The year was 1995. The place was rural Marion County, Oregon. I had just turned 16, and had also just finished off a 15th year that encapsulated the change from boisterous to angsty adolescent. I had also shifted ideologies every six weeks, and was currently embarking on a life of a luddite. My plan was to move back to the family farm, on top of the hill, and dedicate myself to reading and writing. (I tried this several times, it is only recently that it has caught.) I would also communicate with my group of friends (which, inspired by the line in Smells Like Teen Spirit, or just general adolescent narrative spinning, I thought of as a small group who would save the world, etc.) through the usage of the United States Postal Service. I pictured my life as a mixture of bucolic splendor and fierce intellectual frontiersmanship. I imagined my friends pouring letters in every week, detailing news of the world while I read Tolstoy.
This didn't happen. In a year or two, when I became aware of the internet, and its potentials to connect people, I imagined that the lack of an intellectual nexus springing up via post was due to the logistical difficulties of mail. With the internet, people would finally turn to each other. It would be bucolic splendor...only perhaps with some vector graphics and techno music.
Both times that I pinned my hopes on communities to spring up like this, I was not only hoping in vain. There were some flashes of communication, some flashes of community, some of it quite substantiative. However, as the years went by, and the technology become more prevalent, and the means of communication became easier and the circle of people I was in contact with grew wider, it never quite reached a break-through level. Right now, I have 640 friends on Facebook, and my conversations there probably provide me the same level of communication as when I was 16, and had to walk three miles into town to buy postage stamps.
I have a lot of smart friends. Not just smart, but in many cases, wise and compassionate and experienced in the many ways of the world. Many of my friends went to elite schools where they had to whip out 20 page papers about Volcanoes on the Moon on a regular basis. Some of my friends wrote Doctoral Dissertations at Ivy League Universities. Fill in the blanks, they are a pretty literate group of people. And yet I have noticed that amongst the same group of people, communication towards me (and, I would imagine), towards one another, tends to be rather minimalistic. A line or two traded on Facebook. Maybe an e-Mail. A desultory Instant Message conversation.
So, having reached into the 4th decade of my life, I have come to a conclusion, that may be of benefit to all of you. Just because people are very skilled at horizontal communication, does not mean that they are full of vertical communication, just waiting to be tapped. In many ways, with all the changes that have taken place in our society, reality is still something held above us, and the job of culture is to be a good channel to that reality. The absence or presence of other people is secondary, or even an obstacle, to that primary task. It is also secondary what exact reality or cultural milieu is being channeled. Whereas previous generations of college students might have been taking apart the Greek and Roman Classics and heading towards the lifestyle of a suburban investment banker, the modern college student might be following queer studies before moving into an urban neighborhood and working at an art gallery. While the culture and lifestyle might differ, the fundamental relation of the individual to that culture does not.
Every night, she used to call me, in conversations that I at first looked forward to, but then begin to dread. Depression is a hell of a disease, especially when I discovered that I couldn't cure it with pep talks. But beyond her depression, I felt like I was supposed to provide meaning. As much as I tried to provide it, at the end of the conversation, when I was finally wanting to bail out, to leave, to stare at my ceiling fan in peace, there was still the same depression and sadness an sense of failure on my part. As could be believed, this relationship finally came apart. And over the years, I have come to miss her (because of course, what I described was only one negative side). And sometimes I wish to talk, if only of the proverbial cabbages and kings. I seem to not catch her attention often, and I wonder sometimes at the irony of someone who was so desperate to talk to me once, finding me of so little interest now.
For most people in contemporary American society, the long slide out of adolescence involves learning how to manipulate the world around them, for social and economic utility. For men, this is stereotypically through learning to manipulate technology. For women, this is stereotypically through learning to manipulate relationships. Indeed, for women, relationships are just the most common form of technology. Men are plugged into roles with a teleology of some sort of social revelation and metamorphosis. The actual male, no matter how important his role might be, is himself usually not very important. For a woman, climbing the relationship ladder is what climbing the employment ladder is for a man. In hindsight, some of my partners treated relationships with me as if they were working a night shift at 7-11 just so they could claim six months of cash handling experience on their resume. Where us little vertical units interact with each other at all, it is usually just because we provide stepping stones as we slouch towards self-actualization.
In the first part of these essays, I said that I don't know if the predilection people have for cruelty should be judged on an anthropological or a theological basis. And here, I will say that I don't know if people's (at least the people of the culture I often find myself amongst) habit of viewing their lives as translating a larger static reality, with the involvement of other people around them being someone of marginal interest at best and pointless annoyance more likely, can be judged on an ontological level, or whether it can be viewed as the result of social or economic conditioning. In either case, just as much as I argued for the evolution of cruelty in the first essay, from seemingly innocent beginnings, I argue for the evolution of silence here, from just as innocent of beginnings. And while it may seem like a minor point --- and in fact, at this point, people may be quite confused about what I am talking about --- I believe that the disinterest that people have towards vertical communication is a great stumbling point in dealing with some of our most important, pressing problems.