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The last chapter of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, takes place approximately twenty five years in the future. Global warming has become the norm, producing fabulous sunsets and strange, but apathetically accepted weather patterns, and babies can point at items and buy them with one click. Alex—a married man in his mid-forties–finds himself sitting across the table from Lulu, a young woman with a marketing degree and shiny hair. A few minutes into their conversation, Lulu becomes uncomfortable with talking, undergoing the “most extreme blush that Alex had ever witnessed.” She admits that she gets tired of talking because she hates the effort of coming up with metaphors that are never exactly right. She asks him if it’s okay to pull out her handset and “T” him for the rest of the conversation. They proceed to do a futuristic version of texting across the restaurant table, instead of actually speaking to each other.
I would balk at this situation, if a recent conversation wasn’t still echoing through my head. A friend admitted that he felt like he was actually better friends with another friend online than off. He pointed out that offline they didn’t exchange more than two words, while online they would joke, and chat like best buddies. The same later friend admitted that he was more comfortable texting than using most other communication mediums. The possibility of texted-across-the- table conversations might not be so difficult to fathom after all.
Texting has become almost second nature for me. I’ve gotten to the point where I will send a text before I pick up the phone. It pisses me off that my mom won’t get texting capabilities on her phone, since sometimes I just want to send her a one or two line message, rather than having an entire conversation. But, what will I remember when she’s not around to talk in the dreaded far off future? The one-line text I sent her? Or the conversation we had while she was walking down the beach, breathlessly describing the sunset and giggling about everything and nothing. Energies are impossible to convey on a tiny screen.
Here is an example of the texting language from A Visit From the Goon Squad.
Of course, I must also admit that—like a million other folks–I’ve become addicted to Facebook over the past few months. I will admit–and this is painful but true–that I check Facebook going on five times a day or more—and that’s without having a “smartphone.” I can’t imagine if I had a hot little Ipod touch burning holes in my pocket, allowing me instant access anytime I fancy it.
No, I do my obsessive social network checking (don’t even get me started on Twitter) by actually logging onto the good, old fashioned computer, booting up and checking my page first thing, last thing, and even in between, and in between the in betweens. Hell, I’m going to take a break from writing this paragraph to check my Facebook page, just to make sure no one has posted a new link to an old soul song, or some political rant, or maybe an update about the weather in their particular area. I am fully addicted to the social network (though I have yet to see the movie about the beginnings of Facebook starring my beloved “JT” otherwise known as Justin Timberlake as the infamous Sean Parker of Napster fame).
William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, makes me feel better about my urge to constantly check for updates. He explains that the constant drive back to the screen may be the result of “evolutionary programming,” since the human brain is wired to detect and respond to new stimuli. Back in the stone-age days, this ability protected us from the threat of predators in a dangerous world. Of course, the chances of a wooly mammoth trying to eat us for dinner now is nigh impossible, but our brains are still wired in the same way.
“Today the stimuli we receive from our environment are different—instead of wild animals lurking in the trees, we’re on alert for ringtones and new messages—but the biochemical effect is hypothetically the same. When your mobile lights up with a new call, you get, in the words of one scientist, a “dopamine squirt,”says Powers.
Dopamine squirt is a good way to put it. And puts a name to the need to constantly see what’s going on in the world of social networks. It’s just so easy to feel connected, but are we really connected? Powers argues that we need to make a conscious effort to create distance from screen time, through digital sabbaticals, and even nature jaunts away from the crowd. And we may have reached a crucial point in our technological development, where this becomes essential. Because what is next? Texting across the table rather than talking? I can’t get this scene from Egan’s novel out of my head, and for good reason.