Lesser Obsessions: The Texture of Your Face

I’m tired of bits.

I worry these days about how real most of the things are in my life. Don’t worry — I went through my solipsistic period back in 10th grade. What I mean is that I don’t use envelopes to send anything but love letters and bill payments. I’ve got e-mail instead. I don’t muck around much with all the CDs I’ve accrued in the past 10 years of my life since I ripped them all to mp3s. All it took was a $6 splitter and a $10 cable to make it seem like I had the biggest CD player ever in my living room. Instead of a sizeable long-distance bill, I have a window full of friends I can talk to by tapping on the keys. Instead of a newspaper at my door, I have a list of bookmarks in my Web browser.

It didn’t happen all at once, and I’m not even sure now whether this is so horrible a fate. It’s just that I realized how weird 10-year-old Chris Klimas would have found the world his 23-year-old version inhabits.

Back in the day, our public library was the coolest place he knew of. His parents took him on Sunday mornings, when nearly nobody was there but the Orthodox Jews who lived in his neighborhood. Chris would search the shelves for new books with a quiet fervor probably nobody noticed. But it was there. The library was the only place he could find new ideas.

He read books on Logo, the programming language where you draw shapes by moving a turtle around on the screen. He read about alien abduction theories, too, because they happened to be shelved next to the computer books. He read books that explained how to do magic tricks. He read biographies of people he doesn’t remember anything about anymore. He read a lot of books that just contained stories, and he read some books about telling his own, too.

His family piled the books they wanted to read into a big box — you got them for three weeks, which was an eternity then, so everybody got a bunch. The other patrons of Randallstown Public Library generally hated his family. They were the worst thing ever to happen to the checkout line.

I think if we could pluck 10-year-old Chris Klimas and bring him into 2003, he’d spend the rest of his life on my couch, just reading things on the Internet. Let alone if he ever discovered that I had a stash of nearly every Nintendo game worth playing, all in a folder lying innocently on my laptop. (And the laptop! The kid would go nuts over the iBook. He’d spend hours just on the trackpad trying to figure out why his finger could move the mouse and not a pencil.)

Too keep up his strength, I’d bring him vanilla milkshakes from McDonald’s (he didn’t know back then how unhealthy they were) and pizza from the Little Caesar’s that went out of business, and force him to go on walks with me so he didn’t become a total waste of body.

As we’d walk, he’d tell me about the newest magic trick he had discovered, maybe even give me a quick, half-successful demonstration. And I’d tell him about a funny movie I had seen about a guy who had swallowed a spoonful of cinnamon successfully.

But most of all, I’d wonder why I wasn’t there on the couch with him, reading away and being amazed by it all.

It’s not so much that I’ve lost interest in finding out new things anymore. It’s just that I wonder what’s happened now that we’ve figured out a way to strip nearly everything physical from information. With the Internet, we don’t even get a videocassette or a CD. Information is stored inside information — instead of a piece of paper to be sold or borrowed or stolen, the only home this article will have is a name: http://www.crunchable.net/articles/?p=166.

At first blush, it’s my 10-year-old self’s dream come true taken to a level he could never imagine. No more having to trip down to a library, to run your hands through a long row of “Choose Your Own Adventure”s as you try to remember which ones you haven’t read recently. But stripping away the realness of things, the things that can be held with your hands and remembered, has changed my attitude toward things without me noticing.

The thing is that digitizing everything — moving things from ink and plastic and warmth to plain old ineffable bits of information — is irresistable. If you were a college student or otherwise blessed with the bandwidth to use Napster back in the day, you would have to be a complete moron not to run it 24 hours a day. It was the equivalent of the hottest girl on the continent dropping by your doorstep. She’s got a can of whipped cream in one hand, and you’re about to ask her about it when she enquires sweetly if you’d like to — I dunno, she says, suddenly looking at her feet — have fantabulous sex for a couple days or so. (You want to let me have any song I want, as long as I can figure out its name or at bare minimum the people who made it? you ask, waiting for the hottie at the door to transform into a prostitute.)

