{Sun 13 June 2010}   Alone Together
Alone Together

There’s something so poignant about the phrase, “alone together”. It stuck in my head after I saw this CNN video about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir on YouTube. I presume that most readers of this blog have seen it too. I wonder whether the same phrase at the end of John Vennavally-Rao’s report has also intrigued, delighted and troubled you?

I’m putting down here some random thoughts that haven’t fully coalesced yet into a coherent philosophy, but I’m chasing something/ some things that are hard to see.

The haunting beauty of the choral sound and the inclusive arc of differently coloured faces and backgrounds on the red-curtained stage of cyberspace pleased me deeply. I smiled. I watched it again. I forwarded it to a few friends. I watched it again. I studied a few of the faces — each singing peacefully and unselfconsciously as one can only do in one’s own private space. I felt glad and privileged to have access to those private moments mixed together in an enormous public display that reached and continues to reach across continents and across time. It was/is something precious. I googled Eric Whitacre. I was pleased to read that he’s working on more pieces for the Virtual Choir, perhaps some original work…

And yet, why does it haunt me so? The sense of longing, of reaching out for connection that is communicated to me, the viewer-hearer, is largely a function of the strangeness of the presentation, not of each individual’s communication. Most of the singers look extraordinarily serene, like people absent from the world because they’re in “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).  People who are physically together when singing together, no matter with how much joy or harmony, don’t wear exactly the same expression as an individual in private rapture. Or didn’t, anyway. As we reach out for connection in this new way, are we inviting others to steal a part of our soul that previously only revealed itself to the walls or landscapes of our private spaces?

Even as I delight in the confluence of digital media that make possible this self-revelatory joining of humans who know nothing of each other besides that all (all of those who are featured, anyway) can sing, I cannot help but be conscious of all those intervening media, “the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data”. They make the fragile meaning that could not exist if the electricity failed.

But isn’t this just a logical 21st century extension of the artistic process? Artists have always used materials and techniques to transform base material into something else. It’s what artists do. Why does this seem different to me?

Partly, it’s the ephemerality of it — the is-and-notness that flickers on and off at the whim of the switch. Also, it’s the way the human sources are both enhanced by and subsumed in the media. Their “togetherness” is something that the media help us (and them) to imagine. We imagine willingly, but the compulsive clarity of video entices us to go further — to believe, despite ourselves. This mixture of the not-real and the real is disturbing. The putative “togetherness” (not-real) painfully emphasizes the aloneness (real) of the participants. We see each person’s aloneness clearly, multiplied a hundred times in an instant. Usually, we would suspect it only by extension from our own aloneness, when we can risk being conscious of that, and only one-by-one, from the occasional glimpses provided by circumstance.

On the other hand, we also see some elements that inspire us to seek togetherness… that give us hope. Despite our different countries, languages, cultures, genders and body types, we can all sing; we all aspire to make beautiful sounds; we can participate and cooperate to harmonious effect (albeit with the help of a strong guiding and editing hand); we all seek out private time or space to connect with ourselves, we can all be receptive; we can all be gentle. We also all enjoy and depend on similar electronic equipment for our communication and pleasure, so we are patient with each other as we struggle with its vagaries.

As the days passed, my thoughts turned to the creator/conductor/guide/editor — the uber-artist who put it all together. The reach of the work in terms of participants and, even more, of audience, and the fact that the harmony is created in his own private space by one over/above/outside the private spaces of those making the sounds, made me think of him in godlike terms. He is a small god, but with incredibly long digital arms. And now we can all be like him. We “little kings” are no longer held in check by the limitations of our physical resources. We are let loose with the power to make our megalomaniac dreams come true — in a sense — but we pay with the constant awareness of our aloneness.

This aloneness has always been the human condition, but before these digital joinings in eternally-preserved and universally accessible public spaces, we only dipped in and out of this awareness occasionally. Well, there is no way back, unless we have a Butlerian Jihad in our future. Until then, humanity is working out the Zen of our growth into full and constant consciousness of how we really are — just google the phrase “alone together” to see how much this concept exercises us in the current age.

Published simultaneously on www.transliteracy.com.

Global warming? Terrorism? Fundamentalisms? Racism? Sexism? International crime? Water? GM crops? Sometimes (most times, maybe) most of us just want to switch to the entertainment channel and forget all about it. It might be because we don’t care, but quite often it’s because we just can’t see what “little ol’ me” could do about it.

The article Global Population: From explosion to implosion? by Koïchiro Matsuura, Director General of Unesco, in yesterday’s Mail&Guardian, addresses the population explosion and asks whether it might turn into an “implosion” due to the demographics of age and childbearing and their different impacts in the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres. It’s important to read, and not too long or too hard (because statistics always have a slightly numbing and distancing effect, I think, as opposed to personal stories that engage one’s empathy but are therefore sometimes very draining).

The best part about it, for me, is the conclusion, which clearly shows a way forward by focusing on priorities for action. Essentially, it’s one priority — education to develop “knowledge societies” that have the expertise and knowhow to solve their problems, but within that, the first priority is basic education for women and the second the development of a culture of life-long learning for all:

Basic education is first and foremost — especially the education of girls, the best contraceptive of all. According to one study, there are regions where girls are excluded from secondary schooling and the women have an average of seven children each. Where girls’ school enrolment is just 40%, this mean figure falls to three.

Life-long education for all ought to be recognised as an essential priority as well, for this is the answer to ageing populations and rising life expectancy. As knowledge and skills become outdated more rapidly, and people face the need to keep up by retraining or changing occupation, the demand for education is increasingly going to become a life-long matter. At bottom, this is good news: the world population will become older, admittedly, but individual humans will spend more of their lives in what counts as “youth” — for they will never stop learning.

What’s great about this for me is that it’s reinforced my thoughts about where best to spend money that I’ve earmarked for charity (and probably also some that I hadn’t, as I reflect on just how important this is). Education, education, education. Particularly for women. Particularly for those women where knowledge and competence will make the greatest difference in their and their families’ lives. Educating the most disadvantaged girls and women could have a profound effect on the population balance and also enable increasingly more people to look after themselves. It’s in everyone’s interest, even that of those who still don’t care.

et cetera