Gimbling in the Wabe – On Paul Virilio, Integral Accidents, the Internet, the Olympics, Doctor Who, Feral Kittens and Not Going to Sea Without a Life Jacket

by Sharon Browning

Recently, I read Elan Mastai’s novel All Our Wrong Todays, and in it he referenced cultural theorist Paul Virilio, who championed the idea of the “integral accident.”  This belief basically states that every time you introduce a new technology, you also introduce the accident of that technology. Therefore, while the benefit of a new thing can be eagerly anticipated, care should also be taken to realize just how badly it can screw things up. (My paraphrase.) Virilio’s vaulted quote to explain this is, “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.

Now, I’m no philosopher. My mind doesn’t often flow along a lateral line, and I’ve spoken before about my penchant for losing my way between Point A and Point B. But I will admit to a wide humanist streak with optimism as a starting point (although I don’t think anyone would call me Pollyanna – not to my face, anyway), and so I felt that Mr. Virilio’s aphorism was unfairly cynical. Surely there was something out there that didn’t have a downside?

So, I set out to find one. (Or, to be more honest, I allowed myself a few bouts of idle daydreaming in the name of “research.”)

Now, true, Mr. Virilio’s statement on causality is pointed specifically at technology, and my musings very quickly veered away to many different possibilities, but then, you know, it’s that Point A to Point B thing again. I do like to meander. Still, I found the directions I took quite… interesting.

DISCLAIMER (REMINDER):  I do not have a scientific mind. Nor often a logical one. You have been warned.

I started off thinking about the internet. I honestly believe that – at least as it manifests now – the internet will be what saves America from becoming a dictatorship. It seems to me that in order for a dictatorship to develop – or a totalitarian state – the prevailing power must be able to control what its citizens think and what their nationalism entails. That’s just too hard to do when everyone has an ocean of information at their fingertips, and that ocean is wild, and cannot be contained by any force yet known to mankind.  This is a good thing.

“Yeah, but….” my mind said, “It’s also true that the manipulation of that information is incredibly easy to do, since there are few unassailable filters in place.” Therefore, the same openness of information, coupled with ease of manipulation and lack of sophistication (or effort or concern, take your pick) of the general populace, while possibly not allowing for a solitary power grab, will also not allow for a unified sense of humanitarian purpose, either. Any movement, any authority, any effort, can be undermined, and quite easily.

Just look at the recent Women’s March in Washington, or various pro-ACA rallies and political town halls. Even with this incredible influx of individual, heartfelt activism, all that needs to be touted is that the protestors are paid, and suddenly this ludicrous statement gives ballast to those who can’t accept the legitimacy of beliefs that run counter theirs, allowing them to dig in their heels and resist budging an inch. All this incredible information, and it’s just as easily used against as used for.

It brings to mind the wonderful moment in the BBC’s Doctor Who, when the Doctor states that he can bring down Harriet Jones, the current Prime Minister, using only six words:  “Don’t you think she looks tired?” (It wasn’t so wonderful when this very argument was used against Hillary Clinton… We’ll sidestep how it’s only used against women…)

Okay, I realize I’ve strayed from “just” thinking about the internet:  Point A to Point B issues, remember?

So sure, there are plusses and minuses to the internet. I think we all can agree to that one, even outside of the current political conflicts that seem to be a perverse kith and kin of our modern world. How the internet can share incredible knowledge but also give evidence such amazing stupidity. How it can allow such appreciation of new things but also rip off those who create those new things. How it can be used to connect us all, but also exploit those who are unwary.

So I took a different tact. I tried to find things that are universally good. Hmmm… nationalism is fraught with peril, as is patriotism (not that they are bad in and of themselves, mind you, but they also in extreme can be terrifying). Pride is good, but it also goeth before a fall. Don’t even get me started on religion. Is there anything on the world’s stage that isn’t suspect?

“Ah, the Olympics!” I thought to myself. A time when the world sets aside its differences and comes together in the spirit of global sportsmanship and human achievement. Yes, I’m aware that horrible things can happen in the Olympic Games; I was fourteen when the Olympics were held in Munich, and my giddy infatuation turned overnight into horror and grief. But the idea of the Olympics is so immensely positive, the good that it does so unassailable, that even the work of terrorists can’t call it into question, right?

No, it can’t – but reality might. On a philosophical plane, there may be no doubt. But tell that to those whose lives have been negatively impacted by living in host cities. Tell that to the 1.5 million Beijing residents who were evicted from their homes to create space for the 2008 Olympic Games infrastructure, and the destruction of whole neighborhoods in wake of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, whose residents were then relocated to decaying sections of the outlying city run by the same development companies that had taken their land. Tell that to Montreal city planners who had to work with three decades of an economy crippled by a $12 billion shortfall in construction for the 1976 Olympics. While there definitely is an economic boon for the few weeks of the Games (nearly half of which goes back to the International Olympic Committee), cities that host the games have seen triple, quadruple, even larger that amount in expenditures in getting ready for the games. Some host cities are able to repurpose and reuse Olympic sites, but in many others, the once shining facilities have fallen into disrepair, rusted and crumbling. So, while the idea of the Olympic Games may be stellar, in reality, its value depends on who’s being impacted and how. It ain’t all hunky dory.

In fact, I had a hard time coming up with anything that didn’t have a downside, even when I got ridiculously elemental.  Flowers? Pollen and allergies. Sunshine? Sunburn. Kittens? An overrun of unwanted killing machines due to humans not spaying and neutering their pets, then letting them run wild, go feral, to slaughter millions of songbirds, thus upsetting the balance of urban nature.

But…. but… books!  Even (gasp!) books? Brace yourself:  it’s estimated that to publish all the printed books sold in a single year in the US alone requires 30 million trees. Thirty million! 30,000,000. Trees. Every. Single. Year.

Perversely, I had a much easier time coming up with negative things that had no apparent upside: cancer, genocide, female genital mutilation, the thinning of the ozone layer, foot binding, leprosy, oil spills, snuff films, deforestation, canker sores… I was going to say june bugs and Michael Bay movies just to lighten the mood a bit, but even doing that felt perverse.

Ugh. Now I’m depressed.

So what’s the whole point of this essay?  To be honest, I don’t really know. Maybe it’s to always stay balanced, to always search for the unexpected impact of what we say, what we do, before spouting off, before taking action. To not only speak out, but also to listen up. To realize how we see something is not the only way it can be seen, and who’s to say if ours is the true vision and someone else’s is false? To stand proudly on your convictions, but make sure the ground you’re standing on is solid. To be ready for the consequences of your actions, and to accept them, to own them, and maybe even revel in them.

To have fun while traveling on that ship at sea, but always pack a life jacket.

Or maybe the point is that I simply have too much time on my hands to sit around and think and come up with my own weird sense of things. (I have a story about that, too, but this has gone on much too long already.) But if that’s the case, I’m not going to apologize. Because thinking about things is rarely a bad thing. It’s when we stop thinking about things, when we just let them happen, when we never take into account the shipwreck our oblivion may encounter, that’s when we have the biggest threat of drowning.

Point A to Point B, baby. Never a straight line, you hear?  Never a straight line.

~ Sharon Browning

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