Time Tunnel

As much as I appreciate making online research, reading articles, blogs and interacting with other readers via online conversations, I miss having a face -to-face conversation without having to wear a mask or keeping a social distance from one another. It is a different kind of synergy when people physically meet to exchange ideas. Don’t you wish you could go back to how things were and have a chance to try to prevent all of this happening ? If only there were a time tunnel that we could travel back and forth.

There are days I feel distracted with a zillion thoughts. It helps when I can articulate my thoughts here. But there are days you just do not know what is really bugging you. Maybe you know what is bothering you, it could be something  you do not agree with at work or someone whose views you totally cannot share and yet you know you cannot really change how others think. You tell yourself that you should just let it be, but then you feel isn’t this how things begin to slide because we do not care to drive them to see what is happening. Maybe they get you, they are just not with you or they are just wired differently. I have learnt not to take anything too seriously but then there are things you cannot look away as you need to know why they are doing it. Often we will never find out what is truly happening just like right now there are loads of information about the pandemic situation and the vaccines. You can get  truly  overwhelmed if you go on reading them and you may just be reeked with anxieties and feel disorientated. Perhaps what is happening now is the only way to make us look at the direction the world is heading even though we are only passing through.

Recently I spoke to a former colleague who now lives in Qatar, she  quipped , ‘….these days the algorithms pick up all  our likes or dislikes and even read our thoughts.’  I am inclined to believe that  it is about massive consciousness. When I feel relaxed and calm, I  chance upon what I want to find out not necessarily via the search engine.  For instance, I may be thinking about a situation, voila, a passage in the fiction that I am holding somehow resonates or I am thinking about some technical point or missing piece of information for work, I stumble upon a physical  document or text that helps me to develop my line of thoughts. There are occasions that I meet  someone and something said by the person somehow  put together some piece of information that makes up another part of the story like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. It is just symbiosis and you meet strangers,  old and new acquaintances,  it feels like the whole world is somehow connected in one way or other. It is uncanny.

A friend’s husband passed on last Friday. This friend and I  were newcomers at the Convent school that we were attending when I was twelve and she was thirteen. We were both vocal in school as members of the students’ council and were actively participating in various social and charitable activities as joyful vanguards. I cringe when I think about how self-righteous we were. We were enthusiastic alright but of  course, it was fun to be out of the house and doing whatever that seemed worthwhile instead of focusing on my studies to my parents’ dismay.

I was  eager to leave home. Towards the end of my secondary schooling, I made an application  to do nursing in Australia. I was obviously in denial of what I was incapable of. My late mother cut her finger and I saw blood oozing out, I was told my face turned pale and was unable to help.  I wanted to travel so I had also thought about becoming  a flight attendant. Dad did not think I should become a nurse nor a flight attendant. I doubt I had the aptitude for either. He would sponsor my studies. I was glad to be finally flying off.  This friend  had always been  grounded and pragmatic. I am a late developer.  Decades later, we were connected again through one of our class reunions. This is the kind of thing you do after you go through half your life working and doing whatever grownups are supposed to do, your school friends start to reconnect. I was truly mortified when a school friend asked  me why I had not approached this friend and her husband for work as they were property developers and they own and invest in properties. We live in different cities.  Yes lawyers need work , is that so obvious ? These offhand and careless banters are just reflective of the values we live with, the way our world works. Some of us were subsequently invited to her son’s wedding and I met her mother and sister after all those years. About six years ago,  we both happened to be in London at the same time and I had a coffee with her and her husband at Monmouth coffee in Covent Garden. Glad we did that. It was nice. But what do you say to someone who has just lost someone beloved? All those hours of   tête-à-têtes on landlines as teenagers,  I no longer know what to say.

A few years ago , I read  There are No Grown-Ups A Midlife Coming-of Age Story  by Pamela  Druckerman.  The author did some  research while writing the book and I certainly could resonate with her insights. The author asks: What is a grown up anyway? Do they really exist? If so what exactly do they know? She writes:   You know there are no grown-ups. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.” 

As one ages, one is expected to be wise and sensible but that is not necessarily true. Being a grown-up means to be yourself and to choose what you want to spend time doing. You decide what matters with your time.

In this current flux resulting from the pandemic, going digital appears to be the modus operandi for many enterprises, institutions in terms of production, marketing, accessing data, managing and sharing information. Going virtual and online  is also the mode for social interaction. It was as if we had the prescience that we were heading this way, somehow the Internet and all the innovations came in timely to help us ride through the present pandemic where physical interaction or meet are not viable.

