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Friendless, Hostile, and Afraid of Soil Erosion

Glenn McDonald
"Working on the Computer", photo by Debora Smail (blog) (professional site)

In the alien(ating) world of addictive, online communiqués, can anyone hear you scream?

Here's a good example of how technology can ruin your day.

So I belong to this listserv � essentially an old-school email app in which a group of people keep up a running thread of conversation. This particular listserv is very exclusive and insular. It's comprised of exactly eight people, one of whom doesn't exist (a long story). We're all good friends on the list, having either gone to school together, shared apartments, or slept with the same people at various points in the past.

The idea with the listserv is to try to stay a part of each other's day-to-day lives, since we're all scattered in various cities now. There's actually very little actual sentiment on the list, though. We've adopted Larry David's philosophy for the Seinfeld scripts � "no hugging, no sharing." Mostly we make a lot of arcane in-jokes and obscure pop culture references. It's good fun, although the one-upsmanship of trading dirty jokes with creative people means you really have to watch yourself at work. One time I caught my boss looking at my screen, the blood slowly draining from her face. Someone on the list, thinking it funny, had sent an email with the all-cap subject line: YOUR GERMAN SCAT PORN NEWSLETTER IS HERE!

Still, we do occasionally elevate the level of discourse. The other day, one of the guys � we'll call him "Mark" � posts the following:

I just finished a book called "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." It posits that Americans have considerably less "social capital" than they once did (social capital being the sum total of your mutually beneficial social connections � friends, acquaintances, etc.), and that interpersonal connection has been eroding steadily since the early '60s. The two main reasons for this, according to the book, are television (more time spent alone in front of the TV) and suburban sprawl (more time spent alone in the car).

Mark's a writer, and reads books constantly. He's forever making the rest of us feel bad by casually posting references to weighty hardcover tomes like this. He's also monkishly devoted to the game Sim City, the goal of which is to administrate and maintain an insanely complex simulated metropolis. He does this for fun. One time he seeded an upper-class digital neighborhood with a collective of punk-rock anarchist Sims just to see what would happen: "Many youth were corrupted that day, my friends."

Anyway, Mark's smart and into this stuff, so pondering the merits of the social capital theory in modern culture is just something he starts his day with, like German scat porn. The irony of discussing the decline of interpersonal relationships by email was not lost on us. Well, not on me, anyway, but I'm used to a certain level of cognitive dissonance since I drink Robitussin like water. So I'm sitting there thinking how best to reply when another friend on the list, "Greg," replies with a compilation of political posts regarding the current US administration, and the overt heinousness thereof.

Now, normally I'm not prone to panic, but these e-mails came in the middle of an already depressing day. I was feeling edgy and kind of overcooked. For instance, when the coffee shop guy said "Good morning", I meant to return the greeting but - in a telling Freudian slip � replied, "Your government is lying to you, you goddamn sheep! Wake up! Wake up!"

What made it worse is that Greg, the guy who sent that second post, is terminally optimistic. He's been a practicing Zen Buddhist for years, and is for the most part pleasantly, genuinely, maddeningly serene. If he's worried enough to e-mail about something, we as a people are well-advised to freak directly out. Well, we as a listserv, at any rate.

What I wanted was a nap. Instead, I get two messages in as many minutes highlighting the fascinating world of cultural decay. As I say, we're not usually this serious, as a group. A typical high-minded exchange would be about how many times M. Night Shamayalan plans to make the same movie.

Then came the kicker. A third e-mail, again from Mark, excerpting a New York Times review of the new book Collapse, by historian Jared Diamond. Diamond, you may recall, made a splash a few years back with his book Guns, Germs and Steel. Guns, Gems and Steel, which won the Pulitzer, contends that Western culture's current global dominance is basically a result of arbitrary ecological conditions set in the distant past. It's a very postmodern argument, indeed � a blanket dismissal of our collective Horatio Alger fantasies.

Diamond's new book projects the same notion into the future. What does history tell us about where our modern civilizations are headed? Here's the excerpt Mark sent:

Climate change and deforestation that set off soil loss, Diamond shows, were leading causes of the Anasazi and Mayan declines. "Collapse" reminds us that like fossil fuels, soil is a resource that took millions of years to accumulate and that humanity now races through: Diamond estimates current global soil loss at 10 to 40 times the rate of soil formation. Deforestation "was a or the major factor" in all the collapsed societies he describes.


Look, fellows, I have enough to worry about � what with impending middle age and rooting against the Yankees in the postseason. Now I have to worry about soil erosion, too? I'm plugged into the media same as everybody else. I get enough of this stuff. I long ago accepted many grim realities: The sky is falling, the world's collapsing, our culture is doomed, and sex is death. But I need to get some sleep.

So this is an open letter to my good friends on the Hivemind listserv: Knock it off with the apocalyptic memorandums. Let's get back to our core mission here � hurling filthy insults and making mean jokes about celebrities. It's all about the skill set. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

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