Essays on the MILLENNIUM

THE FUTURE OF INTIMACY

MARK KINGWELL June 1 1998
Essays on the MILLENNIUM

THE FUTURE OF INTIMACY

MARK KINGWELL June 1 1998

THE FUTURE OF INTIMACY

Essays on the MILLENNIUM

MARK KINGWELL

What will happen to people's personal lives—their intimate, daily relationships—as we pass into the new era of the 21st century? Mark Kingwell, author of Dreams of Millennium and Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac, brings the future down to a human scale, arguing that the only technological developments that will truly matter are those that will improve our ability to connect with our fellow human beings.

BY MARK KINGWELL

here is a quality of early morning light in Vancouver that you don’t find in the rest of the country, a Turneresque wash of greys and blues that suffuses English Bay in romantic obscurity and makes the nearby Coastal Range look like a pod of humpback whales moving out to sea with infinitesimal slowness. It feels like the birthplace of the world—except for the foreground: blocks of halfcompleted buildings, piles of concrete rubble and the lurking silhouettes of high-load cranes. The joggers and Rollerbladers, inevitable and ubiquitous even at 6 a.m., pick their way nimbly through all this ambiguous evidence of Pacific Rim optimism. If there has been a downturn in the local economy—20,000 jobs lost in January alone, an 11-per-cent decline in house prices, a 40-per-cent drop in volume—you wouldn’t know it from the building sites or the packed restaurant patios. Vancouver really is the every-city of The X-Files, a generic urban location of hustle and intrigue, and it seems to represent the future—a future confident, multiracial, physically fit, comfortable with technology and happily, even ecstatically, capitalistic.

Is it also a likely future? The economic doomsayers would have us believe that all the pan-Asian and Pacific revivalism is just empty currency-driven puffery. And perhaps they are right: there is quite enough evidence to suggest that the reality of globalization is not the liberalizing dream of modern economics, but instead a nightmare of emergent class conflict, tribal hatred and technological imperialism.

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, a cult phenomenon of cyberpunk action and inventively dystopian speculation, fills in the details of this not-so-rosy picture. The book, set in a near-future California of gated communities (or “Burbclaves”), private freeways and quasi-governmental companies known as “franchulates,” has become an underground best-seller, one of those defining documents of the culture that never quite show up on the radar screens of network television or mainstream newspapers. The central action concerns the efforts of L. Bob Rife, a global media magnate, to resurrect an ancient religion—also an ancient computer virus—to

reprogram the brains of the world’s population. His point of entry is The Raft, a floating country of refugees, displaced persons and pirates, which is moving towards the vulnerable west coast of North America, whose distracted, drug-addled, materialistic and self-interested inhabitants are powerless to resist. The U.S. federal government has been reduced to Fedland, a bureaucratic non-entity, with a glad-handing president who can’t get anyone to take him seriously.

It might seem capricious to consider a science-fiction novel significant in shaping the future, but as the American philosopher Richard Rorty noted recently in his careful assessment of Snow Crash, visions of the future can have an unusually powerful bearing on the present. Rorty chided the “pessimism” of Stephenson’s vision, and lamented its tendency to induce a « sense of impotence. How we imagine I the future dictates, in larger part than we know, the kind of future we will actually create.

Any simple dichotomy of optimism and pessimism is too crude to capture the nuances of the issue, however. Advocates would have us believe that the question of life a hundred years hence is one either of utopia or dystopia, wondrous emancipation or dank enslavement—a form of bipolar thinking that is particularly prevalent at cultural limit-times like the muchdiscussed, entirely arbitrary and yet immensely compelling millennium. Both options sport hidden dangers.

The trouble with utopian visions is that they hide the realities of the messy transition—think of the blithe elimination of poverty and hunger in the Star Trek series. They can also become a platform for intolerant, occasionally violent social change: witness the dominant political movements of our bloody century. Not least, utopias run the risk of making any actual, step-wise reform look paltry, and therefore somehow contemptible. It is in this sense that, as the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Similarly, dystopian visions are often an invitation to gloomy inaction, rather than a needed wake-up call. They stunt feelings of hope that might translate into political action. They feed on our fears and anxieties, working them up into fully formed bad dreams of a dark future. They make us feel powerless or overwhelmed: instead

A SEARCH FOR SOUL IN THE NEW MACHINES

Essays on the IVIILLENNIUIVI

of acting, we quiver in a depressed stasis.

There is good evidence that such cultural pessimism has been widespread throughout history, but there is also something that must be acknowledged as unique to our times. In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the media critic Neil Postman discusses what he calls the problem of “the informationaction ratio”—the structure of human responsiveness that determines how much, and what sort, of information is usefully assimilable. Our current mass-information media offers virtually limitless information. This triggers a kind of overpowering ennui which steals upon us when we think of how many impossible demands there are for action.

