2014-03-28

Meta-Life

Let's call this "Part Two."

The first came in the form of this post, "Never Stop Living," my attempt to remind the reader (and therefore myself) that life is short, and that the energies we expend ought to be channeled toward the activities lead us to the greatest levels of satisfaction. We ought to be active participants in life itself. More specifically, choosing not to expend any energy while engaged in the pursuit of happiness is a serious mistake.

My first attempt was denegrated as "YOLO" in a fancy hat. Maybe more people watch TV than climb Mount Everest because TV is genuinely more fun than training to summit a peak in a hostile climate, maybe dying in the process. Maybe the internet really does offer a more satisfying experience than a marathon.

This phenomenon gets all the more complicated when we account for the fact that even those experiences that are active, or outdoors, or that otherwise do not involve passive media consumption are seemingly valueless to people until they become part of the passive media-consumption process. You weren't there unless you "checked in" on social media. It wasn't beautiful unless it was Instagrammed. You can't really do it unless it's on your YouTube channel.

And then there is the greatest horror of all: that you were there, it was beautiful, and you really did it; you checked-in, you Instagrammed, you YouTubed, and nobody saw it. The apparent standard, and I do hope I'm wrong, is the quality of the passive experience, not the active one.

Odd, isn't it? We can barely tolerate a brilliant piano concerto recorded on someone's iPhone in a big concert hall and uploaded directly to YouTube, but give us a mediocre performance from a tweed-wearing hipster with "ironic" facial hair, recorded in multi-angle HD, and suddenly it's viral. Every day, millions of people trudge to the gym to turn their lives around. We don't care... unless they managed to take a couple of selfies and post them to social media with a list of all the vegetables they plan to eat for dinner. That's a quality gym experience. Meanwhile, in the darkest corner of the gym is a man who jumps rope for 30 minutes on one leg, then switches to the other leg, then spends another hour lifting free weights.

I understand the perspective of the audience. You can't applaud something that you don't know about, and it doesn't much matter that the twelve-year-old down the street can play the Midnight Sonata with passion and accuracy if you never see it or hear about it. And so long as you're investing your time on social media, you might as well focus on the HD videos and the best-looking selfies. Why should your consumptive experience have to suffer for the sake of someone who can't even manage a proper mix-down?

What I don't understand is why the quality of the digital representation, the meta-object, has come to serve as the metric for the quality of the experience itself, the object.

I don't have much advice to offer here, except to say that you might be better served enjoying the non-digital realm for what it is: a long line of private experiences that can define your life in a way that is satisfying only to you and the people directly involved. Social media can get you a few "likes," but that's as far as it goes.

On your death bed, would you rather remember the concerto you performed? Would you rather remember the sound of the audience and the reverberation of the notes against the walls of the concert hall, the chalky taste of the air when you walked in and took your initial bow? Would you rather remember the sunlight on the back of your neck as you ran past mile-marker-number-four and the burgeoning thirst in the back of your neck? Would you rather remember the chirping of the birds as you rounded the bend of the mountain pathway and discovered a pond that only perhaps a dozen other people had seen that month?

Or, would you rather remember that you posted a twit-pic that was retweeted a million times?

To what extent are you an active participant in your own life?