Last fall I read Miranda July’s book, It Chooses You. The book came out of interviews she conducted in the summer of 2009, while she was trying to finish a screenplay. But she was getting blocked and instead of working on the project she would procrastinate by reading the Los Angeles PennySaver. Her obsession morphed into calling people who had placed ads and actually going to interview them – she talked to thirteen people this way. (“I was wondering if, when I come over to look at the jacket, I could also interview you about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears,” she said to one man.) The profiles are always surprising, sometimes depressing; but one of the things I found most compelling about the book is that July did some old-fashioned reporting, initiating face-to-face contact with strangers.
She asked each person if they used a computer, and found that most didn’t. “I began to feel that I was asking the question just to remind myself that I was in a place where computers didn’t really matter, just to prompt my appreciation for this,” she writes. Coming into contact with these PennySaver sellers highlighted July’s fear that “the scope of what I could feel and imagine was being quietly limited to a world within a world, the internet. The things outside the web were becoming further from me, and everything inside it seemed piercingly relevant…My appetite for pictures and videos and news and music were so gigantic now that if something was shrinking, something immeasurable, how would I notice?”
What a great question.
July’s book made me think about how often I feel plugged in. I’m at the computer with the earphones for my voice recognition program on my head. Or I’m cruising the web on my android tablet. Or I’m checking messages on my cell phone or texting or talking, the headset mashed into my left ear. Or I’m scrolling through my playlists on the iPod, often while driving. I plug my brain into an expanse of pixels and virtual doors to more data open and open and open again. What exactly does “delirious” mean? What color do those pants come in? Is there a room available in Guerneville in June? What’s the balance of my bank account? Who’s on Facebook and what can I post? What’s next on my schedule? Do I have new email? When’s my nephew’s birthday, and what can I send him from Amazon? What’s the news on Google? Is “Jagger” Mick’s real last name? What does 42nd Street in New York actually look like? The To Do list or the To Find list expands exponentially and I become a head, a brain. I lose track of my body.
But I’m a whole body, on this physical plane, and forgetting that is dangerous (and not just on a spiritual level – texting while driving boosts a person’s crash risk by 23 times). When I live in my brain, hooked up to the virtual world, I lose touch with the fact of my body. The result? My hands are swollen with severe tendinitis from typing too much, my neck muscles are bunched in knots from sitting too long, my hamstrings strung from being contracted for hours on end. I take a walk in the neighborhood with the dogs and I can barely go a block without using my phone. Am I losing the ability to just be outside? To exist in my skin, unplugged? It frightens me.
The disconnect I so often feel between my body and my brain carries a baffled quality, bordering on despair. How can I recover a relationship with the natural world if my life is conducted via technology? How can I reconnect, living as I do in a country where it seems like I can actually control my daily life? How can I remember that I’m dust, star stuff, fragile as any other ecosystem – and be thankful? (Yes, I know. A good beginning is to turn everything off and GO OUTSIDE. See Ellis Weiner.) I suppose that’s why staying plugged in is addictive: it supports an illusion of indestructibility. If I’m not really a body, I can’t be vulnerable. But the truth is, I am vulnerable, whether I acknowledge it or not – to death, to aimlessness, to imperfection, to pain.
Scientifically, Miranda July wrote, her interviews were “pretty feeble.” But that’s not the point. The point is that soon there will be no more computerless people in Los Angeles to interview. This is the something immeasurable that’s shrinking — a mind/body connection not only in ourselves, but between people. “Most of life is offline,” July writes, “and I think it always will be; eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it’s not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things; they aren’t always easy, and they take so much time. [If I’m not careful,] in twenty years I’ll be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember that they mattered.”