Digital Fog



Many people smirk when they tell you “I don’t do social media.” They are above it. One imagines they spend hours in blissful contemplation over a good book, or perhaps engaging in what we used to quaintly describe as “writing” but is now known as “content creation.”

Maybe they glance up from their book occasionally, go online and look around. If they don’t like what they see they hunker down and try to tune out the monotonous drone of discourse that is not so much arguing over concepts as it is preaching to the choir. It’s not debate, it’s a pep rally. If you dare to say something on social media which irritates your fan base, you will soon hear plenty back at you. There is ample pressure to conform.

I’m learning some Handel keyboard pieces that he wrote when he was about nineteen. He and Bach were contemporaries and from almost the same part of what is now Germany. It’s hard to imagine one spot on earth turning out more pure musical genius than those two possessed.

I imagine there was a lot of pressure to conform back then when they were young and just making their way, but somehow I don’t think they let it get them down. They were alive with musical ideas, bursting with creativity, and they didn’t need focus groups and research studies that counted “likes” in order to forge ahead. They must have been as delighted by their creative output as we are today.

So we don’t need massive societal support to successfully be ourselves. We don’t even need dialogue. Bach once walked several days to hear a famous organist play. There were no recordings, no radio, no iTunes. None of that is necessary to reach great artistic heights.

If this whole Internet comes crashing down, the world will not be a worse place for it. It will simply be different. Songs will be written and performed, stories read and recited, dramas enacted, all without digital help. The blind English poet laureate John Milton used to compose his verses during the day and when his daughter came to cook him dinner at night, he would narrate to her his output for the day and she would write it down. Even late in life his mind was that sharp.

The digital fog that pretends to be so much will reveal the true nature of things after it’s been burned away.




God knows I’m as guilty of Internet addiction as anybody. I’ve posted so much on Facebook that I’ve lost most of my early “friends.” They’ve had to unfollow me so I wouldn’t overwhelm their Facebook feed.

Writing is work, sometimes hard work. It usually follows thinking, maybe even ruminating, which are forms of concentration, also hard work. Again, the restless mind rebels. Sharing memes is easy as is “liking” the posts of others. Instead of thinking, composing my thoughts and writing them down, it’s much less cumbersome to identify myself with a brand. Rather than formulate my own opinions or reiterate those of others, I can simply join their brand. “I’m a Noam Chomsky kind of guy.”

Nowadays this passes for self-expression. The background for this fundamental change in communication began with advertising. Most of do not consider ourselves intellectuals, but we are all consumers of products, and advertisers assure us that our shopping choices tell the world who we are. The brand and color of my telephone says a lot about me.

Teenagers focus on their musical preferences as a way to quickly inform others who might want to become friends or lovers as to what kind of person they are. In fact, this was the original function of Facebook; to help college students meet others who shared their musical tastes.

But this is dumbed-down communication, with none of the subtlety or complexity of real conversations. There is no discourse. No one is talking back and forth, they’re simply grandstanding. Everyone is in transmit mode, but no one is listening.

So we now have the perfect President for our culture at this time. A recent article in Salon described a reporter who met with Trump a few years ago. He said “he was clearly emotionally impaired: in constant need of approbation; lacking impulse control, self-awareness or awareness of others. We’d heard tales of his monumental vanity, but were still shocked by the sad spectacle of him.”

This is both sad and lonely. In villages I’ve visited in the developing world, people spend a lot of time simply hanging out together and talking. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, I remember seeing a woman join another group of women at a market. They were sitting on concrete very close to a busy highway, and most people would consider such this a difficult job in a horrible setting, but the expression on her face told me otherwise. They were all selling the same thing, bananas. As she sat down, she was smiling, preparing to talk to her friends and watch traffic go by. She knew why she was there, and whether or not she sold many bananas, I bet when she went to bed that night she didn’t wrestle with remorse or self-condemnation.

The problem with being a big shot, even only in your own mind, is the expectations are so high you can rarely succeed. If other people are aware of your ambition they will either dislike and avoid you, or try to stop you from succeeding. The more egocentric you become, the less credit you will give those around you. Your sensitivity to their feelings will also be low. Not only will those around you suffer, but you will find yourself lonely and isolated.

This may well be the future of our online society. Post photos of your vacation, your happy children, your bucket list accomplishments, and you will only inspire envy at best and revulsion at worst. As we scroll down the torrent, we will see an endless parade of self-appointed pundits, clueless analysts, faux journalists, all clamoring for an audience. Not many are listening or reading. Scrolling and browsing, are hypnotic activities that are addictive only because they are so rarely rewarding.

It has been said before that modern life is mostly one of indulging in addictions that we try to pretend are merely preferences, but secretly know to be snares. Shopping, sexual hook ups, and now discourse itself. Or what pretends to be discourse, but is actually grandstanding.

No Arguments



When you first become romantically involved with a person who doesn’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs, you learn that language isn’t as important as you thought it was. “Relationship experts” are always talking about the importance of communication, and blaming the divorce rate on its lack, but verbal communication is far down the list of ways in which couples can interact.


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a poet to realize how to take care of someone else. When they are hungry, you feed them, when they want affection you give it. When it’s reciprocated, you notice and are grateful. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Eventually, you develop a common vocabulary you both understand, but those words could be made up, and sometimes are.


I’ve been with Wipa for a year now, and she knew almost no English when I met her. I had studied Thai at the local YMCA, but knew very little. A year later, I still don’t know much. Can’t read or write Thai. My progress as a Thai speaker has been glacial. After a few years of trying I got to speak pretty good Spanish, but I don’t predict the same level or rate of success with Thai. It’s just too damn hard.


When I try to help her learn English, it’s amusing to see how difficult it is for her, and I must conclude that my attempts at speaking are likewise almost incomprehensible. We speak a mixture of English and Thai at home, probably so heavily accented that anyone listening in would have a hard time understanding what was going on.


The great gift of not being able to communicate verbally is that you can’t argue about abstractions. If you’re restless or irritable you can’t take it out on the other person by baiting them into an argument about intimacy or responsibility or a toss around psychological terms used as weapons.


You simply take care of each other and it shows.