The illusion of online celebrity

A couple of quotes to ponder:

A politician riding on a wave of tweets feels as if the nation is cheering his every word, even when the nation is actually reading the sports page while a select splinter of hard-core supporters manically pound away on their smartphones. A hundred thousand people cheering you on in the social media feels like a mass movement. But this is a gigantic country.
— Gail Collins

…behavior online is too easily taken as a mirror of reality when it is nothing of the sort. What seems to be the voice of the masses is the voice of a self-appointed few, magnified and distorted.
— David Streitfeld

The reality is, even if you have 10,000 followers on Word Press, Twitter, Facebook, or God knows what else, most people have never heard of you.

We desperately need to get over ourselves.

Differently abled

In the good old days, the little creek that ran through the city park near the house I grew up in ran a different color every day, depending on which upstream factory was dumping in it.  Nothing living was ever seen in it.  Its topography was littered with old tires and paint cans; it smelt vaguely of sewage.  We children played in it, none the wiser.  That parents warned us that it was “polio water” only made it all the more attractive.

Polio was an everyday feature of our lives in those days before the Salk vaccine.  Every neighborhood had its assortment of twisted limbs and funerals featuring disturbingly small coffins.  By the time I was seven, I knew what a corpse looked like.  The old man down the street had collapsed in the alley and died of something that would be routinely treated today; a boy in my first grade class perished of what I heard in my muddledness as “romantic fever.”   We were paraded in single file past where he lay in his open coffin, white and cold as the snow that was drifting outside.  It was what it was, and like children everywhere, we just thought that was what life was like.

Polio was a particularly haunting beast, because when it didn’t kill, it left its victims in varying degrees of disability.  The worst was the iron lung, a contraption that looked like a water heater laid on its side, the patient all but swallowed up in it, only the head protruding.  A mirror was thoughtfully placed to allow eye contact.  When it was operating, it sounded like Darth Vader; I’m certain that’s where Lucas got the inspiration.

Short of the horrors of that was every degree of disability.  As a teenager, my friend Jerry was one of the survivors who had managed a limited mobility.  His legs twisted like corkscrews, he rammed his crutches into the sidewalk with every step, muscles taut as wires on the verge of snapping.  All the same, he got around, as one does, even to the point of dancing in a strangely balletic series of jerks and realignments.

The dances took place on Friday or Saturday nights in a great neoclassical hulk of a building in the center of the park.  Whatever its original purpose, in my day it served as a community center, a place for youngsters from both sides of the park, sworn enemies, to come together and play basketball, pool, or ping pong.  Or, as often as not, for the boys to fight it out.  That boys would fight each other was considered so obvious as to not merit discussion; efforts at mediation were few and feeble, and usually involved trying to get the fighters to put on gloves.  The fights actually took place outside the building, in consideration of the generosity of the venue, and the disinclination to follow any rules, Queensberry or otherwise.

The dances were open, and generally peaceful.  On one particular night, Jerry was flailing away, dancing with one of the regular girls, who knew and liked him, when a boy from across the park began to taunt him, mocking his awkward moves.

Jerry swiveled around, raised a crutch, and caught the boy on the side of the head with a resounding “Thwack!”  The boy fell, the music kept playing, and Jerry and everyone else resumed dancing.

That boy got up, left the building reeling, and never was seen there again.  No one ever made fun of Jerry’s dancing after that.

Don’t beam me up, please

It’s an old dream, the ability to move instantly from one place to another, far off.  Only shamans were ever able to do it, though.  But now, there’s a chance it might actually happen for all of us, in the not too ridiculously distant future.

Technically, there is no reason why we can’t eventually have teleporters – little booths you can walk into and walk out of thousands of miles away at the speed of light, providing there’s one at each end.  Sort of.

You knew there was a catch, didn’t you?  Using existing technology, the process involves reading all the information of which you are composed at one end, and reassembling you at the other end by dumping it.  This does involve your complete destruction at the transmitting end, of course.

That’s the interesting part.  The reassembled you at the destination would have all your cells, synapses, and nerve endings reproduced exactly as they were at the moment of your dismantling.  This includes your brain, where everything you know is stored in the precise configuration of its parts.  The original you may be destroyed, but the new you will remember going into the transmission booth, and coming out unscathed at the end.  So, is that you, or isn’t it?  What exactly do we mean by “you” anyway?

To an outside observer (scientist, friend, mother) it would be indistinguishable from you.  Come to that, to an inside observer (the reassembled you), the same would be true, since it would contain all that defined the earlier you.  But the original you was destroyed in the process.  What we always knew as you is dead, my friend.  It has been reduced to its constituent components, little electrons whizzing around little protons and neutrons, completely devoid of the patterning we came to love all those years before the experiment.

Here’s the weird part: because the teleportation involved reading all the information that constituted you, then transmitting it to a new location, it could presumably be saved.  You could be stored on a disc and not reassembled until later.  Much later.  Multiple copies of you could be made, all of which would insist it was the real you.  Each of them would be the real you, by any existing standards of evidence.

So, we end in a situation in which you are dead, because we killed you to get at your information, but you are still walking around in multiple iterations, perhaps having violent confrontations with each other over their authenticity.

Here’s the real question, which is so bizarre I’m having difficulty putting it into words:  Would you, that entity which now lives in and looks out at the world from your body, which is the experiencer of your history, which debates with itself over the nature of the reality presented it by your senses, would you inhabit any or all of your new selves?

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But what does it mean?

A recent discussion I was engaged in, with a blogger I respect but differ with on occasion, has put me in mind of what happens to writing once it’s published.  It is an often stated truism that once you put it out there, it means whatever the reader thinks it means, not what you intended to say.  Ironically, I have to say that while it’s true, it is often misinterpreted.  It does not mean that you shouldn’t care how your writing is interpreted.

