Thursday, 17 August 2017

Technology: taking back control



Somehow I can't do without my mobile phone, which packs as much computing power as a roomful of kit in the '70s. It helps me not get lost, enables me to read books or check the etymology of a word on the go (geeks simply migrate to available technology), check the weather forecast, share a calendar, pay for car parking without getting out of the car, buy stuff without even going outdoors, even video-phoning which in Dan Dare's future was still a phone attached to a wall.

The problem is that this thing can easily take over one's life, what with messages, emails and apps. One can get sucked into the phone screen and lose minutes or hours in some parallel universe of dreamlike disconnectedness, emerging later like some bewildered time-traveller. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? - to quote the late great Freddie Mercury. It can drain energy if one is not careful.

“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” warned Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emails. No, I don't want a Russian bride and I've no idea what the people are advertising whose emails are entirely in Cyrillic script. I'm considering blocking all emails with a .ru domain. Nor do I know why Chinese companies think I would want to buy bulk raw materials. I don't need Viagra or Xanax and I don't think that a computer program that shorts the stock market will make me rich. Somehow we get onto mailing lists of companies we've never heard of.

The company that hosts my email account blocked 726 spam emails in the last week. That's over 100 a day I'd have to sift through and delete if they weren't blocked automatically. Even of the 10-20 daily that get through there are usually fewer than half a dozen that I actually want to read.

Marking emails as spam is easy on a Mac using Mail, but I have yet to find a way of marking and blocking spam on an iPhone. There are apps that claim to do this, but then you have to give them access to your account details. How do we know we can trust them with our information? That is why I pay my ISP for spam blocking, and I still cannot mark emails that get through on my phone as spam. As for spam blocking, I have blocked the very persistent Anastasiia but now she has been replaced by Oksana. Sorry .ru, if any of my Russian friends want to contact me they'll have to get a gmail account.

Within my lifetime there was no internet and no email. If someone wanted to contact me at work they would have to bleep my pager and then I would have to find a phone and phone in. Needless to say when not at work and out of the house I was uncontactable.

Sometimes I feel a bit of nostalgia for the days when the world was a little less busy. If people wanted to write to me they'd have to write a letter, which meant there weren't that many of them, and the time taken to reply would necessarily slow the whole world down. There is also something soothing about the purposeful movement of an ink pen on paper.

We need to take steps to bring technology under control, so that it serves us rather than driving us. All advice welcome.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Stranger in a strange land - derealisation and realisation

(Somewhere in England) 

It is possible, for example while commuting to work, to entertain the fantasy that one has just this moment been put into this body going about its business, that one has come from somewhere else (perhaps a previous life which one has forgotten).

Luckily this body knows where it is going, and one knows that if one thought about it one would easily remember details such as what one's job is, one's home situation, loved ones and so on. But for the moment one doesn't pursue those thoughts. Therefore there is no need for any anxiety, yet at the same time one experiences the world as a stranger in a strange land.

The current Wikipedia article describes derealisation as "an alteration in the experience of the external world so that it seems unreal." However what I am describing makes the world seem more real. One realises that most of the time one is preoccupied with some thought or other, barely noticing one's surroundings. As a stranger freshly arrived from somewhere else one notices everything.

A similar phenomenon occurs when driving or walking to a new place. Even if the journey is quite short, it seems long, because one has to notice things in order to find one's way. The same journey when familiar seems short, and one remembers few details. It is possible to drive for an hour on a familiar route in perfect safety and remember nothing.

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that derealisation includes "feeling as though one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional colouring, and depth." However with this experiment the world has more depth and colour, and things are generally brighter. If there is beauty, one notices it, sometimes in unexpected places.

Interestingly the Wikipedia article says that derealisation is related to depersonalisation, which is sense of unreality in one's personal self. There may well be an actual psychiatric or morbid condition characterised by this, but it is also of note that psychologists and philosophers have pointed out that the idea of 'self' itself has an unclear meaning, or even, the 'self' does not exist. Am I the same person I was yesterday? The one who decided to get up as soon as the alarm went off is the same as the one who decided to lie in for an extra 15 minutes instead? But this is a topic for another time.

I went in search of the original quotation, 'stranger in a strange land.' It comes from the King James Bible translation of Exodus 2:22 and is spoken by Moses in exile. I was also led to this excellent poem by Rita Dove. At the beginning of the poem Rita Dove quotes Emily Dickinson: "Life is a spell so exquisite, everything conspires to break it." It is by experiments like the one I describe, and others, that we can try to return to the magic of reality.