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Waking Life

March 20, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Economy, Randall Amster

You Don’t Need a Clock to Know What Time It Is

by Randall Amster

With each passing day, the news grows increasingly grim. In recent weeks alone, we’ve seen women’s rights under assault as reactionary forces seek to turn the clock back by decades. Half a world away in Afghanistan, corpses are defiled and more are brutally created, without even their ages or innocence sufficient to protect them. Meanwhile, back at home, Congress passes and President Obama signs a new law that further restricts the ability of “we the people” to say or do anything that might stem the tide of the insanity. It’s all such a familiar tune, one that plays out with flawless precision in nearly every turn of the news cycle.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere buzzes along, chronicling the morass and the madness with vigor. The headlines read like an excruciating autopsy of democracy and justice in the late, great United States — and a horrifying blueprint for how to decimate that portion of the planet’s inhabitants who have the misfortune of living atop, amid, or around something that we covet. Naked fascism here and wanton destruction there, with each solidifying the other in our hearts and minds as the gears of consumer culture blithely grind about their business with clocklike precision. Tick: the Dow Jones goes up! Tock: another celebrity melts down! And hardly anyone seems to really know what time it is…

Or maybe everyone does, at least on some level, with a great many simply choosing to ignore the alarm bells in favor of the bells and whistles on their latest consumer gadget. The rising tide (both literal and figurative) that threatens to consume us all is best confronted by ignoring it. The blood on one’s hands comes right off with the newest antibacterial, sanitizing, scented concoction. The news may be forbidding, but it’s merely a minor inconvenience since there are so many creature comforts expressly not forbidden. Tales of disease, despair, and destruction are little more than reality noir stories told to occasionally add a touch of macabre and cinéma vérité to one’s halcyon Netflix queue.

Swipe across that touchscreen, scroll down with that mouse, click that ad banner, pull that lever in the booth, change that channel repeatedly, post a link to that viral video, accept that new credit card offer, text while in that drive-through line, gas up the car and eat up from the microwave. Modern life is a veritable hall of mirrors for narcissists, complete with the rush of affirmation from every “like” attained and text message received with a sonorous chime. It’s all so smooth and slick and seamless, how we’ve gone in less than one generation from people having time to ones being had by it. Yes, you can buy time, share it on vacation, put it on a sheet at work, use it for making a bomb, or turn it into an uncritical magazine — but at the end of the day, there is no longer an end of the day.

We are on the clock, all the time, everywhere we go. The line between work and play has blurred to such an extent that there’s a likely gym at your office and (if there’s not) people are closing deals on handheld devices while at the gym, giving new meaning to the notion of “working out.” Even on social calls one can hear the faint “tap tap” of keystrokes in the background, as an overworked friend multitasks while you’re busy baring your soul between your own multiple, endless tasks. It’s all just so routinely riveting, so crassly compelling, so miraculously mundane, so five minutes ago. Forever a step behind, never quite catching up, no bottom to that inbox, no time to stop and think.

Yet it’s strangely comfortable, after all, ceaselessly cascading from one inconsequential calamity to the next. Can we keep this up, culturally or individually? It’s a new survival-of-the-fittest motif: those who are more cognitively dissonant and functionally distracted will succeed in this brave new world, while those with slower chronometers, active consciences, or stop-and-smell-the-roses ethics are consigned to the breakdown lane on the information superhighway. The fortunate ones whizzing by at 4G (or more) might be tempted into rubbernecking as the broken-down vehicles pile up on the side, but they’re probably too busy texting while driving to notice.

And so it goes. Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but we’ve got him beat by a micro-processed mile. The apocalypse is already being televised, routinized, digitized. It’s not coming; it already came and went, and hardly anyone even looked up to take notice. The world ended not with a whimper but a tweet: #IMoverIT. Heck, there’s not even time for punctuation anymore, unless it’s part of an emoticon. theres prolly no need 4 an ! aftr yr doomsday anyway LOL :>)

Seriously? It’s like everyone is pushing toward the bow of the Titanic to snap a photo of that massive iceberg up ahead with their cellphone cameras. Yeah, post that iceberg to your profile, and caption it something ironic like: “Super chunk of ice, way cool!” No matter that the Doomsday Clock stands at five minutes to midnight — that’s an eternity when things move at the speed of micro-circuitry. It’s all an abstraction anyway, a live-action film version of reality; even war is played with joysticks like a cutting-edge video game. There’s no there there anymore; it’s all right here in the palm of your hand. Hickory dickory dock, just mouse over the clock icon for a free music download!

