Bill Maxwell

Cyber metamorphosis passes me by

Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka's novel The Metamorphosis, awakes one morning to find himself changed into a huge insect. From there, Gregor Samsa's fatal disorientation commences. Nothing he has ever known will be the same, not his business, not his family, not his handful of acquaintances. The world as he knew it is gone forever.

Well, each morning I now awake to find myself going down a path of disorientation somewhat like that of Gregor Samsa. Instead of my having changed, however, the world has changed.

The metamorphosis I speak of, unlike that of Gregor Samsa, is not an allegory by a lonely visionary. Mine is real. It has taken place before my very eyes, beyond my control, without my participation.

I am talking about my remaining virtually unchanged in our ever-changing techno-electronic-cyber age, where pencil and pen and paper and parchment are sounding more and more like relics of a faraway world in a long-ago time. I read the other day that more than 500 million people actively use Facebook, which does not require pen and paper. I also learned that 50 percent of active users log on to Facebook any given day, that the average user has 130 friends and that users spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook.

Although I hear a lot about Facebook, I do not know what it is. Neither do I know what Twitter is. And, by the way, I think I am doing just fine.

Being ignorant of Facebook and Twitter is scary enough, a friend said during a recent telephone call, but being uninterested in these ubiquitous social media is tragic. I thought he was exaggerating, but after thinking about how I earn money, I acknowledged that he could be half right. After all, he said, anyone who is a newspaper columnist and a college English teacher should be a competent user of various electronic devices and social media.

"I guess I'm just disconnected," I said.

He flipped out when I told him that I do not blog and do not know what a podcast is, and to goad him, I asked, "What's an RSS feed, a WebOS and Symbian?" I had recently read about these wonders in Wired magazine.

My old pal wanted to know how I did my work as a columnist and a college teacher while being a "neo-Luddite." Elementary, I explained. Like most other people, I use Google. But I mainly use it to initiate research or to answer simple questions. To stay adequately informed, I still read books, journals, newspapers and magazines. I still listen to National Public Radio, and I watch select TV programs every day. I still travel to learn. The Internet is an added value, not my whole life.

I lectured my friend about the time-tested benefits of intellectual serendipity, which has little to do with the iPod, the iPad, the iTouch or the iPhone.

Here is how intellectual serendipity — defined as an apparent gift for finding good things accidentally — works for me: The other day, I visited the BookLover's Café in St. Petersburg for the first time. Besides having a delicious cup of coffee, I browsed the store's collection of used, out-of-print, first edition and rare books and discovered a one-volume collection of Jean Rhys' complete novels.

I had not read Rhys since graduate school in the 1970s. In fact, I had forgotten about her. How could I have forgotten one of the authors from whom I learned to write simply, avoiding what she referred to as narrative "stunts." Now, I will use Rhys' lessons of simplicity with my writing students.

Such intellectual serendipity is not accidental. It has its own logic. It happens with people who are curious, who apprehend meaning in randomness, who explore their surroundings. They are able to synthesize seemingly disparate pieces of information and experiences.

From what I know about the Internet, most people isolate themselves when they go online. They search for what they want and hardly anything else. Intellectual serendipity rarely happens under these circumstances.

I told my friend that as long as I have access to old media — bookstores, libraries, books, magazines, newspapers, journals, television and radio — I will survive our techno-electronic-cyber metamorphosis as a neo-Luddite.

Cyber metamorphosis passes me by 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:47pm]

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