In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes an increasingly important and frightening element of American life: our tendency to insulate and isolate ourselves from our world. Pirsig describes the element in terms of riding a motorcycle: the central metaphor of his book. He says that Americans are turning ventures into their own world as an extension of television. They take trips and want to make “good time,” with the emphasis on the word “time.” The trip is an annoyance that they want to be over as soon as possible. They take the trips in air-conditioned cars with the windows rolled up on super highways where great effort has been made to iron out as many kinks as possible. Basically, the trips have been reduced to people, sitting on comfortable seats, watching scenery slide by behind glass for hours: exactly what they do when watching television. They are insulated from temperature and weather elements. They are as isolated as they can make themselves from the landscape around them: surrounded by nature but not a part of it. With motorcycles, Pirsig points out, you are always in the scene. Real pavement whizzes by five inches under your foot. If it is hot or cold, so are you. Wind, smells, insects, they are all yours because you are part of it: not isolated or insulated from anything.
Pirsig wrote his book back in the mid-70’s and, I’m sorry to say, no one listened to his warning. The isolation has become even more pronounced since then thanks to new technology. It has been said that air conditioners turned neighborhoods into strangerhoods. I don’t know if I buy into that completely, but I will have to say that I cannot remember the last time I saw a group of neighbors gathered together in someone’s yard on an average summer evening, laughing and talking, while their kids played hide and go seek. That was an every night summer occurrence when I was a boy. A lot has contributed to the demise of that image: computers, television, video games, daylight saving time and such. The result has been that just getting together with your neighbors has become a special event nowadays, rather than a common thing. It’s our loss. Writing letters and talking on telephones used to be unsatisfactory fillers to be used only if you could do nothing else until you got back to talk face to face with the other person. Now, telephones, Facebook, and e-mail have become primary communication methods. And this, remember, is the way we have come to treat our friends and neighbors. The problem is even worse with people from whom we are somewhat isolated by language or location already.
In warfare, one of the first things soldiers do is come up with derogatory and dehumanizing names for their enemies. It is easier to kill a kraut, jap, commie, gook, slope, or raghead than it is to take the life of another human being. For the sake of their own sanity, soldiers try to isolate themselves from the fact that there are men and women in the place where their weapons will take effect. Without intending to do so, we have done something very similar to the people with whom we share this planet. Thanks to our love of movies and television, many people are more familiar with people who never existed and things that never happened than they are with their own history or current events. It makes “alternative facts” and fake news easier to accept. Our computers, those wonderful windows to all sorts of information, remove us from the very reality about which they inform (or misinform) us. It is now possible to work from home via computer and telephone or cable lines and never have to venture out into traffic or the workplace. We can order groceries on line and have them delivered. We can order up sports shows and movies. We can even date on line. In this day of high technology, it is already possible to meet someone, get married, and have children without physically seeing or touching the person with whom you are now sharing your life. Now all of this may be very convenient, but it comes at a cost. We are becoming separated from everything and everybody by a pane of glass.
We are used to ignoring the needs of the little images on the other side of the glass. We know we can be lied to with pictures, so they become less compelling. What are a few dead Iraqi or Afghan civilians when you just saw a whole planet get blown away by the Death Star? Now that was clearly factious, but a study of slasher-type horror films did find that they made people who watched them less concerned about the pain of real victims. Sometimes, we blur the line ourselves. When we become isolated from our fellow human beings; insulated from their needs, their desires and their pain; we have made both them and ourselves a little less than human: a little less than what God made us to be. It’s hard to be the hands and eyes of God when everything is under glass.
The process isn’t complete yet, but you can certainly see the handwriting on the wall. Science fiction writers have been warning us about this for years. I’d love to tell you all about that, but, well, there’s this show I’ve been intending to watch on TV, and the phone is buzzing, and I haven’t checked Facebook this afternoon, and, well, you know how it is……
~ Kurt Hendrix