Have computers really transformed our lives for the better? Hard to tell. Long distance communication and word processing have certainly advanced, but since most people don’t engage in creative thought, we’ve embodied the empty promise of cable television – hundreds of channels but nothing’s on.

Computer domination started in business then crept into our social lives, and now we are reduced to slathering idiots who press the “like” button when shown a picture of a cute kitten. This degrading transformation is so recent there’s nothing to compare it to, except maybe the onslaught of radio, motion pictures and then television.

I wrote my graduate thesis on a typewriter. For a long time when I was trying to make it as an actor, my day job was typing for lawyers. I remember when the first computers came in, they ran word star, which meant you had to memorize all sorts of clumsy commands in order to do word processing. I then learned UNIX in order to the same, on bigger, networked computers. I was thirty-eight years old when I bought my first VCR and fifty five when I bought my first cell phone.

Blaise Pascal said “most of man’s problems can be traced to the inability to sit alone, quietly in a room.” The older I get, the more I think he’s right. Currently, I have a phone, but no service, as I’m not sure I’m going to stay in this country long enough to justify buying another SIMM chip. By the way, in most of the rest of the world, any cell phone can be used to access wireless service, and all you have to do is buy a SIMM chip for a few dollars and then add minutes at any kiosk. It’s a brilliant system, and if you don’t use the phone much, as I don’t, cell phone service can cost less than five dollars a month. Of course the reason we don’t have it in the states is because the cell phone companies lobbied congress to allow them to dictate the possible terms of service.

By not carrying a phone with me, I spent less of my brain CPU waiting for or responding to calls. If I need to talk to someone, I’ll find a phone, but that rarely happens, maybe less than once a day. This lack of interruption gives me the opportunity to sometimes be lost in thought, or just daydreaming. This is what Thoreau called appreciating “the bliss of the present moment.”

Here, in South America, people seem to enjoy cacophony more than I do. Today I was eating in nice restaurant, but they had a television in every room, and even though no one was watching it, ithe one in my room was playing a comedy program with the volume was up loud. There were at least three televisions blaring away in the various rooms of this restaurant, and then, near the cash register, a radio was playing loudly.

I got the feeling they considered this chaos a gift to their customers. Yikes!


Hard to Be Here Now No Matter Where You Are


The expectation or demand that life be entertaining is a new phenomenon, one that has blossomed like an algae bloom in the last thirty years or so.  Just yesterday, I was receiving a massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on either side of me lay people in their twenties, who spent their massages playing with their smart phones, furiously scrolling up and down, hoping to be distracted from this deeply pleasurable and therapeutic experience by catching sight of a photo of  cute puppy or a meal one of their friends just ate. Certainly, given the rate they were zipping through these posts they weren’t doing much real reading, nor could they be noticing their massage, the thing that they were paying for and was happening to them here and now.

When the novel was first created, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, some warned that it would encourage the foolish and impressionable to waste their valuable time on trifles instead of concentrating on and working for what mattered. Nowadays, we would praise anyone who had the concentration to read a novel. We would declare that person a student of the arts, an intellectual.  Try teaching a college class that requires reading a novel and see how many of the students voluntarily submit to such torture.

Constantly seeking distraction or entertainment becomes addictive, and as with most addictions, you can never get enough of what you don’t need.  You end up trading the Real McCoy for its shimmering substitute. And when that trade proves unsatisfactory, you find there are no refunds.

Family life is more than a few good-looking actors sitting on couch trading witty comebacks. Romantic love is more than the titillation of a first kiss.  We all know that at least theoretically, but when faced with an opportunity to choose the real over the virtual, most of the time we leap for the illusion. This is why so many of our young people hope to enter the Entertainment Industry. Everyone is vaguely aware that there’s big money to be made there for simply goofing around and creating ghosts.

When you ask young people what they would like to be when they grow up, a discouraging proportion volunteer “a celebrity.”  The idea that a person would not be celebrated for outstanding achievement in a certain area, but rather that the state of being celebrated would itself become a full-time job is a relatively new one.  Think Paris Hilton, role model for a generation.

Entertainment is a first cousin of advertising, that all-pervasive enterprise which seeks to invent heretofore unknown needs and then fill them. Again, the end result is wasted time and resources, disillusionment, and bondage.  Far from being a lofty goal, the chronic thirst for entertainment proves the greatest obstacle to achieving any lofty goal.

But this process of fooling Pinocchio into becoming a donkey on Pleasure Island begins in his seemingly simple desire to be distracted.  Please, amuse me, now, this instant, or I’ll die of boredom! So you turn back to your smart phone, hoping this time the voyeuristic hit will satisfy. Most of the time it fails to, but intermittent reward is the essence of addiction. Usually, when you yank of the slot machine handle not much happens, but every long once in a while…jackpot!

I enjoy a good movie as much as the next guy, but I only go to the cinema maybe once a month. My cell phone is the cheapest one available, and the cost of operating here in Thailand is absurdly cheap, about three dollars a month.  I make or receive about one call per day. Compared to most people, I spend more time in content creation, and because I don’t speak Thai and am much older than the target audience, there’s nothing for me to watch on Thai TV.

I fear for the young people of the world, whether in developing or developed economies. The Man has you by the throat and you don’t even know it. In fact, you’re grateful. The harder he squeezes, but more you’re willing to give up.  As it says in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright or bowl of porridge, and when he wanted a refund, it was denied him, though he sought it with bitter tears. Youth and health are a gift, a temporary gift that will eventually be taken from you. Wasting it chasing phantoms is grim folly.