. I don’t quite get the attraction, except for the fact that everyone else is having one: there’s almost always a lineup at Street Churros, there’s churros garbage all over on some days, and places surrounding the place have either gotten used to people walking in with the damned things, or have–like the excellent Chans Bros. Coffee–put up a sign saying “No Churros.” It’s not just churros, though: there’s gelato, now, actual gelato where there used to be nothing memorable. There’s a few pizza joints that serve styles of beer expats would have gnawed off a leg for, a few years ago. There’s decent burritos. There’s pretty good Italian food.
Another oddity is the number of places I’ve been that actually have foreign wait staff. This is something Koreans visiting the area seem to enjoy: having their booze or food served by a non-Korean. The restaurants that come to mind with this as a feature are Vatos Tacos and Il Gattino, but I’ve also seen it in a cafe–Avant Garde, just up the street from Street Churros and on the right.
And then there’s those Koreans who are enjoying the churros and the pasta at Il Gattino, and the tacos at Vatos. During the week, Itaewon, Kyungnidan, and Haebangchon are pretty similar to what I remember, except with some better shops and restaurants. But on the weekends–all day Saturday and all day Sunday–the area becomes a kind of domestic tourism site. It’s so full of Koreans it doesn’t even feel like a foreigner ghetto during those times. This is, in a way, nice: I mean, who likes ghettoes?
But in other ways, it kind of reminds me of the way people in Rome seemed to dislike the endless flows of tourists who filled the restaurants, who did everything wrong, who couldn’t speak the language, who brought their obnoxious habits with them. In the old days, you could walk into a coffeeshop in Itaewon knowing it wouldn’t be crammed with Korean people talking with what a Westerner would call Outside Voices. These days, it’s much harder to find such a place: The Tourists (as I call the deluge of Koreans who hit the neighborhood every week) fill practically every seat in the place. It really is at the point where Mrs. Jiwaku and I actually prefer to leave the area on weekends, because it’s less crowded and noisy elsewhere.
Not that I think it’s a completely bad thing. Partly it seems to be part of the whole digestion process involved in Korea starting to face the inescapable realities of demographic shift. South Korea’s greying at heart-stopping rate, and is going to become overloaded with its own elderly soon if it doesn’t accept inbound immigration; plus there’s the saturation of the Korean airwaves over the last couple of years with “foreigners” who actually speak Korean (and even foreigners who don’t) and who have clued folks in to the fact that, yeah, sometimes we understand what they’re saying at the next table, and sometimes we can talk back.
But it does make the neighborhood get a little crowded sometimes, and while I’m not that deeply invested in the neighborhood myself–it’s always just been a place I’ve visited, not someplace I’ve actually lived–I’m curious what the starfish think of the sea change… the ones who aren’t those many expats here involved in the local businesses that are profiting like crazy off it, I mean. Then again, there’s so much turnover in the expat population that maybe the bulk of the starfish in the area who aren’t profiting off the change, arrived when it had already happened or started to happen? I don’t know, but I am curious.
On the bright side, it also seems to have rendered busking a decent pastime: I saw a cellist playing a folky-country version of Bach’s cello suites down in the 지하보도–the neighborhood’s underground walkway–and was briefly tempted to try my hand spending an afternoon busking there on my tenor sax, just to have a place to practice. (The apartment we’re renting is both too small for the noise, and too insecure in terms of practicing there being all but an open invitation for someone to come steal my horns while we’re out. I’m trying to hold out till I have a job on a campus someplace, and can go find the music department’s practice rooms…)
In the meantime, we’ve got a little place with good coffee near the place we’re subletting, where the barista is a great guy, fluent in Korean and English and blessed with good taste in music and the skill to make a killer cup of coffee. Right now he’s playing the frigging Köln Concert1:
… and there’s a small group at another table who seem to have taken the cue from the music, that some times and places are just for listening and quietness. Or maybe it’s just his voice: he has this great, gentle baritone that you can tell he could project like a sergeant if he wanted to, but he doesn’t, because there’s a time and a place and this café isn’t either.
Which is as it should be: cities need places like this too, even if they’re just built with deft choices of music, the right coffee beans, and a shop owner who exudes calm, quiet, reflective serenity. And very good brownies delivered twice a week from his baker buddy.