The internet has fundamentally changed the style and etiquette we communicate with one another. In this  digital age, as we adapt to the digital trend  in  many aspects of our lives,  do you not find that not only you have to rethink issues of privacy and identity, the way people process their thoughts is also changing as we head towards automation and increasing reliance on technology. We are certainly kept extremely occupied as we spend time accessing to whatever we need online and for work, there seems to be increasingly more administrative work.

The question is don’t any of us get a say in this? We are so ready to propel forward but what kind of transformation are we aiming at, do we know ?

You have a problem with certain services you look on their website and you find a place to send a message and  wait for a response. If you encounter the Artificial Intelligence assistant answering your questions, you have to send in a separate request with your specific concerns. Sometimes you fill in some form and you are told to identify pictures and  tick the box  that  says you are not a robot. Are robots now tapping on your keyboards ? You want to report a problem about your network. You call the internet provider and you are asked to perform a few things just to troubleshoot what the problem area may possibly be, finally you are given a report number. You will also be informed that when you put down your phone you will be asked to rate the call plus their services. What services I ask, the problem has not been solved. Did I mention that while you are going through the answering device or decide to stay in the queue for someone to take your call, you also have to listen to their recorded messages about the new products they have? Whatever sweet voice it may be, please let me speak to someone soon. Don’t forget that when you dial into these providers, you are also asked some questions for purpose of verification. Why anyone who is not me could have wanted to call up and complain that there is a problem with my network? I find that we are all increasingly bolt down with more bureaucracy and all kinds of  rules and regulations.   

The situation is not satisfactory but we plod along. I get the bereft feeling that technology and bioengineering are making us confused and robotic as to what being human means.

We are constantly bombarded with all kinds of  data and information, we think we have the freewill to reject them but so  often the same information is repeatedly given to us, we may not have the resources or time to ascertain its truth, we will either let it pass or accept it as true.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut weaves science fiction, memoir, parable, fairy tale and farce. There are also illustrations by drawings. As a newbie, I am not familiar with  Vonnegut’s  writing style and it takes a bit of getting used to reading it. I understand that the novel is what is described as  a metafiction where the readers are constantly reminded that they are reading a fiction. The narrator is the author who is a character in the novel. He creates mainly two main characters, one of them is  Kilgore Trout, a Science Fiction author like himself and Dwayne Hoover, a successful car dealer. The story is set in a fictional town of Midland City in Ohio. Due to bad chemicals in Dwayne’s  brain, he  is slowly going crazy. Dwayne  happens to read Trout’s novel that makes him believe that only he has free will when everybody else is a fully automatic machine. After reading Trout’s fiction, Dwayne’s craziness takes shape and has a direction and when he finally meets Trout at the Midland City Festival of Art , he goes on a violent rampage and ends up in a mental hospital after injuring many people. Trout’s fiction is never intended to be directed at Dwayne but any reader who is reading his book.

Trout did not expect to be believed. He put the bad ideas into a science-fiction novel, and that was where Dwayne found them. The book wasn’t addressed to Dwayne alone. Trout had never heard of Dwayne when he wrote it. It was addressed to anybody who happened to open it up. It  said to simply anybody, in effect, “Hey —guess what : You’re the only creature with free will. How does that make you feel ?” And so on.

It was a tour de force. It was a jeu d’esprit. But it was mind poison to Dwayne.’

It then shook up Trout to realize that even he can bring evil into the world – in the form of bad ideas.  And, after Dwayne was carted off to a lunatic asylum in a canvas camisole, Trout became a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases.

But nobody would listen to him. He was a dirty old man in the wilderness, crying out among the trees and underbrush,  “Ideas or the lack of them can cause disease!”

Kilgore Trout became a pioneer in the field of mental health. He advanced his theories disguised as science- fiction. He died in 1982, almost twenty years after he made Dwayne Hoover so sick.’

In the end the narrator who is the author makes an appearance and introduces himself to Trout and informs him that he will receive a Nobel Prize in medicine. The narrator/ the author writes:

Here was what Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father’s voice: “Make me young, make me young, make me young!“‘

Quite hilarious.

I  do not quite enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s signature  style of writing  but there are subtexts and insights  in the fiction that are relevant  to our present world. Perhaps it is not the best book to start if you are not familiar with Vonnegut‘s writing.

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