But then you’ve got all the songs you could think of and Napster’s been sued into a smoking crater, and you finally get tired of plain old monkey sex and try to strike up a conversation just to get some variety into your life. It turns out you have nothing to talk about because the girl happens to be completely stupid, and now that you’ve got every song you’d ever want to listen to, what next? What do you actually do with all that stuff you’ve gotten, basically for free?

Mostly, you just sit around and feel secure that when the day comes that you want to hear the soundtrack to the first “Silent Hill” again, you’ve got your bases covered. But it takes a long time for that day to come, doesn’t it?

Maybe it’s just overwhelming. Maybe it’s just hard to decide where to start when you’ve got so much. I picked up nearly the entirety of Italo Calvino’s oeuvre at a going-out-of-business book sale and let all of them sit on my bookshelf for months before opening a single one. But maybe there’s something different at work. Maybe when things become digital, they don’t mean as much.

There’s a weird side effect to instant messaging I’ve noticed. Because in some respects (more than several, less than lots) I am a geek, sometimes I have trouble coming up with a good way to get into deep conversations with people. You know, talking about the big issues without sounding like a total tool. I’m not totally helpless — I can do it right when it counts — but I’ve noticed that instant messaging is easier in some ways. It’s just words being typed, just like I’m doing right now, and so I can be much more rhetorically brave and literarily interesting than I normally would have time to. And because nobody’s speaking a word, it feels kind of secret.

But I’ve found that instant messenger conversations don’t mean as much. When you meet up in real life the next time, it’s not like you’ve really grown any closer than before. Maybe I’m doing it the wrong way. But it feels less powerful than talking any other way — even over a telephone, which strips your voice into a pitiful 8 kHz. (It takes a computer 16 kHz just to figure out that you just said the word “monkey” instead of “malarkey”; CDs are recorded at 44 kHz.) There must be something inherent in the medium that makes it more distant; more objective; less human.

This is a dangerous kind of moral quandary for someone who spends a lot of effort writing stuff specifically to be put into bits and bits alone. It kind of throws the whole thing in doubt, you know?

There is a flip side, of course. You wouldn’t reading this in the first place if it weren’t for bits. Printing stuff is expensive and distribution is a real pain in the ass. And there are so many things that won’t be forgotten because of the Internet: so many sadnesses, so many happinesses. So many jokes. So many pictures of the past. Knowledge is becoming immortal.

But sometimes it feels better to live in a world of rarity and mortality. Where everything comes with a cost and some things can’t be replaced. Where there are things hidden inside everything you touch with your hands.

There was a night a couple months ago where I felt plain old sad. There’s a point in certain phone calls when you realize that it’s not going to get any better, that the essential unhappy message had already been communicated but hasn’t yet been put into words, and it’s going to take some time to get that last part over and done with.

It’s those minutes, before you realize that your apartment has fallen completely dark while you were talking, that really hurt.

I didn’t call any of my friends. Not really sure what I would’ve told any of them anymore. It was one of those weird kind of stories that you aren’t sure at first how to recount — it’s hard to figure out what the main thread of the plot would be and where to best begin — and more than that, I just didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to give any more words to it.

I lit the candle my sister had given me when I first moved into my apartment, carried it in my hands to the living room, put on Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” and laid on the floor with the candle resting on my stomach for a long time.

I felt comforted. It wasn’t the light of the candle beside my heart. Not even its heat. It wasn’t the guitars or the aching vocal or the memories or knowing that a kind of a future — not necessarily a better one, but one that could have been full of kisses and promises — wasn’t really possible for me to have, and probably never was and never would be. It wasn’t the cold solid feeling of the glass jar in my hands or the faint smell of a hastily-cooked dinner from hours ago. It was something else that I can’t name, can’t put into bits for you.

But it was there. You’ll have to believe me that there was.

Article © 2003 by Chris Klimas