It was a balmy, tropical evening in Bangkok with a panoramic view from the veranda overlooking the Chao Phraya River. I was a guest at a dinner party recently where a dozen people sat around a long dinner table. Twelve people can’t all carry on a single conversation. Naturally people started chatting with their immediate neighbors. The diverse conversation arose among the three groups. I was in the middle of the table and with the turn of my head, tune into one conversation. One of those conversations involved three highly educated, well-traveled, articulate Thai women. Two of the women—Nan and May—sat next to each other across the table from me. The third woman, Jane sat to my right. Nan was new to the group. At one point, May asked for Nan’s WhatsApp contact. I witnessed the modern protocol for meeting a person. There’s a basic exchange of information with an expectation of further discussion online. The signal is a request to exchange numbers. Neither woman was able to figure out how to add each other’s number. They switched efforts to LINE. Jane slightly more technically inclined offered to help.
After a few failed attempts at friends adding and futile phone shaking, Nan and May were finally connected to one another via QR code on LINE, but without May’s involvement. It was Nan and Jane who worked to connect the two phones, while May carried on a conversation with another guest.
Having decided this was a narrow, technical and manual struggle, May soon lost interest and left Nan and Jane to figure out the connection. She periodically checked on the technical progress. May had handed her phone across the table to Jane. Who turned, flipped, balanced the two phones like two high-tech Tango dancer. When the two numbers were finally added on the friends’ list on LINE, there were smiles all around. A kind of victory celebration as they congratulated one another, on the first step to create a platform for their digital friendship.
The technical component had been successfully outsourced to someone with the smartphone apps experience. Friendship development had been transferred to the online world.
Someone in their twenties would have seen scene as perfectly normal. I saw it has evidence of how much my old world had changed.
I learned a lesson that evening as I watched how middle-aged people seek to adjust from their old physical world of friendships to ‘friends’ who become part of their digital world. An automatic reflex changed how we exchanged information with someone new. Nearly everyone at the table was middle-aged. That meant we’d grown to maturity in a non-digital world of friendship. Making a transition to a new friendship platform wasn’t always easy for those of us coming to it later in life. Not surprisingly, we struggled with WhatsApp and LINE and countless other apps. We found ourselves like someone locked out of their house. We needed someone to pick the lock and open the door. Our expectations had changed. We knew that we would spend more time inside the digital world than outside it.
In the first decade writing about life in Southeast Asia, we resided in a world where our relationships remained face-to-face encounters. We didn’t have technology to filter out the physical world. We had nothing like WhatsApp, LINE, Twitter, Facebook or Google. People in Bangkok where I lived, like else lived in an exclusively in face to face world of discussion, conversations, and debates. This is one reason for the popularity of private eye fiction, mysteries and crime novels. We liked private investigators because they taught us how to read the full range of communication of people. It wasn’t only what someone said, but their tone of voice, a pause in a sentence, how their eyes and mouth moved, how a hand twitched, and how the little ripple of emotion across the lips wrote an epic of love, romance and friendship. We read the message in the context of physical reality. Calvino, like most of his readers from that time were raised in the face-to-face communication world. Now we read people by their expertise in adding us to apps on their smartphones.
The big change has been in the past decade. In writing the Vincent Calvino series, there was a time when it was no longer possible not find the characters using the Internet and social media as a friendship meeting ground. We have witnessed a transformation from face-to-face encounter with a pixelated world with digital links to people. A new generation does not have the face-to-face culture of communication to provide perspective. Young people’s physical contact list is narrower. It is far easier to exclude a whole range of people that pre-Internet you had no choice but to deal with. Now, it is possible to avoid physical contact with other people while having a channel to communicate with thousands of people. This is the first generation with no incentive to physically meet other people.
If anything, there are incentives to keep your physical contact in a narrow band of like-minded individuals who agree with your values, opinions, taste in music, movies and food. You pay no price for constricting your physical and personal communication. This physical isolation is no longer social isolation; it has no real negative impact on a person’s ability to send and receive messages. There lies the rub. Messages—printed, visual, aural, graphic—are only part of the communication landscape.
