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Living the Tabbed Life

November 22, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
Living the Tabbed Life

Today I opened up Facebook, and it greeted me with a tantalizing prospect: “Which Jedi are you?”  Excited at the possibility of being labeled the next Obi-Wan, I hurriedly clicked “Yes.” [i] But to my surprise, Facebook offered only questions and precious few answers about my relation to the Force.  Dismayed, I noticed that many other similar questionnaires were floating around on “The Book.”  I didn’t get it, though; why is everyone so in love with answering leading questions in order to get a quick glimpse at a caricatured reflection? These quizzes offer a tantalizing prospect: a neat, clean packet of information about ourselves that we can consume at will.  In that way, they allow for the commoditization of introspection, just as Facebook generally allows for the commoditization of friendship.  We can share in a friend’s trip to Sicily by checking out their latest photos and wittily posting comments about them.  But just as Facebook is one of the defining features of our online lives, the ease it confers seems representative of what the Internet and information technology means for our lives more generally.

Instant messaging, both the cellphone and gchat variety, offer us the same ease of living.  You don’t have to go through the hassle of calling a friend or meeting them in person; rather you can im them at your leisure.

Wikipedia similarly makes life easy; it affords us the net sum of human knowledge at our fingertips.  We can stand on the shoulders of intellectual giants and drop knowledge from heights only dreamed of by our grandparents.

Or take Twitter, which allows us to broadcast ourselves to the world with even more ease.  Of course, all the wild gesticulations at meaning screamed on its pages seem only to signify peoples’ inability to deal with the unbearable lightness of speaking.

If you feel like actually venturing out into the physical world, don’t worry; there’s Google Maps for that.  You don’t actually have to burden yourself with knowing where you’re going or where you are, simply plug in the address and follow along.

We spend much of our days tooling around on the Internet, living what you might call the tabbed life.  Life is light and carefree: we’re a tab away from Pandacam, a couple clicks from a sick YouTube video, and a quick alt-tab away from that essay you don’t feel like writing.  In this world, why ask the big questions?  Why question so deeply or think so hard that it hurts, that it shakes your foundational assumptions about the world?  That seems hard.  Besides, there’s Wikipedia for that.

Easily lost, though, in this sea of easy living, is the fact that life is more than mere preference satisfaction.  Life should be heavy, laden with the weight of experience and meaning.  Friendship shouldn’t have to be streamlined by a newsfeed.  A meaningful friendship implies that you’re willing to take the good with the bad, that the desire for shared experience outweighs any immediate difficulty.[ii] Similarly knowledge about a road or things in general is not only important insofar as it is useful; there is value in a familiarity with existence and there is virtue in acquiring it.  The associative connections that familiarity allows, besides nurturing analytical ability, fosters relational associations between things—that is to say meaning.  It’s hard to have meaningful relationships; it’s hard to say worthwhile things; and technology is making it pathetically easy to avoid that.

But just as life can be lived well, so too can technology facilitate that.  It is, after all, just a tool.  And what a tool: a world of information has put thought at our disposal like never before.  Just as mediocrity has never been easier, greatness has never been more attainable.  The beastly life is just a click away.

[i]Note that on my actual Facebook the words were [blank] and [blank] as I’ve made the much needed switch to Pirate English.  I find both its throaty jargon and its linguistic modalities (read ship metaphors) more sensitive to my particular ethno-cultural identity. I’ve translated here for the reader’s ease.

[ii] I think this is why long car trips with friends are worthwhile even though being stuck in a glorified tin can for a few hours unequivocally sucks.  The immediacy of the car forces you to bond over the shared experience.

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