It is essential that we bring all issues tangled in the ball of thread we call the future—technology, globalization, environmental changes— down to a level where we can think about them productively.

Consider a small example. Anyone who knows me personally is aware that my favorite techno-toy is a cordless headset phone.

This little machine has changed my life more than almost any other piece of technology, in large part because it facilitates the interplay of work and leisure. Using the headset, I can glimpse a future in which we all achieve, on demand, what computer programmers like to call seamless ubiquity: the ability to access a communications or computation system from any point. I am now able to carry on phone conversations not only from every corner of my apartment, but can do so with my hands free. I can talk to a friend while signing for a parcel delivery, or do a radio interview while chopping vegetables.

Sometimes, in moments of self-indulgent adolescent vanity, I even imagine I look pretty cool with the headset on. This is surely part of its appeal, at least for men of my generation, raised as we were on Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionettes, Captain Scarlet and the Thunderbirds, and with more recent echoes in John Cusack’s well-equipped professional killer in Grosse Point Blank—not to mention Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, or Madonna and Bobby Brown on stage during a concert tour. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I just look geeky, not so much savvy gadget king as stock-control boy at The Gap.

The headset is only a minor piece of technology, but it hints at the real issues in thinking about the future. We have spent a lot of time lately either decrying or celebrating technology, with the hype-masters of Wired magazine squaring off against various neo-Luddites and advocates of media fasting. But most of us, in thoughtful moments, realize that technology is entirely devoid of interest unless it makes some aspect of daily life easier or more interesting—or if it, in rare cases, increases the degree of justice in our world.

The base-level facts of existence—that we must rise and face each day, and that at some point this circadian cycle will cease for each one of us—will not be altered by the passage of a century. Whatever changes, these will remain the same. And they cast any technological, economic and social changes in their only worthwhile light. What happens to the people around the globe, what happens in their daily lives of seeking security, love and happiness, as we pass into the new era of the 21st century?

What particularly fascinates me in this attempt to bring the future down to a human scale is the concept of intimacy, the phenomenon of closeness, one person to another. How is it that we are able to form and maintain relationships, to carry on conversations that build up a web of interpersonal connections so vast and complicated they can only be captured by the nearly banal phrase “human civilization”?

This daily miracle, which we rarely pause to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, is the key to thinking about imaginable future. It is unlikely that the next hundred years will change one of the key features of human life: namely that consciousness is irreducibly inward, forcing us to find our connections to others by outward means. Intimacy will continue to play its joyful, vexing, complex role in our lives, and the subtle dialectic of private and public will continue to dominate our institutions,occupations,entertainments and, most of all, our sense of ourselves.

Our machines will always change, often in ways that technological cheerleaders will choose to call progress, but beneath the faster and better wiring, our longing for connection will remain the same.

NOW AND IN THE FUTURE, CONNECTING WILL MATTER MOST

I have been away from home a lot lately, travelling from city to city across this country and south of the border. On a recent Sunday, I had breakfast with my wife in Boston, lunch with a friend in Toronto, and dinner with a colleague in Ottawa. I started writing this essay in Montreal, worked on it in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, fiddled with the first few paragraphs in Winnipeg, fleshed out some other parts in upstate New York, and then finished it in Toronto. Covering all those miles, trundling in and out of departure lounges and putting in hours in rental cars gives you an appreciation for the vastness and variety of Canada: the way provincial politics dominates Edmonton in a way it doesn’t in Winnipeg; the way Vancouver has, like Paris, apparently cornered the regional market on beautiful people; the way the smog and the driving habits get worse every year in Toronto.

This kind of travel also forces an awareness of technology’s gifts. Many of us now board transcontinental planes with all the excitement of commuters entering a subway car, and I boot up my laptop absentmindedly in a hotel restaurant, the way I might open

Essays on the MILLENNIUM

a door. These are the small miracles of modern life, incredible privileges, ones within the grasp of less than a fifth of the planet’s inhabitants. And there are many more on the way, things that will alter the details of daily life in ways we can hardly guess at.

What matters to me, or anyone else, in all this? That I could have dinner with my parents and brothers in Vancouver last month, the first time in four years that we had all been together, with my mother passing around old snapshots of her and my father when they were first together—wonderful black and white portraits, my father with his lanky good looks and Harry Connick haircut, my mother sprightly at 19, the sweet little messages she wrote to him on the back of each photo. That I can check my e-mail in Calgary and read a welcome message from a friend in England, saying that he has a new son. That I can, finally, come home again and find the restful, familiar comfort of my little apartment, the reassuring and human routine of doing the laundry, watering the plants, shopping for food, and cooking a meal for myself.

