Written by Ashley Craft ETA’06-07
The meadowlark warbles instinctively, animated by the electric dawn of the street lamp outside my window. My keyboard ceases its clatter, and I glance at the ticking clock: here, in Britain, half past midnight. I must be the only other creature awake at this hour, unperturbed by the surrounding gloom.
Five thousand miles behind me, it is morning. Yet in our uncanny flight, we landed in Heathrow at the same hour as when we departed 인천 (Incheon), flying through prolonged darkness as we outpaced the rising sun. In the void at thirty thousand feet, in the interstices between countries and cultures, time collapses. It seems like years since I began my Westward migration, locked in a metal cage, perched on a chair, squinting into a screen, ossifying.
Poor creature: You should be sleeping, but your body tells you to sing.
I went to Korea to glimpse the future, to see how the first generations born digital were wired together. I came to Cambridge to see whether the same held for those of us old enough to remember the analog world.
An hour in a Korean classroom sums up a year of participant-observation: Boys at their desks brooding over 핸드폰 (handphones, or cell phones), chattering about digital alter egos in the time between classes. Present in body for the hourly roll-call, many of my students’ spirits yet lingered in a virtual world, far from the chalk dust and fifteen-hour tedium of the classroom. In a written introductory exercise, four of ten listed computer games or the Internet as their favorite hobby. For a culture as study-obsessed as Korea, it is telling that, for every four hours outside the classroom my students spent in further study, they spent three in digital flights of fancy.
For all its fantasy, the virtual environment resembles the Korean classroom more than might be imagined. In games like Lineage and World of Warcraft, mastery is achieved through endless repetition. Worlds are highly structured and societies hierarchical. Inhabitants are ranked according to their achievements. The one crucial difference: the more time students spent studying in 학원 (hakwon, or academy), the less presence they maintained in their virtual worlds. Is it any wonder that the worst-performing students flocked to the latter?
Back in the West, I am discovering what seems to be a convergent digital evolution. Here I have been living a Second Life, observing denizens of a virtual world in their natural environment and acquainting myself with their online mating rituals: computer-scripted ballroom dancing, cybersex, and virtual weddings. In the physical world, my interview subjects exhibit different traits. Some are autistic. Several struggle with abusive relationships. A couple of them suffer from debilitating motor impairments. Many are exploring facets of their sexuality for which they would likely experience offline discrimination.
Now, in the dead of night, I am trawling through lines of transcribed online interviews, searching for a common theme. If there is one, it seems similar to what my survey also suggests: compared with others online, my sample are half as likely to be married, one third as likely to be in an offline relationship, and half as likely to have any children. Though their real lives may be barren, in the digital world partners and progeny abound. Like my Korean students, many of my respondents have found they are better adapted to a virtual world than to the physical one.
But are we humans so quick to evolve?
My mind wanders to the exhibit I pass by on the way to lectures. Darwin’s finches, now nestled in their glass eggs in the Museum of Zoology, were the first evidence that a species can evolve in a matter of generations. In their splendid isolation, they developed beaked tools to exploit their environment. Yet other species, grown bold and indolent from lack of predation, have lost their power of flight altogether.
On seeing the Korean 아줌마 (ajummas), stooped under their burdens of 무 (mu, or radish) and 산채 (sanche, or vegetables), a visiting friend remarked that in our bodies, we inscribe the rituals and movements of our lives. Changing to suit its environment, one generation is forever shriveled and hunched from days spent harvesting crops under the unforgiving sun. Now, another is growing pale and contorted from nights spent gathering information by the computer’s wan glow.
Even as our bodies struggle to adjust, our instincts seem fossilized, relics of the Paleolithic era. Watch how our eyes glaze over when staring at the flickering monitor, just as we do when gazing into the fire. Observe the natural reaction of the ‘primitive’ people as they first encounter television — peering round the back of the black box, looking for the tiny actors inside. From a potential list of billions, choose the Facebook friends that matter. Only about a hundred of them, says British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, will ever be truly meaningful. This is the group size we are evolved to manage: concentric circles of family, clan and digital tribesmen.
The sound of silence stirs me from my reverie, and my journey catches up with me at last. The meadowlark has stopped its solitary nocturne, and so, for now, must I. As I nestle into the covers, my mind lingers on a last, illuminated thought…
How will our songs will change as we, too, begin to twitter into the void?