Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Labyrinth of Solitude

Modern technology challenges the notion of place. If we are constantly plugged in to an electronic universe, we are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. What difference does it make if you are at the Taj Mahal or the Parthenon if you are returning emails on your Blackberry? Of course, the same can be said of the printing press and the telephone, but the speed and intensity of modern technology fractures the integrity of the individual ego, defined by the boundary of the epidermis. It is not unusual for a busy individual to be the recipient of hundreds of emails a day, and these, together with the plethora of other information sources, have left in their wake a refugee, a spiritual wanderer increasingly deprived of the usual attachments by which identity is defined. And yet, one is never alone.
Now, let’s look at this from the point of view of the pre-Socratic stoic philosophers. The Eleatics  (Zeno, Parmenides, Melissus), as they were called, believed that the world was unchanging and that the seeming flux was all an illusion. Zeno’s paradox, starring Achilles and the tortoise, is the most famous example of this conundrum. Essentially, the rabid Facebook addict or the individual who has invented an avatar for an online game like Second Life, sits alone in his refuge, attempting to respond to all the messages he receives. He is in constant communication with numerous people all over the world who he rarely, if ever, sees, and who he scarcely knows. In the fifties, people left lewd messages on the inside of toilet stalls. After they dropped one load, they left another in hieroglyphic form. Do these early forms of “cave painting” tell us something about the sources of our modern electronic miracle? Has the high tech world of interactive communication freed us, or merely created a new form of solitude? Perhaps the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz was right when he compared solitude to a labyrinth.

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