Events, festivals, and celebrations are excellent knots along the infinite thread of life. For human beings lost without a frame of reference in unending time, they serve as good reminders to think, to thank, and to re-evaluate our existence. But while habits can be a force for good, they can also be the end of consideration and thought.
I can say without slipping into nostalgia that most human interaction during celebratory times has been reduced to the perfunctory. Not because we care less, but because we take it upon ourselves to show and prove that we care for so many more people.
The signs have always been around but the technologies were more primitive. The obligatory greeting card was probably an early sign; Hundreds of identical facsimiles of caring thoughts sprayed across the world in an indiscriminate barrage of societal spam. At what point did people stop sending special cards to special people? At what point did people stop bothering to even write a personal message on each individual card?
I recently received a New Years greeting card from a business contact. When I say contact, I mean an organisation I have had dealings with, so I am now on their mailing list. The envelope was branded and impersonal, the design was non-committal, and even the personal signature was a digitally reproduced copy. A bland photograph of some anonymous flowers, extracted from their surroundings and unceremoniously dumped onto a dull neutral colour background with expectedly fanciful text in gold that said: Season’s Greetings. When did we dilute ourselves to this state? Not only can we not commit to personal communications, but even our mass bulletins can’t commit to a mood or a message, or even a specific celebration, lest we offend someone with the wrong wish. How can anyone be offended by someone wishing them a Merry Christmas, or a Happy Diwali, even if they do not actively celebrate its rituals? When did we become so sensitive, so senseless, and so inhuman?
Turning that on its head though, it never ceases to amaze me how many festival-specific mass messages even someone as socially marginal as me can receive. The mobile phone, email address books, and databases of every kind have given us the inalienable right to carpet bomb every unsuspecting contact on our list with anonymously targeted heartfelt wishes about random events. Events I am not going to be even vaguely celebrating, or interested in are beamed into my radar, never thinking whether it is a fitting or appropriate message to send me in particular. After all, nothing is being sent to me in particular but rather broadcast into that great unknown filled with seemingly unknown people. From major festivals to minor skirmishes at the local club, all are deemed precisely suited for my attention, and so I am duly informed.
Our means of communication have blossomed but our words and feelings have withered. While you can now keep in constant up-to-the-minute contact with acquaintances you would not meet for years in the old world, all you have gained is that you can now say very little to them on a continuing basis. Most of what goes on can barely pass off as communication. Computers on a network can ping each other, through which they exchange some very basic information and confirm the existence and proper functioning of each other. Human beings can now poke, nudge, (insert proprietary social network term here) each other to death without ever saying anything or actually communicating anything.
This is an abstraction of human exchanges down to the level of media. Most of us feel it imperative to read the daily gossip, also sometimes referred to as The News. It tells us very little, leaves out a lot, and teaches nothing. For a standard social conversation amongst all of us pretending to be “in the know” it is sufficient to know enough to vaguely say that the current stock market picture is bad, but it doesn’t require us to actually know what we are talking about, or what that actually means. These are just kisses in the air, designed to carry on a mutually contrived charade. We have advanced enough to expand this official gossip mongering to our family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances, and complete strangers, all of whom we are now obliged to label friends lest we hurt anyone’s feelings by being more specific. Also, they must number in the thousands for us to be considered relevant.
Since the art of communication with any substance seems to be losing ground the only solution is for people to start sharing some good old fashioned experiences. Not this digitally-enhanced winking match across an auditorium, but real life shared memories, and strangely enough for this we might need to turn to that much maligned idea: ritual.
I’m no fan of ritual either, especially in the obligatory religious ritual or the ritual sacrifice way. But, shared activities celebrated in a good natured feeling of fun I’m all for. Having just stepped into the new year and after having a quiet new years eve, a childhood memory came back to me. Growing up near an old church in Bombay with a healthy local community of devout Christians and a healthy mixture of every other kind of person, both devout and otherwise, meant I experienced some interesting exchanges of ritual. One that sticks in my head was the burning of the old man on the last night of the year.
On New Years Eve, the children and the young at heart from the neighbourhood went from door to door collecting old clothes and newspapers and a effigy of an old man was fashioned. He was dressed in donated hand-me-downs, stuffed with the stale news of the bygone year and all decked up for his gruesome end on a large bonfire just before midnight. If people were feeling really adventurous, some money would be collected, coconuts and other ingredients would be bought, and a large community preparation of some magical coconut sweet treat would be concocted in collective celebration. I remember whole coconuts dropped into the live fire being especially prized as an after-party delicacy. Most, child and adult alike, were sucked into the childish frenzy of the night. I’m pretty sure the ritual was born out of the Christian community and while I’m not sure what its origins are, I am glad to know that it survives to some extent at least, and that I’m not the only one who remembers it.
I do not consider myself a technophobe. If anything, quite the opposite. But perhaps because I understand the strengths and limitations of technology, I know that databases are no replacement for memories. The burning of the old man is something I had forgotten for a long time, but the renewed memory has brought back many others and I will share an automatic bond with anyone else who has similar memories. This real human connection is something that is being diluted if we surrender our lives to databases. The lists of contacts we send our mass SMSs to, the list of addresses we send random emails to, the list of friends we think we share our lives with in abrupt little status messages and empty pokes. All these databases are a means to an end: human contact. Try not to forget that that involves actual humans and real contact.
The next time you get the urge to send off one of those form new years greeting cards, consider burning the old man of the year and bringing in the new year over your own version of a crackling flame with real people instead. You may not be able to fit in 2000 of them into your plan, but at least you will remember them well, and you will all remember the night together.