To be immersed in digital media in the early 21st century is to swim — and sometimes drown — in a sea of noise, feeds, texts, files, images, words, and more words. Our lives become a struggle to find our way through a slog of bytes and mega-bytes.
So here is my frustration: Sometimes the digital world feels like the inside of a 1000 piece jig-saw puzzle box. The task of sense-making seems overwhelming. Meaning seems completely elusive.
Always another email, another picture, another text message. The message appears. It disappears. Emails arrive. They are deleted. Feelings are expressed. Feelings are deleted.
Which always leads me to the same question: What is real when the ephemeral is ascendant? What experiences are unambiguously concrete and only minimally mediated by some new technology? What is authentic and enduring in an age of bytes and ephemera?
This is when I usually flash on some memory so indelible and real that it seems to occupy a space completely separate from all the noise and nonsense. I know that neuroscience has located every brain function from jealousy to financial anxiety. I wonder if they have located the place where the garbage dump of digital overstimulation gives way to the precious and the profound.
I thought I would share some of these fragments as they come to mind, i.e., concrete and profound experiences that transcended daily noise and left an indelible impression. I do this fully aware of the weirdness inherent in the fact that the moment I press the “publish” button, my authentic experience immediately becomes part of someone else’s noise. Does this cheapen it? Discount it? Should I prolong these private experiences to protect their personal significance? What happens when they are launched into the public sphere? I don’t know.
Fragment #1 is an unforgettable image I saw on a number of West African roadsides, evidence that even grief has to be serviced and managed.
This is my photograph, taken surreptitiously, of one of the roadside casket merchants of Togo, West Africa. There never seemed to be a shortage of customers. Death as a daily physical presence — unavoidable evidence of infant mortality, disease, and hunger — is not something a visitor from a “death-denying ” culture will ever forget.
And, at least for now, it is fully authentic.