Cultural Obs: The Price of Stillness

Walking into a pachinko arcade in Japan is like hanging out on the runways of Chicago’s O’Hare airport the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  The constant hum and clack of machines and little metal pachinko balls is deafening even when the establishment is nearly empty.  My travel buddy M convinced me to accompany him inside one of these oases of din because playing pachinko – a vertical pinball game – was supposed to be a “must-try” Japanese experience.  After spending 2k yen (about USD$22) in 10 minutes with little success, I was standing by the door with my coat on ready for a quick exit.  As M tried to figure out how to cash in his extra pachinko balls, I watched one of the ten middle aged men playing in the arcade among rows and rows of empty machines.

His eyes unblinking, he mechanically scooped handfuls of metal marbles into the loading bin at chest height with the mindlessness of endless repetition, inured to the bright images flashing in front of him and the bells that chimed when his patience was rewarded with a flush of new balls.  At his feet were many colorful plastic bins, stacked and filled to the brim with what must have been thousands of inert marbles waiting to be catapulted into a maze of pins and flippers.  Given the relatively small number of balls I’d bought with my two 1,000 yen bills, I figured that those bins represented hundreds of dollars’ investment.  After a few frustrating minutes of scaling the language barrier, M reappeared next to me and we turned to leave.  As we walked out the automatic doors into the promise of Osaka’s Saturday night, the men played on.

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Say “Goodbye” to Goodbye

It’s a worn-out fact that large portions of humanity have now achieved previously unfathomable heights of connectivity.  Meeting people, communicating with them, and staying in touch requires essentially no effort when compared to not-so-distant times.  The peculiar flip side of what at first appeared to be an unmitigated good is slowly revealing itself –you can’t add new gadgets to the interpersonal toolkit without profoundly changing the old ones.  In this case, an entire generation of ultra-connected youth is bidding farewell to that quintessential human interaction: the farewell.

I graduated a few months ago and immediately after commencement had to face an epic mass of goodbyes.  I knew I’d see certain people again for various reasons, but the majority of those I’d known during college, I recognized, would disappear from my day-to-day life and leave only memories.  Looking back on that last day of college, though, I realize that there was something very different about the way my generation says goodbye in comparison to the ways of previous generations.  There were hugs and exclamations commemorating old times, but also remarks like “There’s always Facebook” or “You have my email address, right?”  It almost seemed silly to make such a big deal out of physically parting when we knew the tools for real time information gathering and reconnecting were (and presumably will always be) at our fingertips.  With popular social networking websites like Facebook, the traces of interpersonal decisionmaking bloom easily but never die – they are archived online and lurk at the periphery forever.  There is no way to cut yourself off from the collective and wait for time to erase your mistakes from memory.  Ink fades, synapses weaken, echoes disappear, but the digital cloud preserves.

The collective secondhand experience of mass media and history has taught us that goodbyes are salient events – sometimes sad, sometimes relieved, but always remarkable for their finality.  Human experience is fluid, not discrete, and so the abruptness of a serious goodbye is jarring.  As a species we’ve realized this, and have developed complex cultural codes and rituals to recognize this artificiality and integrate it into normal life.  From “Have a good summer!” to “Au revoir” to “안녕히 가세요(”leave in peace”), traditional parting phrases take the strain off of the unnatural now and focus on an indeterminate future, real or hypothetical (but usually far off).  By contrast, the language of online goodbyes is immediate, perfunctory, and often specifies a timeframe: “ttyl” (”talk to you later”) or “ttys” (”talk to you soon”) or even the stark “g2g” (”got to go”), which implies that the conversation is not truly over – just interrupted by life offline.

Now, more than ever before, we are fulfilling the Sandelian concept of “the encumbered self,” which is one that is inescapably defined by its social, cultural, and historical context.  In the days of the Wild West, it was possible to escape a dreary life in the cities of the American east coast and completely reinvent yourself by striking out for a frontier town where no one would recognize you.  Today, the frontier has all but disappeared, and the ties that bind are not the ties that break.  The extinction of “goodbye” has altered not only the ways in which we relate to other people, but also the ways in which we control and create our own identities.

I am a communication addict.  I ceaselessly maintain existing relationships and cultivate new ones.  I constantly rely on the ability to interact with people through all kinds of media just to get me through the day.  For me, this era is a gateway to unleashing vast human potential.  Fully entering that gateway, however, requires enormous amounts of prudence, awareness, and flexibility.  I am keenly conscious of the fact that every word I type in this article, once posted online, will comment upon and preserve my identity in a way that I can only control now, at the moment of creation. At the same time, even if I’m wary of the potential consequences of immortalizing this piece of myself, the increased contextuality I’ve gained through this self-scrutiny allows me to comprehend the similarly preserved bits of other identities I encounter.

If the rules change for all of us, it’s illogical to acknowledge how they affect ourselves without also realizing that they affect others, too.  The ultimate farewell is the farewell to isolationism and willful ignorance of the impact that I as an individual can have on others and that they can have on me.  Before, the consequences of disregarding these effects were minimized in no small part by the finality of goodbye – the ability to distance yourself permanently from a situation without too much effort.  That ability is gone, but in its place perhaps we can welcome a more informed, reflective social consciousness.  It looks like “goodbye,” although weakened, still at least has the power to open new doors.

Originally published Sept. 2009

The Uptalk Menace

A week I attended a talk by Ellen Reeves, Senior Editor at  She also happened to have studied irony and sarcasm at HGSE’s Project Zero and had trained with Second City, which did nothing but endear her to me with all my years attempting to create theatrical works of art with other clueless middle schoolers at various afterschool programs.  Her primary role at this event, though, was as author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?, a guide to business networking presented through the immediately compelling lens of going after your first job.

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The Greatest (Gamer) Generation

“The old gameboy Pokemon has made a comeback in our suite,” my friend Devon said over lunch.  I assumed for an ignorant moment that he meant he’d found an old gameboy and decided to fire up Red or Blue or Yellow or Crystal or Gold or Taupe again for nostalgia’s sake.  “We found a ROM and started playing on emulator.”

“And didn’t you figure out how to battle each other over wireless?” one of his (non-Pokemon playing) suitemates chimed in.

“Yeah,” Devon confirmed.  “We’re 90% there.  The computers are clearly connecting, but the game requires you to use in-game save before you do certain things, and since there’s no actual hardware to save to we’re trying to figure that out.”  He paused to recall more details of the process.  “We found an emulator that specifically allows for network connectivity and everything.”

His partner in crime in the Pokemon experiment added his two cents.  “Hey, do you think this only works over a network or could it happen over the internet?  Like if you know IP addresses?”

Devon paused again to consider.  “It could work.  Who’d be interested?  Maybe Ben … Chris …”

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