Thursday, May 14, 2009

Digital Water

"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"

I've been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace these days. This man was an incredible genius and a master craftsman of the written word. He was able to reach into the idea of a written story and turn it inside-out, twist it all around so that you're left with a pile of Merriam-Webster's finest that makes you feel rather than understand.

I'll be graduating from college in a few days, and so the whole life advice/new beginning thing is very rich for me. Riding on the wave of my current obsession, I found a graduation speech from Mr. Wallace in which he expounds wisdom about overriding our instinctual, default setting that makes us think we understand certain 'T'ruths about the world around us:

"The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude -- but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance."

This speech was delivered to Kenyon College seniors in 2005 amid President Bush's second inauguration as president, riots in France, CIA leaks, and debacles in the Middle East. While these events unraveled around our assumptions of the world, we saw the rise of 50 Cent, Ipods, and, of course, intensely social Web tools such as Myspace, Facebook, and Wikipedia.

In a way, 2005 was the beginning of the so called "Web 2.0," the tip of an iceberg we haven't discovered the rest of yet. As we continue to exist and socialize through bits and bytes on our computers, how can we make sense of the "water" around us? What will happen when/if we become totally de-sensitized to the circuitry that we rely on to bind us?

I like to think that by exploring it, we can exploit it, use the Internet as a tool of reflection, self-expression, and social empowerment in physical space. Yet the bombardment of information and entertainment also available on the Net makes it difficult to choose what to pay attention to and how, and so the key to all this is, perhaps, choice:

"If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important -- if you want to operate on your default-setting -- then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship..."

And I like that.

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