Hey, I love science fiction as much as anyone, and I’m not averse to technology altogether. But technology should be a tool for us to use, not the other way around. Let’s face it: we’re losing the texture of reality, and not even the blatant brutality of ongoing genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide is able to shake us free from our self-imposed slumber at this point in time. Is it too late, in any event? I think not — but the day is dawning and time is running out. We can still correct our course, by learning to use technology for liberatory rather than repressive ends, and by striving to decouple our actual selves from our virtual selves more and more each day. Go on a digital diet, and stick to it.

Ultimately, this move by itself still won’t turn the tide, but at least it puts us back in the mix. The impetus of “forced obsolescence” is a contrivance of the power-mad in our midst, yet we need not stand idly by while their actuaries place us in the “liabilities” column. Come on folks, Christmas morning is over and we need to clean up the living room and put the toys away for a while. Read a book, take a walk, tell a story, share a home-cooked meal, converse with friends and family — anything but the incessant, obsessive, stupefying machinations of the virtual veil. The clock is ticking, the hour is late, the alarm is sounding, and it’s time to wake up and meet the world anew.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).

8 Comments to “Waking Life”


  1. NCVeditor says:

    Also appearing on Common Dreams today as well…

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  2. I love the intent of this piece, though it’s of course ironic that we’re reading it on a BLOG…I know I am overly addicted to technology, but on the other hand, it has allowed me to “meet” such interesting people that I would never have been able to know in my circumscribed physical life. It’s a double-edged sword. We just need to learn to wield it wisely.

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    • Randall Amster says:

      Absolutely — the paradox of it all (as well as the double-edged nature) is not lost on me. We can’t “put the genie back in the bottle” when it comes to technology, nor should we. Yet there’s little doubt that in just a few decades we’ve become enormously dependent on totalizing, inaccessible, and potentially devastating technologies. If we could make that cultural move from knowledge to wisdom, perhaps we might reclaim a rough balance…

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  3. Why is this a paradox? There’s nothing inherent in the technology that compels us to be off-center.

    Andrew Weil has been advocating a media fast for years; 7 days with no TV, no newspapers, no radio and – if you can swing it (it’s not possible for some people because of work – computers and digital devices. But it’s not hard to go on a digital diet. Tell the people who you “have” to get back to by texting, blogging, emailing, etc that you’re going to be minimally involved in digital communication for the next day, or even better, the next 7 days.

    While you’re at it, get to sleep earlier, walk a bit more, spend some more face time with friends and family, leave work on time or even early if you can for a day or a week, get out in nature for an afternoon, and live a generally slow, mindful life.

    If you get to bed earlier, try waking up before dawn and instead of relying on coffee, go for a brisk walk in the cool of the early morning; then take a break every hour to stretch, breathe deep and rapidly, and you won’t need coffee later either.

    Talk to a conservative and try to really get inside their fears and hopes. Talk to a progressive and find where you differ. If you’re an atheist, find a fundamentlist to empathize with; if you’re a mystic, talk to an atheist.

    There’s lots of ways to wake up:>))) (have to go now – just finishing up a psych eval on a lovely homeless man who I’m trying to prove deserves disability compensation, then Jan and I are off to a 4 day meditation retreat – we’re bringing the lap top and will be checking email once a day at the local drug store, but otherwise we’ll be mostly to ourselves.

    very best:>)))

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  4. There are SOME of us our here taking control of our lives and, most importantly , TEACHING OUR CHILDREN not to be such gluttonous consumers. It’s an addiction, you know.

    I do see a common misconception about computers in society: that humans look at computers and think they are somehow “smart” and they are challenged by them.

    WRONG.

    We’ve all heard of GIGO, garbage in/garbage out, but, the processing capacity of the human brain is probably infinite. Computers pale in comparison to what the human brain can do,,,we just don’t utilize its potential.

    If you don’t train your brain, it doesn’t work very well. We also are doping ourselves,,,legal and otherwise. That doesn’t make your body actually work any better, from sensory point of view. Because humans are very hung up on individualism instead of what the rest of the animal world is doing, collectivism., we are paying the costs.

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  5. “…at the end of the day, there is no longer an end of the day.”

    The code phrase for this is “rising productivity.” What it really means is fewer people doing more work for functionally the same amount of compensation (US median wages have been stagnant–0.5% per annum growth!–for decades). The profits extracted from this differential have been used to directly purchase ever more favorable conditions–from legislation to technology–to further the “rise.”

    Welcome to the New Corporate Era.

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  6. Darren Thorneycroft says:

    Umm, what were you saying? I was watching a YouTube video while playing Angry Birds on my smart phone.

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