Songs for the Struggling Artist


Would I Go Back to the 20th Century?

There’s a Reddit question I can’t stop thinking about in which someone wanted to know what life was like in the 20th Century because they were born at the top of the 21st and couldn’t imagine it. They particularly couldn’t imagine life without the internet. They asked those of us who’d been around for the previous century if we would go back to the way things were before.

Would I? Would I give up the internet and my mobile phone? Would I surrender my laptop? Sometimes I think I would. I started writing this outdoors at my local coffee shop. Just as I was finding my groove, the woman nearby got on her phone and started talking about her family life very loudly. I would give that up. I really would. People have always talked to one another in coffee shops – but there’s something about the private phone calls in public spaces that I still find jarring, even though they’ve been around for a couple of decades. Would I give up my phone? My text messages? My personal voice mail? To just have a clearer distinction between public and private space? I might. I really might.

I don’t want to get all Grumpy Old Man here and start droning on about back in my day. But back in my day we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have the internet. We had to go to the library to look stuff up and we liked it! We loved it! Nah. I mean. We did go to the library – and we did love the library but being able to just look stuff up with a thing we keep in our pockets is amazing. I remember when I first got a computer that would allow me to dial up and use the internet. My grandmother asked me why I was so thrilled, why I found it so amazing. I remember explaining that it was like having the biggest library in the world in my apartment. I was a little overwhelmed by it, truth be told. What should I look up when I could look up anything?

I think this must have been RIGHT at the turn of the century. I’d just moved to NYC. It was an exciting moment. The future was in the air. But it also wasn’t really the future yet. I was still sending my friends and family letters then. In the mail. Receiving letters was unremarkable but it was also, in retrospect, special.

Sitting down to read a letter was a quiet moment, separate from the hum of life. It was an occasion. There are still letters I remember reading because I remember the rock I was sitting on, the chill in the air or the feel of the paper. No email has ever been as special as even the most banal letter.

When we first got email, it was a thrill. We got email my senior year of college, something I’d been wishing for since First Year. I had a hot email romance with a friend of a friend at another college that eventually taught me a swift and important lesson about chemistry and the massive power of projection over internet communication.

But even so, I was so so excited about email. I didn’t have it after graduation but two years later, I got a Hotmail account. I was on tour at the time and every so often we’d find ourselves in a place that had internet access and the only person I remember emailing was a Canadian improv guy I’d had a little romance with in Edinburgh during the festival. We were very excited to expand our communication beyond postcards and I remember finding a library with computers in some college town that could help me do that. The first few years of digital communication for me were very romantic. Mostly literally.

I find this hilarious now because email has become such an onerous burden. No one finds email romantic. I bought a book called The Tyranny of Email because it so aptly described how I felt about it by then. A few years ago, I turned off all visual and sound notifications for email because I noticed I was having a stress response every time I heard/saw it. (Actually, I turned off the sound when someone ELSE’S email dinged a notification like mine and I had a stress response.) There was a period in which I had to imagine putting on armor before opening my email, so stressed out it made me.

The same sort of journey happened with the phone, actually, now that I think about it. Back when there was nothing but a land line, I’d get excited when the phone rang. We’d race to answer it, sure it was some good news. At the sound of it, I’d think, “Finally! My big break!” Now, when my cell phone rings, I think, “Oh no. Who is that?” And yet there is rarely a mystery; their name is on my screen when I look at it. If it’s a friend or family, I feel relief – but generally, it’s just trepidation I get from my phone. Is this due to the technology? I have no idea. Maybe it’s just me becoming more anxious and cynical in my 40s. But I wonder. And yes, I would give up my smart little phone to be excited to answer a phone again.

That feels like the crux of the changes for me, the journey from cool fun romantic new technology to tool of anxiety and/or oppression. I signed up for Friendster and MySpace because they seemed fun. They were cool new ways to interact with people. I posted my music on MySpace which was a convenient way to share it without having to pay for the cost of CD duplication. Facebook was exciting and fun at first! Look at all these people I lost touch with, now back in my life! It’s like a high school reunion I didn’t have to pay for! It was all so much fun until it really wasn’t anymore. It all goes from fun to compulsion so fast. I remember a fellow theatre maker telling me she couldn’t sign up for Facebook because she didn’t have time for it. Then came a point where she had to join because everyone else was there, if only to promote her work. That’s why I’m still there – even though the days of sending each other digital flowers is long gone.

The thing I miss most about the previous century is just a fuller sense of being present with people. When we were together, we were just together. We were with the people we were with. If we wanted to be in touch with someone who wasn’t there, we had to find a telephone, or send them a letter, or just stop by their house. These days, whenever I sit with someone, I’m sitting with them and the thousand people they’re connected to by the device in their pocket.

I remember sitting on a rock on top of a hill that my friend and I had climbed and she was thinking about getting a cell phone (because it was starting to become necessary for the theatre biz) but she was worried about it. She was concerned about being on call everywhere, about being always available, that her life would be constantly interrupted. I said that was silly – she could always just turn it off if she didn’t want to hear from anyone. But she was right. She got a phone anyway at some point and at some point so did I – but she was right to have been worried about that. Just turning it off is not a solution for most people. Not in this ever connected world.

But we can’t, individually, just not have a phone or not be connected. This is how we live now. If you want to be a part of the community of humanity, this is how we’re doing it. I’m grateful for a lot of the benefits of this new world. I’m able to maintain relationships with people around the globe. I can share my work widely and without gatekeepers. I have developed all sorts of technical skills I never imagined possible. And all this has probably made important progressive social change possible. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

But – if someone came to me with a Time Machine and said I can take you back to the previous century and you can just live there if you want, I might do it. (I mean, I would like to see a lot of other times, too. Can we go traveling first? Also, I’d probably really miss my loved ones, so can I bring them? And…this fictional time machine fantasy may be getting out of hand at this point.) It would take me a long time to readjust to going to the library and writing letters and meeting people in person, but I think I was happier then. It might be worth the loss.

Our internet was out for about a week last year and it was a nightmare, of course. So much of our lives depend on it. When you’re not on it, you feel like you disappear. But that’s because everyone else is on it, and you’re left out. Back when there was no internet (or really, when the internet was only for the privileged few) it was just quieter. Everything was just quieter. You weren’t missing anything. You just did what was in front of you. The world was more local.

So, yes, I do miss it. But I know we can’t go back. We can only go forward. So I suppose I’m looking forward to the next development in technology – the one that will feel romantic and exciting before it becomes compulsive and oppressive. And then maybe, maybe, we’ll get past this sort of adolescent stage with our devices and find a way to really be present with each other again. I hope we can figure out how to be quieter, even with the whole world in our pockets.

This pocket watch is apparently from an Arctic expedition at the beginning of the 20th century.

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