Social media and the Internet has not only marginalized face-to-face contact, it has done something else—it has allowed a vast expansion of the narcissistic personality. When in the physical presence of others, the narcissist displaying his or her self-love, self-absorption, and preoccupation was avoided or ridiculed. Reputation and status would suffer. The digital world has inverted the suffering—the reputation and status belong to the narcissists and the rest of us suffer.
Narcissistic personalities were poison wells that no one wanted to drink from. In the digital world, the is celebrated, approved, and becomes a valued brand in the world of ideas, politics and cool things. Millions drink from the narcissist’s digital well. It makes them sick. But Social media has in the tradition of George Orwell redefined sickness as health. We sip the waters. Move on to the next well. Sip and move. Always thirsty. Never satisfied, content or happy.
What is the defining characteristic of a narcissist? Opinions differ, but one quality that is missing from such a personality is empathy. Gone. Obliterated. Something people had in the misty past.
We are at risk of having lost the ancient art of reading. Novels engage a reader’s empathy. Extract empathy and novels fall apart. There’s nothing there. No there there. Novels also exposed a whole range of diverse persons dealing with each other in a physical setting. Novelists must now confront how to adjust story-telling to a world which has lost the central role of the face to face contact. Our diminished our range of personal experience in diverse relationships deprives the novel of its essential function.
The new generation, from my ancient vantage point, has entered a narrow tunnel replacing the position of face to face contacts, with online persona to establish and promote their online brands, reputations, money making pursuits. People have never been more physically isolated. Alone. Hungry for attention from a digital world increases in velocity has people detach from the physical connection with one another.
My thirty year old crime fiction series about a P.I. named Vincent Calvino, largely set in Bangkok, has tracked the journey from the traditional face to face communication system to a pixels on a screen as the old face to face world fade into the digital world of online cats, dogs, road rage videos, shared political slogans, and the millions of emotional rants written as comments. This gives all the appearance of a reality unanchored to a personal connection with real human being you lock eyeballs with. We are stranded on a barren island thinking what we see is real. What is real is that there is no rescue ship on the horizon to save the old way of forming and maintaining friendships.
I’ve described the main reason for ending the series. The world of the private investigator has always been a face to face state of the relationship report on humanity drawn from a local neighborhood. The digital world has its own agendas, hurts, promises and dangers. It is a world where everyone needs a private investigator and are promised they can investigate on their own. The direction of technology is moving rapidly toward a personal digital assistant. The rise of the digital assistant may be the start of a personal full-time private eye who is on a hundred cases you want solved today. Just remember this comes with a cost attached: your personal digital assistant are selling you out, reporting your most intimidate details to governments and corporations.
I’ll end as I started, at a dinner table, watching as three middle-aged Thai women try to figure out how to add each other on WhatsApp and Line. None of us that evening stopped to think of the consequences of this action. They voluntarily were programming a new connection point; one that strangers would use to track our locations, record when we phoned, who we phoned, how long we talked, the shops we frequented, the merchandise that we bought and where we bought it.
As Yuval Harari has said our technology has created a feedback system that knows us better than our mother. It knows us better than we know ourselves. That should make people shutter. Do we want no private zone that isn’t shared? Asking this question exposes a generational gap. Such a system is not your friend. It is a tyrant who fashions a dependency based on what you like. For the new generation, which was raised online, there never was a private zone to lose. The result is they don’t share our fear of loss, exposure and manipulation. Surveillance, in the Internet generation, becomes a necessary part of making life better, easier, and predictable.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that we participate in an enterprise geared to the day that narcissists can claim they’ve won. The outline of that day is already in front of us. All social media that attention is focused on me, my beliefs and opinions. I now know who my real friends are. That knowledge adds to the sense my beliefs and opinion are important. As my identity comes from those beliefs and opinions, I’m important. It also means an impersonal, remote invisible network has been constructed to comb the world for the things it knows what you need, want, or desire, will enhance your brand, and create a reputation that is the envy of others. The irony is we’ve been conscripted into a process which has the mission to reconfigure our sense of self and worth. There is big money to be made from mobilizing our digitalized self.
Next time you add a new contact to WhatsApp or Line or any of the many other platforms, remember you have volunteered to be digital cannon fodder.
Christopher G. Moore’s most recent novel Dance Me to the End of Time (2020) will be released on January 27, 2020.