I flew to Paris for a meeting this weekend.
That’s absurd, of course, spending 22 hours in the air just so I could sit around a small table with two other jet-lagged people. But it was an important meeting, a kind of reality-check on a project everyone wants to see done right. As a screenwriter, you quite literally need to make sure everyone is on the same page, so sitting down in person makes sense.
And sitting down in Paris is lovely. With my spare time, I took a Vélib bike across the city to check out a future apartment and encountered my very first grifter, whose gimmick (a found ring) was so smoothly delivered I almost wanted to tip him for the performance.
I woke up at 2:30 this morning, hoping to see the Oscars, but the hotel’s TV didn’t carry them. So I found myself following the action via Twitter (#oscars), letting a thousand strangers tell me not just what was happening, but how they felt about it. 1 It’s like swimming in a giant stream of consciousness.
It’s exhausting. I only lasted an hour. But for those sixty minutes, I had effectively outsourced television watching. It was the next best thing to being there. “There” being a television in America.
In a less jet-lagged state, I could probably write more eloquently on the implications of this dislocation. But my hunch — my possible thesis — is that quick flights to Paris and text-watching the Oscars are markers of the same general condition: a frustration that we can only physically be in one place at a time. It’s an unsolvable problem, but the ways we try to compensate for it are telling.
For starters, we move faster. Broadband is ubiquitous enough that when we don’t have it, it feels like going back to outdoor plumbing. My husband was in Asia for ten of the last fourteen days, but our daughter saw him every morning at breakfast thanks to iChat. She is growing up in an age in which no one actually goes anywhere: Daddy isn’t gone; he’s on the computer.
But faster isn’t everything. An article in today’s International Herald-Tribune celebrates the Concorde, a plane I never had the opportunity to fly. I didn’t realize it was often twice as fast as today’s airliners: London to New York in three hours. That’s great, but it’s not really transformative in an age when so many things come Right Now. Given its price and relative lack of luxury, the Concorde was ultimately competing against email. Digital won.
Another way we compensate for not being places is through constant communication with folks who are. That’s what Twitter and Facebook status updates do. At an all-WGA meeting at the Shrine Auditorium near the end of the strike, leaders scolded someone in the audience for live-blogging what was being said. Just a year later, that already seems quaint. Of course people are going to be Twittering. Some people can’t be here; why shouldn’t they be included?
The TV show Lost is all about location and isolation. For the first few seasons, the survivors didn’t really care where they were, they just needed to tell someone off-island that they were alive so they could be rescued. That’s shifted in the past two seasons, with all the focus now on reconnecting with those left behind. 2 The question of where the island is only matters once you’re off it.
The third and I think most dangerous strategy for coping with the place problem is simple denial. We psychologically stay home, even when we’re gone. I’m doing it at this moment, typing on my laptop while Paris awakens outside. My friend Dan moved to New York to produce a TV show, and says never really saw the city: he had thirteen nights free in four months. He was either on set or on the phone with Los Angeles the rest of the time, and came to see the JFK-LAX flight as a commute.
I see it happening with this generation of college students. When I left Boulder to go to Drake, and when I left Drake to move to Los Angeles, I left people behind. Through phone calls, letters and visits home, I maintained relationships with a few close friends. But ninety percent of the people I knew vanished in the rearview mirror. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. Through Facebook and email, it’s trivial to keep up with dozens of classmates more or less daily.
But is it really a good idea?
Your twenties are a crucial time, and I’d argue that it’s harder to discover yourself — or reinvent yourself — when surrounded by a vast network of people who already have a fixed opinion of who you are. I went to college and grad school not knowing a single person, and while it was a little terrifying, it was also liberating. Decoupled from my previous opinions and embarrassments, I was able to become the 2.0 and 3.0 versions of myself. I could only do that by going somewhere new. By changing place.
I’m packing up to fly home. Before I do, I’ll post this on the blog. But it occurs to me: I have absolutely no idea where the servers hosting this site are located. If I wanted to see the hardware, where would I go? That this question never occurred to me is also telling.
- Twitter’s atomic bundling of opinion and reportage is new. If the telegraph had made it to individual homes before the telephone, we might have had a precedent. ↩
- As one might guess from The Nines, I’m partial to the Desmond episodes. The idea of a “constant,” while narratively murky, feels right: you need someone who knows you independently of the present madness or you’re screwed. ↩