For the three of you reading this who want to go to this place, it’s just a little ways down from Paris Baguette. Here’s a small hint:
Don’t tell your friends, except the quiet ones who appreciate a quiet, lovely café and don’t want it ruined by loudmouths.
Since I have no real news of my own–except the standing-wave non-news of waiting for replies to applications, of interviews scheduled, of paperwork flying back and forth across the ocean to be red-tapified (and begging the saintly friend of a friend to help me get that done), of wondering where I’m going to have to fly to get my next work visa–I’ll leave you with something that’ll make you laugh.
Well, if you’re a musician, and have suffered through even a single bad online music instruction video, it will; if you’re a musician with little patience for mystical blather and shallow nonsense Dave King’s “Rational Funk” video series on Youtube is for you. King’s not only a great drummer in real life (with a bunch of bands, the most famous of which is The Bad Plus), but also a truly hilarious guy. It’s not all comedy with him, mind you: some of what he said in another video recently has got me thinking about ways of upping my game in terms of my fiction writing… though, actually, that video’s hilarious too, when it’s not profound, or sometimes it’s both at once, even.2
Still, anyway, if I were you’d I’d start with Rational Funk, because… er, because that’s how I did. Here’s the first installment, and the most recent. Each one is better than the last, but not one has failed make me laugh my guts out:
- You know, the Keith Jarrett CD, and yeah, it’s an endless grooving vamp and pretty melody, but I like it anyway, for its expressiveness and range, for how Jarrett nailed that country-tonk thing I heard later in pianists like Kenny Kirkland–though maybe they got it from the same place? Meh, anyway, I like it also for the kind of searching quality that exists in it, and for its prettiness–even though the more “out” stuff by the “American quartet” stuff always excited me more, because Haden and Motian and Redman were all great on so many of those scratchy library LPs of old. Man, Dewey Redman. ↩
- The thing part that got me thinking about writing is from his discussion of his then-new project, The Dave King Trucking Company, which involves jazz musicians, but with everyone working to get away from the now-dominant approach to jazz, which basically is a recursive loop of Head, Solo, Solo, Solo, Solo (…), (Maybe Trading Fours), Head. What if you take people who can play long, complex solos, and then restrict them to mostly just playing something mostly planned out, and not inherently virtuoso, even when they’re capable of doing it? How does marriage of capability and limitation affect how they play? How do the skills or techniques transmute or sublimate when they’re blocked? Here’s most of the pertinent bit, at least the earlier part. But it’s all worth listening, if only for his apt slam on Rogen/Rudd/Apatow. It’s a musically interesting question, of course: I suspect that more interesting happens when you’re in a group where everyone comes from an improvisational background; when you’re the only one, less interesting stuff happens, in my experience anyway. But at the moment, I’m more interested in the question of that transmutability of withheld virtuosity or restrained mastery when it comes to building writing chops: if one of your strengths is character development, what happens when you push that toward the background and make the story stand on other legs? ↩
So, one thing that surprised people was our seemingly sudden move back to Korea. Not just because people were surprised that we moved so suddenly, but also because we chose to come back to Korea specifically.
Like any major decision in life, it’s a complex mix of things, some of which I won’t talk about here, but I thought I’d say a little about it anyway. For one thing, life on tourist visas with short-term health insurance policies (I can only get six months at a time these days) was growing increasingly untenable. (My health’s fine, I’ve actually lost plenty of weight and adopted some healthier habits, but having only a six month window on health insurance is a pain, really, and so is being constantly on a tourist visa.)
Saigon was good to us–for the most part, at least, and especially in 2014, and was a good base for our visits to Singapore and Indonesia. Singapore actually interested us as a relocation destination, but, for one thing, Seoul seemed a better choice. Here are some reasons:
1. It’s the likeliest place for us both to find decent work. My credentials and background university teaching here is a big leg up… which helps explain the timing: it’s harder to get a university position from overseas, even with great references, an outstanding CV, and lots of experience… and we realized that the hiring for next semester would be getting into full swing in late December, so we decided to move up the date from what we’d originally planned. (We’d been shooting to arrive in mid-January, which, well… that would have been kind of late.) Also, adjusting to working full time would be easier with a familiar setting and dynamics,and Mrs. Jiwaku would have a lot better chance of finding some kind of work related to media or filmmaking in Korea, given how miniscule (and controlled) the industry is in Vietnam.
