“Now it’s 3G, now it’s 4g.”
“We’re all just slaves to Madison Avenue.”
And I listened to the frustrations of age from the other side of the coffee shop. It was clear that these two people, a man and woman over twice my age, had had enough of change and novelty. There was tragedy in their utterances; the tragedy of flux washing over stability; of the novel upending the permanent. How sad to see the march of time pass over the erstwhile self. How strange it was to mourn the loss of that self, the self of face to face interaction, so early in my life. Had time’s march swept over me too? Struck by the pathos of these two staid strangers, I got up to leave. I started walking.
I always walk. But tonight was different. Somehow, the resonance of these two frustrated strangers had imbued my walking with a distinct pensiveness. “My steps,” I thought, “they’re so even, so rhythmic and steady.” My bipedal motion was amplified by the slosh of each foot in the grey slush. It was a counterpoise, this rhythmic walking. As cars passed by me, I could understand better the importance of patience, though not intellectually, not as a virtue; only in the grounding of my steps, each one a testament to my beleaguered comrades from the coffee shop. I was no longer walking home. I was walking for them.
* * *
I found myself in a coffee shop again, now two days later. And like my experience two days before, my ears were in the company of another conversation between two people, this time much younger, probably not even in their twenties. Two friends, talking affably, laughing. Realizing that it was hopeless to block them out, I gave up. I sat and listened, forced to eavesdrop. The contours of their dialogue were not particularly striking. One of the young men held a computer in his lap. And I quickly noticed that the computer was not simply a tool, but an appendage. What came up in conversation could never remain ambiguous. Each question had an answer. As this intimation of the collective bionic man we’re becoming eradicated any traces of ambiguity, as he retrieved “answers” from the internet, the conversation flowed with disconcerting ease. Questions of music, art, film, of their merit, worth, or emotional resonance, were replaced by names, facts, dates. Our obsession with “information” had penetrated the dialogue of two friends, its contours replaced by the metal rails of highways and stoplights. In their words were speeding cars. I tried to ground myself with steady footsteps, but to no avail.
What is it to be young and increasingly weary of technology, to identify with those coffee shop strangers? For one, it is relatively futile. With the permeation of digital communications and online appendages becoming increasingly ubiquitous, to imagine a life without these things is wistful at best, or even conservative, that dreaded word I try to keep from assailing my sense of self. Apparently this word is a deadly assassin. Even after reading Jackson Lears’s poignant statement, “sometimes the most radical critiques are the most conservative,” I still reflexively shudder. But the tragic laments of the coffee shop strangers redefine this fraught term, they shed light on the rate of change today. Their cries were pleas of preservation, pleas for change directed to human needs and ends, rather than change as an end in itself. In their protestations was what led Louis Mumford to declare that we should embrace technology, provided it was guided by human purposes. What these purposes are seem, now, all but apparent.
I left the second coffee shop, left the unacknowledged rupture of technology as human appendage, what Rosi Braidotti calls “cyber-subjectivity.” And walking home was walking for all walks, solitary, accompanied, imagined, walks of stable ground and precarious desire. When I reached my apartment, the tragedy of the two coffee shop strangers followed me inside. I had arrived, I thought. I can never truly walk to nowhere, not any longer. Because we’re all forced to arrive now, to “realize,” to “become,” to “identify.”
But tomorrow, I’ll go to the coffee shop.