Those of us who grow nostalgic for the holiday sentiments of our past don’t pause to consider all the frustrations and disappointments that invariably accompanied those happier feelings. In our memories, everything is perfect, and it’s that perfection we yearn to recover, not just for ourselves but to draw us closer to others. So it is not surprising that people can be encouraged to charge forth on the morning after Thanksgiving, ready to spend beyond need or ability, making plans beyond probability, and building expectations beyond reason.
There is nothing new about gift-giving to express appreciation or affection. It’s a way to communicate those feelings, to draw us out of ourselves, to bond with others. That moment is the perfection we desire. In recent decades, buying gifts, or even seeking to buy them, has become a simulacrum for the real act. It’s now highly personalized, an ongoing individual pursuit of full communion with others.
Now, I am told, there are apps that will optimize your pursuit: one will signal you the moment an item’s price falls to your set point; another will compare prices of particular products available from multiple vendors; and another will guide you through traffic and across the aisles and shelves to the object of your spending. These are the same concepts used to optimize manufacturers’ electricity purchases, compare quality standards, and transmit purchase orders. It’s a sign of the times that some people believe new manifestations of data and electronics will fulfill their desire, in this case, the wish to locate the right item at the right price.
We are living already within the “Internet of Things” — the Industry 4.0 concept I wrote about 15 months ago, not fully accepting the plausibility of the idea because I didn’t grasp the necessity of knowing the specific location of every cipher, chip, object, or individual. There is more than commerce going on here, but it’s the transactions for materials and services that are establishing the functionality of this Network Age, and making nobler interactions more likely.
Such transactions can be and have been done in other ways, but this is a personal objection. I cannot invalidate efforts at personal fulfillment just because they are routed through networks to locate UPCs and return coded confirmation.
I can observe that across the ages people have sought personal fulfillment in different ways, ways made available by the latest intelligence, guided by new theories of where perfection lies. In the Renaissance, they poured through newly available books to locate spiritual fulfillment. In the Enlightenment, they explored the world to reveal obscure realities. In the Industrial Age, they harnessed energy and magnified the potential of manufacturing, to improve the human condition.
The irony of this progress has been that once the pursuit is underway the objective seems less fulfilling. Many Renaissance scholars achieved spiritual fulfillment, but their efforts removed much of the majesty from worship. Enlightenment Age explorers defined the physical limits of our world, so subsequently the quest for discovery turned inward. In the Industrial Age, humanity’s living conditions were elevated and standardized, heightening competition and social conflict.
If we are living now in the Network Age, it’s incumbent upon us to grasp all the implications of this, to address or offset the ironic outcomes. So, what is the object of human fulfillment now? What is it that has so many eyes fixed on screens, so many fingers tapping and gliding so feverishly?
Proponents for the Network Age assert that technology draws individuals into communities based on interest, or need, or affinity, in ways that otherwise are impossible. We can recognize that effect without granting the premise: holding a community together is the real challenge of our age, because the points of contact are a series of incidental transactions. We’re just as isolated as we are connected. The irony is that efforts of individuals in their pursuits are time lost to other purposes: learning, earning, apprehending the changes in themselves and their surroundings, identifying what needs perfecting, and acknowledging what is perfect already.