2. We figured if we were in Korea, there were some, er, things we could sort out. For one thing, we have a lot of stuff in storage here. Likewise, Jihyun has some legal paperwork she needs to get sorted out in order to avoid long-term issues, and it’s the kind of thing that can only really be sorted out in-country. So, coming here was handy in a few ways all at once.
3. The two places we know about that are really strong work destinations in East Asia–especially for TEFL–are Vietnam and Korea, and we had felt we’d been in Vietnam about the right amount of time: still liking the place, but starting to see clearly the things we didn’t like without being really grouchy about it yet. We were ready to leave, while we were still about to smile about it all. Also, the pay in Korea is better, at least if you can find a proper university job — which is what I’m aiming for.
4. We were finding diminished returns on writing “uninterrupted” by full time work. For the record, I wrote about 150,000 words of what’s either a massive novel or a trilogy, and rewrote about 25,000 words of a second novel that has become the main project in progress now. I wasn’t unproductive, but I was also finding it harder and harder to be productive while feeling stalled in the same apartment, in the same city, and without much stimulus from outside the house except the same few students we tutored part-time.
Some people also are surprised because, well, if you’ve read my blog, you know that by the time we left Korea, I was very ready to leave. The thing is, our stay in Saigon somewhat helped me let off some of the steam built up over the years, and besides, we realized how much a change in neighborhood and living circumstances can change perspective. When we lived in District 1–scooter-filled, loud, busy Saigon–we didn’t like the neighborhood at all, and the living situation (shared house with friends with whom we turned out to be deeply, or actually fundamentally, incompatible in many ways) didn’t help much. Once we relocated to Nhà Bè, on the edge of District 7–a quieter area far from the city center–we were quite a lot happier. Which is to say what I’ve already said before: a lot of my problems in Korea were related to being stuck in Yeokgok, along with being trapped on Line 1, for seven years straight.
(Therefore, we need to exert a little more control over our living situation, and choose a neighborhood that agrees better with us. We’ll see if we can pull off that trick: I certainly hope so, at least.)
In any case, the last couple of weeks or so were kind of a whirlwind of packing and sorting things out, meeting the wonderful Chris Azure and his family one more time, and sorting out job applications from overseas, which is no small fear, let me tell you! Still, our last day in Saigon was kind of magical: we had some good phở for lunch, got an impromptu lesson in coffee-bean roasting from a Korean Dutch Coffee shop owner in Phu My Hung, ate at one of our favorite places in the city (Scott & Binh’s), and then a final whirlwind packing session and off to the airport.
As for the flight, I’ll just say that nobody should be flying China Eastern or China Southern Airlines. Sure, our plane didn’t crash like Air Asia did that day, but as a commercial service, I think not crashing is kind of, well, a pretty low standard. Both of these airlines offer a very bad experience. We took the former on the way down to Vietnam, and the latter on the way back, and while their glaring flaws and horrors differ in some respects, there’s enough in common between the two that I can say, without reservation, that the extra hundred bucks to fly a better airline is totally worth it. Also, never go to Guangzhou Airport if you can help it, not even for a (supposedly) three-hour stopover. Trust me on this. (Pudong Airport is also badly bottlenecked for no apparent reason, and basically a site of highway robbery beyond even normal airport highway robbery, but at least it’s heated, and you don’t end up being a hostage of an airline that delays flights endlessly, like, for almost half a day.)
Oh, and one observation: the airports I’ve visited that have most energetically adopted the whole of America’s security theater procedures are all in highly authoritarian (and often highly corrupted) states. Vietnam, and Indonesia, come to mind. (China too, in terms of authoritarianism: I don’t know how corrupt Chinese airport security is these days, but the authoritarianism maps.) Whether the multiple layers of security are necessitated by the corruption, or by perceived dysfunction of other authoritarian states’ spread-too-thin overreaching security systems, I don’t know… but I haven’t been asked to remove my belt and my shoes in ages, and when did I have to do it?
