Surfing Netflix, I came across the 1998 movie, “As Good as It Gets.” If you haven’t seen it, just the on-screen time between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, who both won Academy Awards, is worth the 2 hours. About 90 minutes in, I noticed something strange. Rather, I noticed the absence of something now ubiquitous. The movie appeared on the cusp of smart phones and the widespread use of the internet. I was highly attuned to that moment, as I was an early adopter of both. Leading an IT engineering team, we had a 24X7 on call rotation to support the company’s business servers and network. I didn’t have a rotation. As the boss, I was basically on call all the time. So, when cell phones became smaller than a valise, my team all got them to go with our pagers. It was a time when, if I was on my phone walking down the sidewalk, people did a double take. The movie is from the last gasp of an unconnected world. I couldn’t shake the feeling that may have been a better world because it was defined as much by what we didn’t know as what we knew. Everyone lived in their own mystery bubble.
Let me first be defensive and challenge the reflex that this essay is just another old man’s lament. We are now well into the second generation of ubiquitous, first world connectivity. Millions of people don’t know what they cannot know about the past. I am not saying pre-connection was better. That’s a silly way to judge history. However, layering context is essential. It this case, I believe there is a spiritual difference in the previous analog world based on what could and couldn’t be known. Every day, people were reminded of what they didn’t know. Simple questions like: ‘Where is she?’ ‘Where am I?’ governed our lives. We moved about in patterns that others could not know. We got lost and sought help, sometimes from a skinny kid at the local gas station like me. Resolving gaps in our knowledge started with a nearby person. “Hey, have you ever heard of… .” Stumped, the first thought was to pick up a phone and call someone who “just always knows.” Crowdsourcing information was a person-to-person, leisurely pursuit. Sometimes, the ultimate authority for a conundrum was an exchange of letters, snail mail, or even a trip to the library. None of this caused anxiety because we had faith that somewhere, someone had an answer. Mystery was ubiquitous.
I don’t have children, so have not been privy to the Borg-like intertwining of youthful minds and the internet. But in my work life, I saw an influx of Gens M and Z. One thing that startled me about their days was the need for certitude. If our conversations charted new ground for them, they would stop mid-sentence, reach for their smart phone, or turn to a screen and fire up the Google. Not surprising. Who hasn’t consulted the internet? What was different was the immediate need to end the discomfort of ignorance. Their’s is a world where mystery must be wrestled to submission. Oscillating between biological and electronic communication was second nature. Amongst their peers, the banter continued as eyes floated down to phones and back to other eyes. Having experienced a world where attention, focused personal presence was highly valued, I found the new digital habit first distracting, then frustrating, and finally, sad. Possibly more disconcerting is that I am now more likely to behave in the same way.
But I wonder, will the connected from birth ever feel the pure fun of an argument where facts are in doubt? I have spent hours with friends and strangers, engaging in the joy of pointless speculation. Among baseball fans, the beers came and went in long arguments about the relative merits of players or teams. We injected facts randomly based on the knowledge of hardcore fans. Everyone was an expert on something or feigned such expertise. Yea, we bullshitted each other. Most often, the discussion resolved amicably, if not inaccurately. In this way, we could revisit the same argument. Sometimes, the argument itself became a signifier for a relationship in the group. Should facts become critical, we consulted “the bible.” The bible was The Baseball Encyclopedia, a massive tome that collected all baseball stats from the beginning of the game. I have one. Page after page of the names of players and their careers. It’s an absurd book because it was obsolete the year it was purchased. Season by season, data marches away from the book. Now, Google solves all arguments because the internet it timeless. Is that a good thing?
Without accepting mystery, we are likely to fall prey to certainty. With a tap or some clicks, we are now sure we know. That need to know has become dangerous. Being addicted to certainty predisposes us to demand rapid answers, the endorphin hit of clarity. And once one is certain, repeatedly, a crack opens through which information can be altered to fill the need to know. We now see that truth has become relative. The quick hit of any sort of certainty is often more important than the muddy reality of nuanced and strained truth. Having lost the ability, or need, to live with a mystery, doubt becomes the enemy. People spouting the misinformed nonsense now swear that they “have done their own research.”
With no mystery, we fall prey to lies that feel like the truth. Feelings become facts. Any good behavioral therapist will tell you that the path to constant neurosis is an inability to separate feelings and facts. Look around you or look at your social media feed. How much of what you see is based on how people feel? How have they have substituted feelings for facts? And now, most dangerously, once anyone expresses a feeling on the internet, the algorithms spring to life to feed you more solace for your feelings. The algos don’t exit to provide facts because it’s feelings that sustain clicks and clicks make money.
When the movie ended, I sat for a time staring at the blank screen. For a couple of hours, I had been somewhere familiar. Clean is the word that came to me. The relationships portrayed were uncluttered by instant communication and electronic paths to false certainty. There was no need to clutter the screen with text bubbles into the virtual world. With no immediate digital outlet for self-expression, impulses had to be contained, questions pondered. Humans benefit from slow. Digital speed exceeds our ability to understand. Spontaneous feelings take flight thoughtlessly. In the crowded New York sidewalk scenes, everyone was looking up, out and around. Awareness extended only as far as anyone could see. Beyond that point in the distance, everyone shared the same limitation. The world was a mystery.