A Note

On the Purpose of Visits

For numerous reasons, noble and vile, I recently purchased a Kindle. A laughable excess, a truly indulgent luxury, and yet also a powerful tool, a promised liberation from the desk and library. Granted, most of the books I have a serious interest in reading belong to that special obscurity of the recently published secondary source. Conspicuously absent from Amazon's electronic offerings are the works of Strauss, Voegelin, et al. The classics can be found elsewhere, gratis, but again a problem arises in the fact that public domain translations are often not very good ones: so much for writing it off as an educational expense. I suppose there are worse fates than being always and everywhere armed with a host of English classics and the trivial pap of the Bestseller list.

The thought has been on my mind for a while, spurred by the miracle of the Kindle as much as by the endless teleconferencing that seems to consume my days, that there seems to be a strangely contradictory trend at the heart of technological sophistication. Just as quickly as technology becomes more portable, it does away with the need to actually go anywhere.

Let me explain. First, at the risk of sounding a bit like Ray Kurzweil, there is certainly an observable trend towards more with less, towards increases in power alongside shrinking physical size. Whether or not this is exponentially leading towards the so-called "singularity" is really not what I'm interested in. We can at least say, for the purpose of this argument, that the room-sized computers of my father's student days have been replaced by the smart-phones of today. You can now carry a lifetime of photos on a USB drive, a library in your pocket.

I suppose then really what should be clarified here is that increases in power are really increases in the ability of technological devices to mimic and surpass the capacities of our humble heads. Technology wins when it comes to memory, the capture of experience as raw data; remembrance, the re-constitution of that data in the context of the now; and delivery, conjuring the ghost of experience in a convincing fashion.

It also allows one to communicate in such a way as to be independent of a given environment, to be effectively in more than one place at one time. We see this in the phenomenon of tele-commuting, something which has barely reached its full flourishing in North America today but which seems like an obvious next step for so-called information societies. And yet, one wonders if this is an ill-founded presumption. Certainly in Canadian urban centres the technology and infrastructure to allow for mass tele-commuting has been in place for years. Is the spectacle of highways jammed with single occupant vehicles, traveling to offices where work is performed at computers in cubicles, a testament to our mere attachment to working in stale fluorescent hives? Or is there something else going on?

Sweeping cultural changes, from the abandonment of standards in dress to the rise of the wellness industry have quickly obscured the formerly stark distinction between the life of the office and the life of the home. There is an entire generation of young adults that work and sleep in some form of a cubicle. In both they spend most of their time in front of a screen, in both the furniture is cheap, modern, inoffensive. The buildings might even be quite indistinguishable from the outside. For an illustration, see here. The reason why tele-commuting has not become the norm may be simply because there is nothing really to be gained from it. There is simply no point to being free to not work from the office, because the office is already everywhere. This, obviously, is an outrageous exaggeration, but it gets to what I am trying to highlight. Just as chickens prefer to cluster together under a roof, rather than boldly stand out in the open, the modern worker balks at the radical indeterminacy of being able to "work" from anywhere.

This is the other consequence of the communication technology enables. The flip-side of being able to seem as if you are somewhere without being there, is to never have to leave where you are. Rather than a rising tide of tele-commuting, look instead for the gradual fusion of home and office, a form of accommodation earned as wage that is both place of work and place of living. More broadly, look to the end of travel, and end which is already intimated by the hollow enthusiasm of those who surrender themselves to it, trammeling the globe in search of a satiety that it no longer can offer. Anything that can be experienced as a backpacking vagabond or from the deck of a cruise ship, can be delivered through the screen.

There are those who might object that there are certain sensory phenomena, certain smells and sounds, that cannot be transmitted in this way, must be experienced in person. This is true, but only conditionally, only in practice and not in principle. Insofar as this experience is reducible to information, it can be recreated independent of its origin. But surely there are subtleties, are there not? The intangible, the uncanny, the transcendent even? Isn't the fundamental experience of travel an experience of the unknown?

The answer is yes but also no. Yes, but not anymore, for it is not out of the mere sophistication of devices that technology allows for the transmission of experience as information. What it presupposes is that all experience, all objects of experience, be made amenable to such transmission, be knowable in the way that they are to be known. This is the fundamental dynamic at the heart of globalization. It is the reason why the high streets of most European cities have the same shops, and why young people can take to the streets in any country of the world to cite their entitlement to Rousseau's bastard offspring.

A lived ontology, that is, a way of living that reflects a perceived order of reality, has certainly ceased to be the norm in much of the world. At the boundaries between modernity and tradition is tumult and confusion, travel advisories and news reports. Perhaps it is better to stay at home after all, to look at the pictures taken by professionals, to sample cuisine fresh of this morning's plane.