We all realize that as humans we find much of our deepest happiness in intimacy, in the sharing of ourselves with each other. This communion is the texture of life, the cross-hatching beneath our fingers as we run them over the passage of time.

There is a mystery here, a deeply human thing that must be acknowledged before we can move on into the future, a future that is coming whether we like it or not. The critic Walter Benjamin once said that we don’t move into the future facing forward so much as we back into it, gazing out over the past. It might be even more accurate to say that we back into it, gazing fixedly down at our feet.

The word intimate contains an illuminating contradiction that is worth dwelling on before we take our next backward steps. As an adjective, intimate means personal: the intimate details of your life that only you can know. It comes from the Latin word intimus, which means “inmost.” In this sense, “intimate” captures the strange opacity of individual consciousness, that irreducible first-personal character of identity, that is, at some level, impenetrable by anyone outside.

To be intimate in this sense is to be inward. But the adjective is also used, more commonly, to describe the act of sharing that inwardness with another: an intimate conversation, an intimate friendship. This hints at the ambiguity in the word, and the concept. Considered as a verb now, “intimate” also means to declare, to communicate, to set out a message. In English we change the pronunciation to distinguish the two uses of the word, and the verb form derives more proximately from the Latin verb intimare, meaning to announce. But the deep connection is clear: to intimate is to share a message, though not always an inward one; to be intimate is to be inward, though not always in a way that can be shared.

This play of closeness and distance, of inside and outside, is at the centre of human life. Trapped, of necessity, inside our own minds, we try, with the crude but wonderful tools of language and touch and expression, to bridge the unbridgeable gap between one person and another. We intimate things and hope, thereby, to become intimate: to join our private lives together in the public space that lies between us, where meaning resides. It doesn’t always work: our words are misconstrued, our intentions twisted, our messages changed in the telling like the comical distortions of the telephone game. But we go on trying because otherwise we are nothing, our stories fall untold and therefore, somehow, unlived.

We also hear intimations from elsewhere. Intimations of immortality, as Wordsworth said, where life and experience hint at the transcendent possibilities buried in our limited selves: the way we can go beyond ourselves, can feel a sense of purpose or belonging that is not illusory because we sense our connection to a scheme of things. We may also hear intimations of mortality, those whispers of the shade that throw life suddenly into high relief and, if we are listening closely enough, may clarify the possibilities of happiness in this life.

Finding our way into the future is not a matter of deciding which big picture is most likely. It is not, perhaps, a matter of big pictures at all. Like Socrates’ basic question—‘What is the life worth living?”—the question of the future is one that must start with a thousand smaller ones. What are you going to do today? Tomorrow? Next month? The future is constructed of the infinite number of present moments passing through our hands. With each one we have an opportunity to make our inwardness responsive to the needs of others.

We need ideals to guide us in that responsiveness: justice, primarily, and the respect for other entities on which it is ultimately based. Indeed, we can no longer restrict our pursuit of these connections to other members of our race, our nationality, even our species. Nor can we allow the triumph of private life and private goods that has been wrought in these past three centuries of modernity to atrophy the public life and public good that alone makes a society, or a civilization, worth while.

We therefore have to countenance the possibility that some of the private luxuries we have enjoyed—ones which are too rapacious of resources, too disproportionate in their distribution—will no longer be tolerable as time goes on. Our intimate lives may change in ways we do not always like because we can no longer ignore the voices in our ears— and in our hearts—that intimate we must share even more.

The problem is that if we let the question spin off into trying to imagine the future as such, the result can only be an overwhelming set of demands that will, paradoxically, have the effect of deadening our responsiveness. People defect from responsibility then, hiding in gated communities and surrounding their property with private police forces. Taxpayers begin to see themselves more as clients than as citizens, able to take their purchasing power for social services elsewhere than to inefficient or redistributive governments.

That revolt is rooted in anxiety, in perceived external threats to our security and comfort. We all feel that anxiety now and then, and because it comes from within, it may even seem perfectly justifiable. After all, it is a dangerous world. However, no retreat into isolation will protect our intimate connections if we lack a common destiny to support them and give them purpose. The challenge is to get on with the hard business of making the world a slightly better place, one step at a time, ignoring the increasingly strident prophets of both boom and doom. The truth about the future is, as always, both less spectacular and more demanding— like everyday life itself. □

USING MY FAVORITE TECHNO-TOY, I GLIMPSE THE FUTURE