Technologically speaking, this trip to India has been a disaster. Our Internet has been non-existent for more than two weeks now and about 7 days ago, my computer starting “acting up”. First, it refused to turn on. John, the computer whisperer, starting working with it, gently at first, pushing buttons and talking to it softly in the dim light of his own computer monitor, studying a forum filled with advice about Macs-that-have-given-up, but…after 3 days of no-response, he shook the shit out of it and it finally turned on. But it doesn’t turn on all the time. Just sometimes. It’s very whimsical. So I can’t plan to work on my computer from one day to the next, which has tried my patience and stretched my reality tether to a such a perilous point that I think I may be having some kind of spiritual epiphany about technology and life-in-general.
People come to India for spiritual experiences, so I guess this experience is contextually appropriate: Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj are definitely on the spiritual-seekers circuit. A large proportion of people on the plane with us from Delhi to Dharamsala were clearly in the market for a guru, enlightenment, or communion with God or Buddha or some other deity. Several clique-ish groups of women clad in harem pants and flip flops had yoga mats sticking out of their bags as they disembarked form our tiny prop plane. They looked at me and my ready-for-anything-REI pants with their convenient mugger-proof zipper pockets and these women could clearly see that I couldn’t compete with them in terms of relaxation and Nirvana–ness.
A tense white man in a pink shirt who looked a little like Kelsey Grammer from the sitcom Frasier appeared to be on some kind of quiet quest and I imagined that he was deeply saddened by something, perhaps a divorce. Maybe he was seeking enlightenment, or a reason to live. He had the look of someone who was on the edge of something. Maybe he was just hoping to find out that he’s special in some way…or exactly like everyone else.
At the airport in Dharamsala, we all went different directions. Our family went to a cement box to sleep on a bed of mold for the night. The Yoga People went to ashrams, some legit, others maybe not. And Pink Shirt Man flagged down a rickshaw to take him who-knows-where. I wonder if any of them have found God yet. After all, it’s a long way to travel for nothing.
Since I haven’t had a computer to work on most of the time or an Internet connection, I’ve been forced to re-acquaint myself with paper and pen. I have a yellow legal pad that I brought with me and, in order to complete some of my work, I’ve had to read some books and take notes by hand. Instead of taking notes in Word, I have ten pages of hand written notes, which brought back memories of college and life-before-computers. Writing things down makes information stickier for me. There’s something really earthy about writing with my hands. It may take longer, but I think the information becomes mine in a way that typed notes never do.
Not logging onto Facebook or Googling things has been good for me too. Since the Internet took hold and technology starting improving so quickly over the past decade, I’ve never really noticed how much of my life is spent searching online for information. And how useless a lot of the information is. It’s a waste of time, really. And I’ve been forced to confront myself on this trip instead of “zoning out” by logging onto Facebook. There were several evenings this week when I was so desperately exhausted and overwhelmed by things (like the mold, the filth, the cold showers, spending 8 days in the same room with a 16 year old, wearing wet clothes all day, eating rice and the same sauce for every meal, constant interruptions by the staff at this hotel, etc. etc.) that I would’ve given my only pair of dry socks to be able to log on to Facebook and stare at the screen, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. But instead, I was forced to think and…notice myself needing or rather, being addicted to this activity that sucks the time out of my days.
Why do I do it? Do I get something out of Facebook and the Internet? If not, how do I keep myself from using it and letting it siphon the life out of my life? Facebook and social media is how people connect these days. It’s not a great way to connect. It’s like a big auditorium of loose acquaintances where people walk up on stage to say random things into a microphone. If the people in the audience aren’t too preoccupied with real human interaction in their real group of friends, they might turn to acknowledge the guy behind the microphone with a half-hearted “thumbs up”. Some people hear the guy at the microphone, but purposely ignore him, even if they feel like his words are worthy of a “thumbs up” because to NOT give a thumbs up is a statement of harsher judgment: it says, I don’t like you as a person even if I totally agree with what you say.
In this way, Facebook is mostly damaging. Because it’s not just an auditorium of people. It’s a virtual junior high. To participate is to seek approval. To not participate is to…be ostracized from a virtual society that has become more active than our real, face-to-face society. To be sure, Facebook is a good marketing tool, but it isn’t a way to make real connections. I mean, maybe messaging people is like a real connection, but posting to the wall is a popularity contest. I don’t care for it, but up until this week, I’d hardly even thought about it or noticed myself doing it.
This was just one facet of my epiphany.
My computer quit working the day we got here. It wouldn’t turn on. And then, when it did, I noticed myself getting sucked into it immediately. The whole dynamic in the room changed when that screen turned blue because I’d been present and then suddenly, I was gone. I was working with open tabs and unfinished This or That. Few things have that kind of effect on my attention. I believe that my computer, at this time, controls me more than I control it. It’s time for me to re-assert control over the machine.
So while the yoga crowd is somewhere out there doing downward dogs and breathwork, and the guy in the pink shirt is seeking Buddha-hood, I’ve been re-evaluating my relationship with technology. Who I am and what I do with my life is impacted moment-by-moment in small, but profound ways when I choose my computer over other things. It’s true that I need my computer and the Internet for my work, but I need it far less than I think. Pen and paper is more portable and what comes out of my brain is different when I write with pen than when I type. And if that’s true, than it’s possible that who I am–Handwritten Me–is different than typed me, just merely because my words appear on a screen instead of in a journal or in a real conversation that takes place face-to-face with someone in the same room with me or via text. Maybe it all doesn’t matter. Maybe it does. Maybe it matters only to me. Maybe it should matter to everyone. Or no one. Not me, not anyone. I don’t know. But anyway, this is what I came away with from my time in the Himalayas, a lack of TV, Internet, a computer, clean clothes, and contact with everyone at home. Since I don’t believe in coincidences, I don’t believe that my technological time-out in the Himalayas is a coincidence. Maybe God is speaking to me through my dead computer.
Anyway, I won’t find God on Facebook. And I can’t Google God. So what the hell am I doing? The real question is: What would be different if I stopped interacting with the world through technology and did things differently?
I’ll let you know.