In Pudong airport, right after stepping off a plane I’d entered only after having my bags and person scanned twice already, after being rushed to the head of a line for a flight I was transferring to catch, because the transfer passenger checkpoint was a massive bottleneck in permanent crisis management mode.
Anyway, we’re in Seoul now, subletting a place till near the end of February, when we hopefully will both have jobs and, dare I hope, a place to move to.It’s actually nice to be back, or nicer, at least, than I expected, though Seoul’s cold… well, not really, but after a few years in the tropics, your internal thermometer recalibrates.
The next few weeks, and especially the next week, will be a real whirlwind, but soon things will calm down, I think. I hope! Social meetings will have to wait a bit. The job application and interviewing process is time-consuming, mainly because in South Korea, employers don’t assume applicants can create a decent CV of their own… so they require everyone to fill out lengthy application forms, asking for excessively specific details (on what day in May 1998 did you graduate from your BA program?) and they serve up the forms in formats that aren’t designed for computer input, since Koreans mostly just handwrite the forms. And those forms are also mostly created in nonstandard word processing software (especially Korea’s favorite, Haansoft Hangul). I’ve had two application forms so crufted junk data added in file conversion that they actually crashed my (healthy, two-year-old) MacBook, and plenty more that required me to change the language settings manually every time I clicked on a new field in the form, so I could enter text in English. In an all-English form.
And that’s to say nothing of the interviews, though I’ll save those stories–the amusing ones, anyway–for another day.
The long and the short of it? We’re in Seoul. Oh, and I’m in the market for a baritone sax–useful for a music project I want to try launch this spring–but don’t exactly have the cash for one till I’m hired and we have an apartment. Which makes me sad because there’s a good horn available at a good price in Seoul right now, and I can’t just go and buy it, and it might be another year before one like this comes onto the market again.
But we have other fish to deep fry first. And, anyway, if I get hired at the place I’m hoping to get hired, I might be able to buy a B♭ Bass Sax (Jinbao model, which seems to have gotten a ton of positive reviews, and isn’t that expensive via Wessex Tubas, in the US) instead. (Somehow, they charge a lot more at the factory, though maybe if I contact them it’ll be cheaper to visit Tianjin, buy a demo model, and carry it back to Korea directly.) I’d really prefer a bass sax to an E♭ Baritone anyway.
Chances are this horn will weigh more than my wife does. But I haven’t just gone deranged: there’s a reason why I’m looking into it… a music project I’d like to start in the spring or the summer, with a very interesting angle. If I can get some bari or bass sax, that is. (I prefer bass since it’s in B♭, like my tenor, instead of in E♭, a tuning I’m not really accustomed to. But I’ll settle for a quality bari if I can get one. I’ll be good to play some live music again.
Ha, well, till I have a job all of that is just speculative fiction anyway. But even in the last week some decent gigs have opened up, so… you never know!
As for my writing… ça va, ça va. Well, not lately… job hunting is pretty busy work, and moving from one country to another is too. But it was progressing well, and I hope to get back to it soon. When I land a contract, we’ll sort out housing, get stuff out of storage, and I’ll plan classes for the first half of the spring semester… and then I’m back to the novel project, with a vengeance.
Oh, and only a few short days after I mentioned I was aggressively digging into my email archive, I’m at virtually Inbox Zero™. The only mail in the inbox is left there as reminders of upcoming interviews (and one piece of writing I need to edit and send out for a deadline), and the other tabs have ten or fewer emails in them. Even with the responses to emails I’ve sent out this week trickling in, it hasn’t been all that difficult to keep on top of it so far.
And, to my utter shock, I only have 40 unfinished/unsent draft emails waiting to go out. (There were something like 300 a few days ago, but a lot of those were empty drafts, or half-finished duplicates of mails that got completed in a second draft and sent out.)
At this point, what I have to ask myself is how and why it reached that point. There’s a few possible answers:
- I just learned to think of it as normal to have a bunch of old email sitting in my Inbox. I didn’t see it as an issue.
- Most of those emails didn’t need answering anyway, and there’s no real penalty to having a sloppy inbox. (I mean, it’s not like a crammed Inbox ruined my life or anything.)
- I got busy with other things.
That last one is as likely an explanation as any other, but it’s worth pausing to ask: what other things?
