Exploring Beyond the Internet

Every time a new technology emerges human beings are inclined to experience fear rather than exhilaration. The promise of the future is weighted by our thoughts of uncertainty. Our fear of the unknown is often just a subconscious fear of the end—death and annihilation. Suddenly, we begin to think about our own mortality.

Today’s unceasing talk of the “rise of the machines” and the alleged omnipotent powers of AI is a reflection of this phenomenon. We find ourselves in strange times and positions. Yet these kinds of inflection points in history invite us to reflect on what it means to be human. Face-to-face, or better put, face-to-screen with the machine, we are confronted with our own image.

Language and our notion of time plays a big part in how we react to new technology. In her 2017 book In Other Words American writer Jhumpa Lahiri reflects on the deep chasm that still exists between people. “I live in an era in which almost anything seems possible, in which no one wants to accept any limits. We can send a message in an instant, we can go from one end of the world to the other in a day,” Lahiri wrote. “Thanks to technology, no waiting, no distance. That’s why we can say with assurance that the world is smaller than it used to be. We are always connected, reachable. Technology refuses distance, today more than ever.”

This may not appear, at first, to be a negative aspect of technology. After all, what is so wrong with connecting with a family member or a friend in another country, seeing their faces, and hearing their voices? But Lahiri points to a different skill we seem to have forgotten: waiting. To be sure, one of the characteristics of being human is impatience but the speed at which the world is functioning today has rendered many of us incapable of quietly waiting.

Lahiri connects this idea with learning a new language. “A foreign language can signify a total separation. It can represent, even today, the ferocity of our ignorance. To write in a new language, to penetrate its heart, no technology helps. You can’t accelerate the process, you can’t abbreviate it. The pace is slow, hesitant, there are no shortcuts.”

This is especially true if we are confronted with a native speaker in his native country. The alienation is palpable—not only metaphysical but also physical. We cannot explain our way out of any situation, especially if the foreigner we face is rude (and that, too (!), requires a deeper understanding of each culture than may be possible in a given moment). We may feel dismissed, lost, and mostly, alone. Yet, with patience, this challenge can also bring a sense of accomplishment.

I recall moments when my husband and I visited Rome. We took a ferry across the Adriatic Sea from Split, Croatia. It was easy as we departed as I speak Croatian. But the place toward which we were heading would prove to be more difficult. We left the familiarity of the sea I used to visit as a child. We spent most of the night on the ferry, trying to get some sleep in an overly air-conditioned space with no blankets. A large group of Chinese tourists was an added frustration. When they were not engaged in extremely loud talking, they were partaking in extremely loud snoring that night. It never crossed my mind that a human being might be capable of making that much noise in a state of slumber.

The ferry reached its destination—Chieti, a city in Southern Italy, in the Abruzzo region, about 100 miles or so from Rome. The warm air was a great change from the freezing air conditioning but there was nothing else that was inviting once the ferry was moored. A small office had no signs of life. There were a few more people with us—an Australian couple in their 60s, and a family of four, whose nationality I could not discern.

Suddenly, the office doors opened and a woman emerged. Someone will finally help! We didn’t have to explain our predicament. It was obvious that we just disembarked from the ferry and we needed to get to a train station to go somewhere else. Apparently, we also had the option of waiting for a bus, which was not due to arrive for another hour but, we were told, the regularity at which it arrives is questionable. The Australian couple managed to find a taxi, and they offered that we share it.

In English, the taxi driver asked us where we were headed. “Rome,” I said. The Australian man was insistent on speaking whatever bits of Italian he had learned from his Berlitz Guide to Italy. “Rrrroma,” he stuttered. The taxi driver was pleasant. “You take train? Oh, that take too long, bad idea. Autobus better, faster. Train, very slow. You see nothing.” Suddenly, our notion of “seeing Italy on a train” sounded silly. He was right, it was nothing but scorched grass and mildly green hills.

We did make it to Rome. We continued to experience some of that sense of alienation but there was also exhilaration. The encounters with strangers, the conversations, the experience of space (be it the Pantheon or our room in a pensione) were occasions for explorations and the expansiveness of ourselves. This kind of experience leads to a solidification of memory. A feeble internet search yields only emptiness and forgetfulness. Like the social media feed, stuck in a dumb loop, we experience an alienation far worse than being stuck in Chieti’s harbor.

As human beings on a journey to learn and grow, ending only in death, our enemy is comfort and safety. We must be willing to explore beyond the screen and let go of our notions of certainty. The only certainty is that uncertainty is one of the best prompts for asking what it means to be human.    

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