Thursday, March 25, 2021

Information, communication and insecurity

There are, these days, countless new and improved ways of losing documents and missing messages. If I and my friends are in any way typical, one routinely loses a large proportion of one’s stored data without even trying; whereas in the past we generally lost only what we deliberately threw away or burnt (school work, old tax documents, those embarrassing attempts at fiction, letters, etc.).

Back then, incoming messages were reliably received. Telephone numbers were generally stable over long periods of time, publicly listed and easily accessible. Household and business telephones rang (quite anonymously) and were answered – or not, as the case may be. Letters and telegrams were an essential part of life and sacrosanct with respect to privacy.

Across the Western world, a mythology had been built up, via news stories and fictional accounts, around the conscientiousness and persistence of the people who delivered the mail. A short story entitled “Le facteur rural” (“The country postman”) appeared in a French anthology from my childhood. It was very dated even then, but it must have struck a chord because I still remember it. And I recently came across a scholarly article on the role that national mail services played in France and other European countries in creating a sense of security, cohesion and national identity during the 19th century.

Mail service myths persisted into the late 20th century and even carried over into commercial settings. In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays a very persistent FedEx executive who, after surviving a plane crash and solitary life on a deserted Pacific island, finally returns to civilization and personally delivers a package from the crashed plane to an isolated Texas farmhouse. But the commercial and (more or less) contemporary context of the film is far from that world in which national or imperial postal and telecommunication services were seamlessly integrated into everyday life.

Some time ago I wrote a short piece centered on the (Texas-born) writer Patricia Highsmith, based on a reading of a few of her novels. The claustrophobic and chilling world she describes is rooted in the mundane realities of the 1950s and 1960s and her fiction reflects important truths about the crucial role communication technologies play in weaving a cultural milieu and defining a locality.

“Some of Highsmith's central characters,” I wrote, “spend a large proportion of their allotted pages planning and writing letters, posting letters, organizing the material for writing more letters, waiting for letters and speculating as to why no letter has come or, more rarely, receiving a letter and analysing the contents. The local newspaper is good for keeping track of whether the body has been found or what stage the police have reached in their investigation. And the telephone looms as large as it did in the movies of the period.”

In their way, each of these media enhances the sense of place and/or the sense of distance from other places. Even the telephone signals the sense of distance by the involvement of a human intermediary, the operator.

The technological changes we have seen in the last half-century have not only provided many new ways to store, send – and lose – information, they have irrevocably changed the culture. The new media can be and have been used to stir up nationalistic sentiments but, by and large, the tendency of the transnational networks (technological and political) upon which we have come to depend is to undermine geographically-based identities.

These changes also have other effects. They strike at the root of our individual and group identities and affiliations and necessarily undermine old ways of thinking and doing things. On a personal level, a whole new mindset is required. One has to let go of old expectations, for practical reasons and simply to avoid stress and anxiety.

The very idea of the self can be seen to be changing in subtle ways as new opportunities for self-presentation and concealment appear. New codes of behavior are developed, or arise spontaneously. There are changes in goals, expectations and perceived responsibilities. Old insecurities are reshaped and/or replaced by new insecurities.

Take personal privacy. It was once sustained by social structures and a pattern of widely understood and accepted rules. But the advent of digital technologies and social media rendered the old rules irrelevant. It is now unclear what the boundaries of personal privacy are or should be.

A new definition or concept of personal privacy is called for and no one can say what form it will take. These things are determined by circumstances and cannot be precisely predicted. But, given the current political tendency to exploit technology to the utmost in order to enhance centralized power and social control, the general direction is fairly clear. Redefinition will almost inevitably involve a weakening and downgrading of the concept.

I’ll finish with a few more remarks on Patricia Highsmith.

Her writing style is plain and spare and utterly non-experimental but she explores the themes of identity and morality in very confronting ways. And, though her literary persona is cosmopolitan, sophisticated and liberal, there are traces of deep conservatism in her work. She was a Texan, after all.

Tom Ripley is her greatest creation, a likable psychopath. He only murders people (very few really) when he has to – and feels no guilt. He can kill someone in the afternoon and have a pleasant dinner, or dispose of the body during the night and really enjoy his morning coffee.

But Highsmith is always aware of the moral landscape that Ripley’s behavior and attitudes challenge and always sensitive to the nuances of human communication which in large measure constitute the texture and map the significance of our lives. In Ripley Under Ground, a suicidal artist character reads from the journal of another suicidal artist:

“Where has kindness, forgiveness gone in the world? I find more in the faces of children who sit for me, gazing at me, watching me with innocent wide eyes that make no judgment. And friends? In the moment of grappling with the enemy Death, the potential suicide calls upon them. One by one, they are not at home, the telephone doesn’t answer, or if it does they are busy tonight – something quite important that they can’t get away from – and one is too proud to break down and say, ‘I’ve got to see you tonight or else!’ This is the last effort to make contact. How pitiable, how human, how noble – for what is more godlike than communication? The suicide knows that it has magical powers.”

Technologies change. Lifestyle, language and sense of self alter accordingly. But, through all this, human psychology and human needs stay fundamentally the same – a fact which I find vaguely reassuring.

[This is an abridged and revised version of a piece which appeared last month at The Electric Agora.]

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