One thing I noticed that was interesting is that my email inbox went into complete disarray about 2008… which is about the time I really started publishing a lot of fiction, pursuing academic research, and taking my teaching more seriously. It was also around the time when the wheels started coming off my previous relationship, and that took a lot of time and energy.
But it’s also not so very long after I joined Facebook… which happened, if my Facebook logs are to be believed, sometime in 2007, and I can’t help but think that’s also an important part of it. This is not exactly to say that Facebook is the root of all evil, as one of my friends has quipped in the past, but, well, my misgivings have grown beyond just feeling that it’s a machine made to profit from (and generate an autocatalytic cycle of) pointless outrage, as I expressed in An Open Poem To Facebook (After Ginsberg).
The reason I say this is because when I first joined Facebook, I thought, “Cool, an easier way to stay in touch with people!”
Yeah, we all know better now, right? I mean, sure: I’m in touch with way more people–way more great, wonderful people whom I’ve met along the way–than I might be without Facebook. But somehow I’m not as in touch with people I used to know really well, and who still matter a lot to me.
Part of me thinks that this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since staying in touch with people is really hard when you’re on the other side of the planet. (Yes, even when there’s an internet, over a long enough span of time.) I mean, it’s “hard” in that it demands effort, and when you fail at it things happen like what I mentioned recently on Facebook: you find out that a gentle, kind, wonderful friend who made your first year overseas just a little saner, and with whom you’d fallen out of touch, passed away years ago. (Alone. In a foreign country. And your last email to him never got sent until after the fact, and bounced, and then that failed email simply sat in your Outbox until a couple of years after he passed away, despite occasional attempts to track him down online.)
What was I saying? Ah, yes, staying in touch takes actual work. I mean, if you want authentic contact.
Sure, Facebook looks like the kind of thing that ought to facilitate that, that ought to make it easier to do that, in the same way schools look like places that ought to facilitate serious learning and intellectual growth. And yet neither really seems to work that way on the ground, does it?
This makes me think of John Taylor Gatto’s comments about “networks” in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling:
We live in a time of great school crisis. Our children rank at the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing and arithmetic. At the very bottom. The world’s narcotic economy is based upon our own consumption of the commodity, if we didn’t buy so many powdered dreams the business would collapse – and schools are an important sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor. In Manhattan fifty per cent of all new marriages last less than five years. So something is wrong for sure.
Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent – nobody talks to them anymore and without children and old people mixing in daily life a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the name “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some strange way school is a major actor in this tragedy just as it is a major actor in the widening guilt among social classes. Using school as a sorting mechanism we appear to be on the way to creating a caste system, complete with untouchables who wander through subway trains begging and sleep on the streets.
I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching – that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.
“The institution is psychopathic…” is a comment that maps well to Facebook, though for our purposes, Gatto’s most interesting argument is that networks are, basically, the replacement for what he posits as the natural, organic human relationship-structure: community. He discusses this in more depth in his excellent, short book Dumbing Us Down, but the analogy pretty much makes the point for me: Facebook here is the “network” replacement for authentic contact. We see what links our friends read, we see what they ate and where they checked in. Sure, you are the product, on Facebook, and you are, in another sense, both the medium and the message–but not really. A shallow, surface version of you is the medium, the message, and the product. Quantity pummels quality until quality is a long-forgotten dimension. Meaningless life details and the impotent outrage and baby pictures and snaps of your cat are the fundamental building blocks of this super-flattened version of your life and your community, to invoke some technical lingo from Japanese SF criticism I read a few years back.
Another way of looking at it is this: Facebook is a simulacrum of community, which means that it’s a the simulation of a thing that doesn’t actually exist. (A simulation of a nonexistent thing, like the imaginary digital world featured in The Matrix (hence the references to Baudrillard and his book on simulacra in the film). Well, so is school: it’s an artificial environment we clearly don’t think of as “Real Life” but which doesn’t actually simulate anything outside of itself.
These kinds of simulacra have overgrown the world like kudzu in the Southern US, in the past century or so, a point Gatto makes as well: most of the simulacra are stand-ins for community of some sort. Networks are like kudzu, and community is like, well… like those houses that can’t stay standing under the weight of all that kudzu:
One of the more interesting pieces of writing online about networks is here. (And yes, it’s on a blog titled “The Art of Manliness”; there’s some cheese there but I don’t see much Mammoth-Hunting or MRMing.)
