It's interesting how different spheres of our lives invade each other, like warring provinces.
I came into my little office this morning ready to sink into a bit of creative work.
This is the place I've trained myself to sit and think and slow down a bit, which is something of a challenge because it's also the space where I keep my computers. In any case I had some words percolating forward from the hind-brain towards the fingers, and thought I might affix them to the medium of pen on paper.
But as I sat down with my cup of coffee, I was faced with a stack of orders from work which needed to be invoiced.
It seemed so strange to see them here. I'd taken them home because, like most businesses right now, we've been limiting our inter-personal contact as much as possible and accomplishing what administrata we can from home.
I thought about setting the orders aside to conquer them later. After all, it was 5:30 in the morning. In a normal world with normal work-days, I wouldn't even have started my commute at this hour. But there was something about that pending task which demanded it be dispensed with immediately. The stack of paper had a foreign physicality. Its presence on a desk which didn't normally attend to practical matters was a sort of blot or offense to the usual order of things.
Please understand: I'm very grateful to have a task to perform for an employer who is not only reasonable but generous in the present circumstances. Also for the opportunity to add value to such an enterprise from the comfort of home and the sartorial embrace of soft pajamas.
Even so, seeing these papers was a bit like finding an onion in your pumpkin pie, or a clove of garlic in your custard. It's all good. It's just not where it belongs.
It seemed the best manner in which to set things right was to handle this task immediately so that these papers could be removed from the room in good conscience. After all, I had set them here so that I wouldn't forget about them, and as a reminder they were performing their job all too well.
Remote Desktop as Shadow World
As many have discovered in this time of plague, there is software which allows one to see what is on the screen of a remote machine from that of one close to you, and even to control and interact with that machine as if you were present in that distant location, or it were here. (Albeit through a haze of compromised resolution and the stutter of a slight delay which feels a bit like drunkenness.)
So it was this morning that I opened a window into a scene of business correspondence and accounting software previously only familiar to that other world. And through this window it was that I cross-checked pricing and composed invoices which could be virtually printed and emailed to customers. And thus it was that, in that space still though the task was completed, I remained for a time to check on incoming orders and see what sort of physical goods I would be packing and shipping, at the next occasion that I could be corporeally present in that sphere in this age of reduced travel and contact.
At this point a weakness sets in, a feeling of paralysis, as if we are able to step into this window but never truly reach what's on the other side: the goods and tools, the products of our needs and satisfaction. I can imagine them there, in the shelves and chambers arrayed about that distant screen. But though I know the arrow of my cursor is tracing out its opportunities in the darkness of an unlit shop, it can never reach past that membrane. The distance may be reduced to zero, but there is still a wall there, as when lovers press their hands to the window of a prison visitor's lobby and can only touch glass.
A few questions arise as I work. There are things I have to ask the boss. It makes no sense to email him at home, or call; the information is in the shop, cataloged in filing cabinets, on paper. It's still, mostly, an old-fashioned sort of place. So I look away from the virtual window and back to my own computer (although I never even turn my head) and send an email from my own email software to the store, where the boss will see it when he checks up on the place.
But I see it first, watch it pop up over there, marked as "unread", which is only half-true. For now I can return to my hobbies, but understand I'll get a reply at some point, before I can truly complete this task. Maybe I should just stay in "work mode," and wait.
Then I realize that, hypothetically, I could stay on that remote computer and open a window to look back at this one, and so on back and forth, an infinite regression of virtualized remote desktops, with just a little extra delay each time.
I start to feel dizzy.
Perhaps the worlds of work and home have invaded each other enough for one day.
Who we are at work can be very different from who we are at home.
Encountering both of these people in the same room is disconcerting, like learning Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person. Except it's worse when they are both you.
For that matter, I think we all wall-off portions of ourselves for all kinds of different circumstances. Are you the same person after you got married than you were before? After you had children? Who are you when you're flirting with the clerk at the liquor store? Are you the same person who was discussing your mortgage application with your loan officer?
Online, I do most things under pseudonym because I want to choose who I share certain parts of myself with. I know it wouldn't be hard to track down my real name; many of you already know it. It's just a token gesture, like locking the door even though you know anyone with a rock can just come through the window.
That doesn't mean I have to leave the door open to help them out.
Maintaining a pseudonym used to be so much easier.
It's another way these spheres are dissolving, or mixing, or invading each other.
In the old days, you'd have an account on a web-site or a blogging platform, and share something under the name you chose.
Now you have to be logged in to a browser. I mean, not really, but it's so inconvenient if you aren't that the barriers to creative work escalate frustration until acquiescence. It's just more convenient, they told us, to log in as ourselves, rather than keeping track of all those identities and accounts. Why not keep everything you've ever made and every note you've ever taken in the cloud, just a click away?
But are we our at-home selves or our working selves? Our selves from one job or another?
Which one of us has logged in?
If you forget to log out of a browser, you can get into trouble. There have been times when I've used my personal phone camera for a project at my job. Then (lacking the proper cable) retrieved those photos through an online service. Then, gone home and wondered if I'd forgotten to log out of that service on a work computer.
It's easy to forget, at the end of a hectic day. We're so busy transitioning from the selves who were working to the selves who commute.
But there's nothing quite as uncomfortable as sitting on the train home trying to remember if you logged out. You're wondering if the guys working the later shift have access to every photo you've taken and every document you've written.
It's why I've stopped using Google Keep for my grocery lists.
With the latest version of Windows, the whole damn computer builds assumptions around your identity. Windows 10 has this "Task View" button which calls up all the documents, pictures and programs you've looked at for the past month. It's disconcerting, with work and home life being so intermingled.
Which Winston am I looking at here? The tobacconist? The writer? The Minecraft-playing man-child?
We're self isolating, but we're sharing more than ever
Work and home are getting all mixed up. School, too. Kids are attending classes online, so their conversations with teachers and each other can be saved and archived forever by the corporations that provide the software making it possible. You can bet China is mining their data for social credit scores; would you be willing to bet that our government isn't?
When the things we do last forever, the past can invade the future.
This is nothing new. Cormac MacCarthy wrote of his young protagonist in Blood Meridian,
...in him breeds already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
Even with the best of parents, we raise ourselves. Especially today. But also especially today, we don't get to leave anything of ourselves behind. What happens when these internal borders come down, when we can't wall ourselves off from who we used to be?
Or when we can't be one man for the saint and another for the criminal?
There's this virus going around that gets into our noses and our mouths. It grabs hold of our cells, hijacks their protein machinery, and instructs them to make copies of itself.
It's information, spreading, copying, multiplying. That's all it is.
It's not even a lot of information. Just a little thing, 30,000 letters long. (Three times the length of this post.)
But then again, how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life...
Steve Reich - "Proverb" Link
What thought is yours? Do you have room for more than one?
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