After all, while writing can be therapeutic, there’s no point in making it public unless you want to communicate something.  I get that some people will never understand whatever it is that you’re on about; that’s the uncertainty of the enterprise.  You lose control once you fling that child of yours into the wild.  But, up to the point of sending it out, you have total control.  Why wouldn’t you want to make your message as clear as possible?

There are times, of course, when ambiguity is precisely the message.  Then it’s up to you to make the ambiguity as clear as possible.  There’s a big difference between subtlety and obfuscation.  It’s the art of making sure the rock under which you’re hiding the key tells you something about the door it opens.

There are other times when the very thing you think clarifies your meaning forces a detour around it.  The discussion I mentioned above was about the use of profanity in writing.  Profanity calls attention to the point you’re making, which is why people like to use it, but so does an exclamation point, or writing in all caps.  Undeniably, there are situations in which these things are justified, but they are few and far between.  Overuse them, and you become the meaning, instead of the text.  Think of it: what is your reaction when you see something in all caps, with exclamation points at every opportunity?  Is it to consider more carefully the importance of the text, or is it to consider the character of the author, regardless of the text?

To me, certain words are carriers of attitude: fuck, shit, bitch, and the like.  I’m not sure I care about the attitude of the writer as much as what they are trying to say.  More importantly, when you use these words, what do you want me to think about as a reader?  Your attitude or your message?

Ah, youth

Another tale from the annals of my splendidly misspent youth.  As usual, I have changed the names, out of a rather quaint sense of propriety.

Well, there we were, the lot of us squeezed comfortably into the crevices of a small, 5th floor pension a block from Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona.  What did we expect?  When you’re young, love blooms early and often, or at least what passes for love, some combination of lust and infatuation, I suppose.  Mother Nature gives us a double shot of hormones to get us making more of ourselves before we get distracted by life’s illusions.  For ordinary mammals, this is pretty straightforward; for us humans, anything but.

The Pension Fontanella was, above all, cheap, and the landlord easy going.  For 50 peseatas a day, about 75 cents in the exchange rate of the day, you got a bed in one of a half dozen or so rooms with anywhere from two to six beds each. In the morning was an included breakfast, of endless coffee, scones and butter, sometimes jam.  For another 30 pesetas, you could go down the street a ways to the worker’s cafeteria and get an enormous midday meal consisting, typically, of a giant bowl of paella, a grilled meat and potatoes course, and flan for dessert, all washed down with a Coca Cola bottle filled with cheap Spanish wine.  We thought Europe on $5 a Day, a popular guide book at the time, was woefully extravagant.

I won’t say the Pension Fontanella was a den of iniquity.  It was 1970.  The world was in one of its usual celebrations of youthful exuberance to accompany the coming of age of a postwar cohort, and the horrors of AIDS were nowhere on the horizon.  There were drugs, yes.  The landlord doubtless shared a portion of his profits with the local Guardia Civil.  It was 1970.  Mostly hashish, taken with a kind of connoisseurship: Moroccan blond, versus Lebanese red, etc.  Personally, while I had indulged lavishly while in military service, I had lost interest since my discharge.  I had come to find that while the first half hour or so of getting high was pleasant enough, after that I would often want to do something, and the hash haze became an obstacle.  Take whatever that says about the military as you wish; it was a different institution back in the days of Vietnam and the draft.

Anyway, as I said, there we were, merrily hopping from hash to hash and bed to bed, all bedazzled by the sheer possibility of life, blissfully ignorant of folly and its curses.  We played music; I imagined myself to be a competent guitarist and passable singer, mostly because of my friend Sid, who was so brilliant that when we played together, it made my amateurish thrashing about sound like intentional rustication.

Then, in walked Inga, and set it all a-tumble.

She wasn’t exactly beautiful, though her features were regular enough.  But, musically, she was head and shoulders above the quotidian, workmanlike talent we were used to.  It was the way she sang, with her eyes, gliding atop the effortless guitar lines with a sublime inevitability.  She made the trite seem fresh, and the fresh seem stunning; most of all, she made it seem personal to every male listening.  I was smitten.  So were we all.

She had arrived in the afternoon from nowhere in particular, and half the denizens of the pension sat far into the night under the spell of her singing and playing.  I fell asleep with the resolve that, in the morning, I would find her, and away from the rest of her admiring audience, I would have a chance at connecting.

Well, morning did come, and I found her, but not alone.  There she was at the reception desk, guitar and backpack all cinched up and ready to go.  Next to her was Billy, whom I had come to consider a good friend.  They were checking out.  Together.

Blap!  Just like that.  I lost my moorings.  I stammered a “good morning,” and asked, “What’s going on?  Are you leaving?”

“Yeah, Billy said, smiling broadly.  “We’re heading for Ibiza; the boat leaves in an hour.”  Inga beamed radiantly.  I was crushed.

“I gotta go,” I said lamely,  I could feel their quizzical stares as I headed for the staircase and out the door.

Well, it’s an old story, I guess, ruefully celebrated in many a folksong:

For courting too slowly you have lost this fair maiden
Begone you will never enjoy her
Begone you will never enjoy her
I once loved a lass

I walked down the street to a pub we occasionally patronized for special occasions.  It’s bar, lined with tapas the length of it, was a major attraction that outweighed the price of the beer.  Inside, I found Will, Sid’s brother.  He looked up and saw my face.

“You too?” he said.

I nodded and let out a sigh, and sat down next to him.  It was beer and calamares for a long, long brunch for us.  Not quite equivalent to true love, but it would have to do.