The thing is, I think we’ve all long known this, on some level. I mean, it’s kind of obvious. It’s precisely the experience we have on Facebook. I struggle with Facebook in part because I don’t like being flattened, so I wade into conversations, try to make them discussions when the rest of the planet seems to have adapted to the cultural pressures of the medium–to quipping instead of discussing, to snarking instead of listening and debating. This is why people get so much out of playing in small bands, groups where they can know everyone by name. This is why people join clubs, and lose interest when the club gets too big.
But while I knew it, I kind of just took it for granted that this was the way of things: that there were two kinds of people in the world, and the split wasn’t whether you’d read The Lord of the Rings but whether you’d joined Zuckerberg’s Empire. I figured people who didn’t sign up were odd, and, well, I’ve only had two friends actually fully quit using Facebook since I joined in 2008.
If Empire Zuckerberg isn’t going to fall to Ello, and it obviously isn’t — my Ello feed is 100% Bruce Sterling and Jack William Bell, with just a light drizzle of Nick Mamatas here and there — then it’s not going to fall to a campaign for emailing your friends, I know. Hell, I’m not even quitting Facebook myself, though I have cut my usage down significantly. Even that kinda feels like going against the flow…
Imagine that I pioneer a wondrous nanomaterials startup that offers everyone a blindingly awesome new technology. What’s likely to happen, without institutional innovation — without better building blocks for markets, corporations, and economies, in this case?
Well, the first thing that’s likely to happen is…nothing. Wall St and Sand Hill Rd probably won’t bat an eyelid at my startup, choosing, instead, to do what they’ve been doing for the last decade or so: allocating capital to Groupon, Zynga, Facebook, and their ilk. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that by some miracle of virtue, that they do invest in my amazing nanomaterials startup. What happens next? Well, without political innovation, I’ll get rich, and my backers will get rich — but the middle class is likely to continue its long, slow slide into oblivion. The benefits of technological innovation, in other words, without institutional innovation, are likely to remain hyperconcentrated at the top — with all the attendant problems that stem therefrom: regulatory capture, political gridlock, mega-lobbying, middle class implosion, planetary destruction, and finally, more of the same: real economic stagnation. Think I’m kidding? See this chart, from Amir Sufi, professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School.
We’ve never needed Big New Ideas — fundamentally transformative ideas about how to organize the economy, society, and polity — more.
Though Haque suggests that Facebook is only a drain on capital, there’s another connection here: if you’re busy logging in and arguing about scandals and outrages, you’re probably too preoccupied to step back and think about big picture stuff. I mean, you don’t need to be a genius to see an (open source!) way out of the dominance of single use plastics, for example. All you need is some mental space, and to be living in a time when the right materials are available.
And that time is now, really, isn’t it?
Sure, I won’t be quitting Facebook: it’s likely that more people will see that link to the Sillibagz project fundraiser sooner if I share it there, than through this post. But I’ve also decided I’m going to stop pretending that Facebook lets me stay in touch. And I think that’s important, and different, from knowing it doesn’t do that. By now we all know that Facebook doesn’t keep us in touch, but we’ve all sort of accepted the idea that we should play along in pretending that it does. Note, I have friends who use Facebook messenger instead of email, just as I have friends who use Kakao (a Korean messenger app) as a kind of replacement for email or SMS messaging. For those friends, it’s a bit different… but they’re the minority. For most of my friends, my old and beloved friends, I know what they think about Ferguson, or about the Charlie Hebdo attack, or about global warming, but the story that burns in their breasts, illuminating their days and their nights and lighting their path? I haven’t glimpsed that, in many cases, for far too long.
