Friday, December 07, 2007

It Crosses My Mind

I have an overactive imagination and worry too much, so when people skip out on commitments, or when I haven't heard back from them for a week and normally do, there is always at least a part of me that thinks something awful has happened. It is my good fortune that no such thing has happened so far, and I would really like my brain to shut up. But in a couple of those incidents lately it's crossed my mind that our level of personal technological independence has created a certain level of strange isolation. Which is to say, should something happen to a loved one I haven't known all my life, someone whose family doesn't know me or someone who doesn't talk to his or her family very much from the get-go, how would I and those loved ones get in touch with one another, even if our knowledge or support might help one anther? How could I, should my paranoia or anger reach masterful heights, find out of the person in question is just sitting at home with a significant other I've yet to meet, being a bum about his or her commitments, which knowledge would allow me to be straightforwardly angry and shut off the parts of my mind now proving themselves ridiculous?

It crosses my mind, basically, that except for "Emergency Numbers" at places where we're required to offer them, like certain workplaces, we're the only carriers of our contacts these days. In a lot of cases our friends don't know one another, have never met our families, and have never seen the contact lists in our cellphones. And if something bad should happen simultaneously to me *and* my cellphone *and* the little notebook I keep separately with a list of phone numbers should my cellphone fail? Since I tend to carry both objects on my person at all times, that is as likely as something bad happening to me in the first place (which I recognize as incredibly unlikely, in case we weren't clear; this is a flight of paranoia, an observation and a thought experiment, and I don't intend it to be anything more). If that should be the case, some people I do love would be stuck not knowing for weeks, or not finding out personally, or thinking me irresponsible or cruel. Certainly that's always the first expected explanation. (I think part of the reason I go to concern first is because I don't want to think that of people, even when the problem's much, much more likely to have been caused by irresponsibility. I'd rather trust. If I didn't have such a ridiculously out-of-control imagination, one that constantly tries to test itself with the details of my possible reactions to worst-case scenarios, I think I would be able to defend this choice of going to concern first. As it is, I just need to fucking stop.) Relationships that, for one reason or another, exist in isolation from others in my life would be completely neglected. The people who end up with responsibility for contacting my loved ones, or even my *other* loved ones, would have no idea who they were.

No one else has my online passwords; Facebook profiles and other such things are likely to stay up at least a few days after we die. Should I die alone, one way or another, my cellphone is likely to keep ringing, with my voice on its voicemail. Should I work as a freelancer, from home, alone, should I not be a particularly social person, people honestly might not know for weeks, not have any reason to wonder. The inbox of a freelancer who dies suddenly is probably filled with angry Emails.

I can't actually figure out if this is more or less the case than it would have been in the past. I mean, the part about the Emails is obvious, but in terms of being alone—rural populations used to be much more substantive, after all, and methods of contacting one another much more time-consuming, expensive, and cumbersome. Probably more people tended to sit dead or injured alone for weeks, and it just wasn't as surprising an idea then as it strikes me now.

These thoughts are making me want to leave lists of contacts all over my house and with my family members, request emergency numbers from participants in even the most informal theatre projects. My guess is still that we learn the most from conversation, from the exchange of stories (which I more and more believe are the basis of social interaction). That may be about my personal habits: I like learning names, getting and remembering snippets of people's lives as I'm getting to know them. This tends to impress new acquaintances, though in a lot of ways it's the rather selfish writer's habit of looking for new stories, new inspirations. I think I like it, though; in fact, I think I might believe in it.


At 7:57 PM, Blogger Milligan said...

This is actually a problem I've given no little thought to over the years, both from the direction of the unlikely mishap, as well, in these paranoid times, from the direction of the sudden disappearance. The problem, as you note, is brought on largely by technology: communication and automation. In past times it would be unremarkable that a dear but physically distant friend might only be informed of a passing third-hand and long after the fact. The problem arises because now we might be long gone while a voice-mail announcement is still claiming that we'll reply soon, while Facebook and blogs and whatnot automatically keep serving up our latest as though we'll be right back.

There's another aspect that interests me just as much. We're used to the descendants of successful authors producing a steady stream of works derived from drafts and notes left behind after death. Our picture of history is fleshed out by the private journals and correspondences left behind by those who lived it. And we're all familiar with the movie trope of the "if you're seeing this I'm dead or worse" video left in a bank deposit box, which seems like something we'd like to still work in an age of Guantanamo and Enemy Combatant designations. However, today most of those things are locked up in password-protected accounts and encrypted files.

The obvious solution -- some kind of technological dead-man's switch that automatically broadcasts the necessary information if not accessed every so often -- has the rather nasty failure mode of claiming to the world that you're dead (and maybe broadcasting your treasured secrets) if you forget to turn it off before going on vacation. Not to mention the related possibility of disappearing while it thinks you're on vacation.

So maybe the right approach is low-tech: just assume that if a person is close enough that she'd worry if you didn't return calls for three days, she's close enough to have your parents' phone numbers. That's more or less how I think it used to work, after all.

At 1:17 AM, Blogger HelsBells said...

I really do appreciate you making sure that my face hasn't been eaten by my cats. It means the world to me. I believe that all of our friends and family should have a contact list of the "important" people. Thank you for writing about this. And for worrying about me; it'll make me better at getting back to people.

At 2:07 AM, Blogger Amela Jones said...

Is there any further reading you would recommend on this?

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