Existential FOMO and the Internet

You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.

Cynicism about digital communication is what initially characterizes Paul O’Rourke, the existentially anguished dentist narrator at the heart of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again At A Decent Hour. The novel is partly existential, but at the same time extremely wry in the manner of its philosophizing. In it, Paul O’Rourke, a successful but socially-inept dentist undergoes a temporary crisis brought about by a patient impersonating him online. This is not, however, some kind of financial thriller or tech-mystery, but a work that uses the Internet and digital communication to frame a contemporary existential anxiety. Paul’s identity is stolen by someone claiming to be part of a religion he has never heard of, and the central strand wherein we learn about the Ulms and their relationship to the Jewish faith runs in tandem with Paul’s own particularly contemporary search for meaning and connection.

Ferris shows us the contradictory ethical position on Internet communication and smart phones which we see posited daily in Western society. That is, things that encourage personal digital communication (i.e. smart phones, “me machines” as they are referred to derogatorily by Paul) lessen our ability to be concerned with, or by, other people. Speaking hypothetically to a patient, Paul outlines the extreme position, where the meta-data about the event takes the place of the event itself:

[Y]ou’re no longer able to sit in the waiting room and not check your e-mail no matter how sick your kid is. I know, I have a waiting room, I see it happen all the time. Even in the emergency room, you’d be texting and e-mailing and tweeting about how your kid was in the emergency room and how worried you were.

This perspective chimes with the narrator’s general cynicism about all of developed society – it’s the easiest way he finds of chastising a developed social world that he can’t connect to; later while alone, he ironically toasts the “frittatas and sex tapes”, “personal brand maintenance” and “echo-chamber[s] and reflecting pool[s]” of the millennial generation. When he cuts off Internet access at his dental surgery, however, Ferris makes him appear a foolish philistine, and the novel is one that acknowledges the hypocrisy of its narrator. Paul’s position on digital communication is a form of fear which turns into social anxiety – that the Internet presents to me all the things that I could be doing, but am not:

liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever? Where does this idea of greater connection come from? I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected. It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected.

The irony comes in that although Paul is one of those disconnected, throughout the novel his internet use becomes more and more involved. He himself concedes he is a regular internet user and that this has happened mostly without his realizing:

It wouldn’t have caused me such grief if my repulsion and eventual capitulation to the emoticon had not mirrored my larger struggle with the Internet itself. I tried my best to fend off the Internet’s insidious seduction, until at last all I did – at chairside, on the F train, supine upon the slopes of Central Park – was gaze into my me-machine and lose myself on the Internet.

The problem comes when you have very little self to lose on the internet. Within Ferris’s novel is an assumption about the Internet as a tool to present the self, or an extension of the self, which developed in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Paul is constantly anxious that the people in his day-to-day life know that the person acting in his name online is not him, and some of the central conflicts come in discussions over iPads, the critiquing of tweets by his former lover Connie and coworker Betsy Convoy. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour shows the Internet of Web 2.o, where the concept of a digital world is one which corresponds exactly to everyday lived experience, where embodied self and internet self are seen by society as one and the same thing, in that one creates and informs the other.

Paul’s initial hostility to social media and digital communication can be connected to his fears about whether or not he is a person with a coherent and meaningful identity. At one point, Connie tells Paul that he should tell everyone who he really is, to be outraged about the fake-Paul online, but this serves to highlight that Paul himself is struggling with the idea of how to define himself, especially while alone. Even for an online identity to be a subversion, it has to be a subversion of a social face that you are clear about, or happy with. A form of hyper self-awareness is required. For Ferris’s protagonist, confrontation with the Internet actually becomes confrontation with himself. He lacks clarity about how to connect to others, as typified by the manner in which he falls in love, allowing himself to be defined by his relationship to another. The novel can be seen as Ferris’ working through the ways in which Paul “emailing with [him]self” – that is, engaging in a dialogue with the man who is impersonating him – is a method of reevaluating his place in the world.

The most significant moments of this reevaluation are those when Paul is alone in his apartment, attempting to understand the existential anxiety that overtakes him. He feels loneliness keenly, due to the suicide of his father when he was still a young boy, and this event frames Paul’s nihilism:

The night was now as dark as it could get, and from thinking of how dark the night was and of my forfeited options, I proceeded to think of how alike this one night might be to my last night on earth, when all options, and not just one night’s options, expired. Every night was a night of limitless possibility expired, of a life forfeited, of a foreclosed opportunity to expand, explore, risk, hope, and live.

Sublime images  of destruction follow this fear – flooding, storms, wars, everything “sweet and surprising [going] dark against the vast backdrop of the universe”. With this, Paul gets out of bed and checks his email, where there is “still no answer” from whoever is impersonating him online. He also calls Connie, who doesn’t answer, and in this moment the “me-machine” becomes an engine of paranoia, where Paul “has to conclude that at the moment she might have been calling or sending me a text, not only was she doing neither, in all likelihood she wasn’t even thinking about me.”

At the moment where things are as dark as they can get, and where Paul feels most alone (he imagines all the other insomniacs finally asleep) he searches for assurance that another human being is thinking about him. The digital communication Paul loathes and fears is used by Ferris as a way of emphasizing his alienation at the same time as it is a conduit for “limitless possibility”. There is an inherent tension in his relationship to this kind of communication; the desperate need for the connection but the desire not to find rejection. This is the same character who religiously watches tapes of the Red Sox on VCR, where there is only a one way conduit – where possibilities are fixed, where nothing is missed. There is just a controlled nostalgia, one that is individualized, without dialogue, or the need to connect to another, or with the concurrent fear of missing a connection. At a later point, the same desperation for connection is seen in a similarly dark and lonely moment, but he doesn’t only hope for Connie, but for anyone to have connected:

I felt so forgotten, so passed over, so left behind, so lost out. I was sure not only that everything worth doing had already been done while I was asleep but also that, now that I was awake, there was no longer anything worth doing. The solution at desperate moments like this was always to find something to do, and I mean anything, as quickly as possibly. My first instinct was to reach for my me-machine. It put me in instant touch, it gave me instant purpose. Maybe Connie had called or texted or emailed, or Mercer, or… but no. No one had called or emailed or texted.

Paul still reaches for his device, but it is the possibility for connection that he is searching for. He is disconnected, and becoming “more disconnected” through the possibilities that he can never fulfill. In this sense, his confrontation with the Internet can be constructed as one around his own desires, something which can never be fulfilled.

The novel does partly resolve, with a shift in Paul’s perspective on what it is to live a meaningful life. The end of the novel is framed by discussions on the Ulm wikipedia page and e-mails from a newly married Connie. The Internet becomes an unspoken part of Paul’s new outlook, where limitless possibility exist as a path to follow – to just “do it all” – rather than a reason to shun connection. Ferris’s novel tells us to get on with living in every form available, to remain aware that fear of being alone in a society on the Internet is a kind of existential FOMO – if someone else is doing it, why should I do any of it at all?
Bibliography:
Ferris, J. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Viking, London, 2014

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