Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 10

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“Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly, they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 264

Maybe we should substitute “devices” for the word “gadgets” in the above quote. I feel very mixed sometimes about how easily I’ve accepted digital devices into every aspect of my life. It’s remarkable how my thinking and my time have been rewired as a result, and mostly I go around with only a vague sense that something isn’t right, that subtle damage is being done, despite the benefits. Jung is right to point to the unpleasant acceleration of life’s tempo–the faster we communicate, and the more “information” we process, the more we have lost time in its expansive sense, and the less we really know. How many moments in our day offer a sense of fullness and presence? The benefits of advances always exact a price. I am imagining Jung still sitting in his tower at Bollingen, cooking over an open fire and reading by lamplight, asking us progress-hungry moderns to think twice about our own sanity. It’s at least worth finding moments in which to recollect ourselves to real presence.

Face Not Recognized

I finally capitulated several years after everyone else and got myself an andoid – a telephone that is “smart,” like an I-Phone but not Apple. I’ve hesitated to do so, largely on account of my discomfort with further attaching my own consciousness and daily experience to digital devices. It’s a known fact that Google wants to be the third half of your brain. Are you okay with that? How does that alter your sense of self? Particularly your sense of your own human limitations?

Those questions aside, I wanted to report a truly psychological experience brought on by tethering myself to a device. When I told my android how I wanted to keep it secure from intruders, I first chose the option “Recognize My Face.” In case you’ve not encountered facial recognition software, let me explain. The android takes photos of your face and puts the data it collects from the images into an algorithmic structure. When it captures the image, a dotted line slowly encircles the perimeter of your face, and when it finishes, that version of your face is saved. You can do this as many times as you wish, in as many different lighting situations and with as many expressions and types of eyeglasses as you choose. The more versions of you that enter the algorithm, the more likely that the android will recognize your identity at any given time.

So, when I turn my phone on, it asks me to show my face to the camera. Then it tries to match what it sees to what it has seen before. If it does, quickly the android grants access. Many times, however, because of anything from bad lighting to bed-head, it says, “Sorry Face Not Recognized.” As I read this on the screen, the photo of my face in that moment mirrors an often sorry-looking me, in one stage of dishevelment or another, or with sunglasses on and bright light behind, or whatever. I am not recognized. I have dutifully taken what feels like hundreds of self-portraits for the software, but the failure rate for access has continued to annoy.

Gradually I have become ridiculous, and screw my face up into awful contortions when the android tries to recognize me, just so it won’t. It’s as though I want to flaunt my individuality—the impossibility of summing me up in an algorithm. After all, IT doesn’t have a face. IT is a digital reality, a reality that can be reduced to zeros and ones, faceless. I, on the other hand, am not. I want to say to this device, “Guess what, you can’t know me, and you can never know me, however smart you are.”

The obvious reference here is Martin Buber, the philosopher who distinguished between “I – Thou” and “I – It” relations. A device is an It. A person is a Thou and cannot be summed up or reduced down to its elements. A Thou is a mystery who can never be fathomed.

I could argue that an It also can never be fathomed given the mysterious nature of reality, but I will save that for another posting.

Dis/connected Connection

The other day I headed up to the mountains. Just for a day. I’m lucky to live in Portland, Oregon, where that’s possible–to drive up into the wilderness and back within the space of a mere 10 or 12 hours. I gave myself a day off from my counseling practice, from family, colleagues, friends, and the familiar sights and rhythms of the city. To go away, and to come back. It’s important. It always feels good and leaves me with a reminder that “I want to do this more often.”

I left early so as to make the best of my time. The night before, in an uncharacteristic spurt of organizational prowess, I laid out everything I needed for the time away. When I woke before my alarm, I slipped out quietly into the cold air and dim light of early morning and was on my way.

It was about 20 minutes into my drive when I found myself reaching for my cell phone, only to find… no phone. Not in my pockets. Not in my bag. Not in the storage area under the armrest. Nowhere. I stopped and rifled through everywhere I could think to look. Twice. Nothing. Had it fallen out of a pocket onto the street? Was it on the table at home?

I noticed my anxiety rise as I contemplated my venture without that apparently indispensable tool, the cell phone, that only 15 years ago I did quite well without. What if I had car trouble? Or sprained my ankle on a trail? What if there were a family emergency? Or a client crisis? No one would be able to reach me, and I could reach no one, short of a pocket full of change and the rare sight of a pay phone. I reproached myself, my disorganization, my mistake.

Now, just to clarify, I don’t have a phone with lots of fancy stuff. No iPhone. No “apps.” Not even a less expensive knockoff of said device. No offense to the wonder of those technologies, but I don’t particularly want anything like that. I have a recording of the singer Tom Waits telling stories and jokes to an audience in Birmingham, Alabama, and I like it when at one point he laments the cell phone that is also a camera. “Why can’t something just be what it is?” he asks. My phone does have a camera, but it’s basic. I went for one that can take a beating too, which is fortunate, since I’ve already left it lying out in the grass on a dewy night once or twice by accident. It has a permanent defect now where the damp got in and messed up the display, but it works fine.

As the absence of the phone sunk in, I found myself driving down the freeway and country roads, slowly letting go of my anxiety at being dis/connected from the spirits of the air, those invisible transmitters of text, image, and voice, to other humans far from the actual place I inhabit at any one moment. A strange calm came over me, and a release. I was free in a new way for that day, from the fear driven by my attachment to those invisible connections. Then it was evening, and I was back. Nothing bad happened. I felt happy and refreshed and wondered whether I would leave my digital device behind on purpose next time. I thought to myself that maybe–thanks to technology–never being dis/connected means never really getting a chance to go away, and to come back, and I expect the soul wants that chance.