So I’ve decided I’m not going to pretend that I am in touch with friends because I know what they ate for lunch yesterday, or because I am witness to their personal internet life-narrative theater, as they are to mine. What happens when you’re actually, authentically in touch with friends is another thing, weirder and older than whatever we get out of Facebook: you “catch up,” we say, but I think we also “get caught up” in one anothers’ narratives, and in a good way. Which means, you listen to the story your friend tells you about how his or her life has progressed; you participate in that making-sense-out-of-everything process that I suspect is fundamental to how we human beings function. You participate in one anothers’ stories. There’s an organic constructiveness to it, a creativity. It’s a slower kind of dance, but much more ancient and I think it fulfills a deep human need… and, I strongly suspect, trying to fulfill that on Facebook is a bit like trying to live on rabbit meat alone. Certainly I do feel like a curious and almost-unrecognized poverty I’d come to take for granted has just been alleviated as I’ve reconnected with friends whose lives I haven’t heard about for years, who were out there living far away, and whose connection to my past remained, but somehow didn’t connect to my own present existence.
Now, it does take time. It takes energy, because it involves telling your own story, and not the story of what you had for lunch, or how awesome such-and-such concert was, or how great this podcast wasn’t, or your amusing photograph. It feels a bit like blogging did in the early days, when people were pouring out their hearts and reflecting on their lives because they somehow felt richer and more alive when they did so: when the story of one’s being was the product, and not the story of one’s expertise, propped up by clever SEO and clever web design and the perfect tags and at least one photo for every 300 words.
Being connected with people also takes listening or reading with care, as people tell you their stories, and ruminate, and try to explain things that they can’t, and ask you questions that don’t have simple answers and you need to decide how much explaining is necessary. Facebook tells us no explaining is necessary; it tell us that our life stories can be told in a short video assembled by an AI in late December, to be shared with the world.1 But it cannot, because forging a meaningful story out of your own life takes more effort and energy than logging all the stuff you did. It takes work, and sharing in your friends’ stories takes even more work. (And even more still when you live twelve or thirteen time zones away, and have done so for almost a decade and a half.)
All of that takes patience, and energy.
But then, cutting back radically on Facebook, I’ve saved myself oodles of time spent being outraged at the Awful Thing of the Week, not to mention all the time saved in not arguing with internet morons. And, well, if you want relationships, it takes effort.
So I’m writing emails. Yes, like in the days when we started out. Okay, sure, it gets a bit tiresome writing updates about the same events over and over. Sometimes I cut and paste some bit, like explaining how crazy November 2012 to March 2013 was (shot a film, final exams, gave notice, got married, helped host a film festival, honeymoon, sorted eleven years of accumulated crap, moved out after seven years in the same building, left the country, whew). But I’m spending actual time on each email, thinking about the story I’m telling, thinking of it as sharing. I’m telling that story to one person, one specific person. I think that may well be a dying art, the letter of reconnection and news. I was inspired by a couple of friends’ newsletters, one Maureen McHugh is doing, and another that Sanko Lewis sends out occasionally. I may shift to that method, later — sending occasional updates to people. I stopped doing it in 2003, when I started my blog, and there was a kind of disconnection that came then, too. At the moment, though, I want to pry off the dust-laden lid of neglected friendships–because that’s what they are, neglected–and reach out one on one. Maybe not everyone will reach out back, and that’s fine. Time has passed, people grow apart, it happens.
But I’m writing these letters anyway, as an effort against the void into which things slip when they fade or are lost. And I really do think of them as letters. Letters, possibly, into the void. Maybe I’ll get a reply. I hope I don’t get any more bounces or message delivery failures.
Maybe you, dear reader, are slated for an email yourself. Maybe not. But if you don’t get one, and you feel like you would like one, I’ll tell you what: I’ll be more than happy to hear from you, and will email you back as soon as I can. Tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine.
And maybe it’s not me you want to email first, butI’m sure there’s someone you haven’t spoken with in far too long. Someone you want to reach out to, hoping they’re still there. Someone who, if they’re gone and you never reconnected, it would break you up inside a bit, for a while, if you just let yourself be vulnerable to the reality that someday it probably will happen, but it’ll happen more if you let it. There’s a way to rage against the dying of all those lights, you know. It’s to behold the spark while it burns, and not just dimly reflected on some social network site.
Go on, then. You know what to do.
- Funnily enough, a friend of mine shared her Facebook yearly review video. I was in about half of the pictures, and yet I spent less than a week with her, including one day during our visit to Korea in March, and less than a week when she visited in November. Her husband wasn’t in as many pictures as me… because she doesn’t post pictures of him that much. Facebook put together a story, but it’s not her story, that’s for sure. ↩