Michel Serres: “I quite like my granddaughter’s recent remark: why did that stupid Robinson forget his mobile phone?”

“I’ve known two worlds: that of today in which, near and next to everyone, everyone communicates with everything and everyone, and the other, the preceding one, in which a meticulous cutting up of islets would toss our detached lives about amid a space of scattered tatters. I quite like my granddaughter’s recent remark: why did that stupid Robinson forget his mobile phone?”

– Michel Serres, Biogea 15 (translation Randolph Burks)

I’m not sure what to tell Serres – if there is such a distinction between now and then, it seems very superficial to me. I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that “then” there were strong families and other associations and institutions which may have been closed but helpful in their own way. But Serres doesn’t directly allow for this argument, the argument which might mark a real difference between today and yesterday (i.e. we traded some kind of open-mindedness and choice for a weakening of traditional bonds). He emphasizes a crisis of the past affecting everyone individually: some kind of relentless, surgical flood would throw people hither and thither (“meticulous cutting up of islets would toss our detached lives”). If I want to build a more historical narrative out of this, I have to say people built associations as a response to that more fundamental problem.

That characterization might work, but it involves so much detail that it feels like we’re far away from where we have to be. We have to explicitly talk about the value of communication. The central issue is the quality of communication. To a lesser degree, consistency. Serres’ brief account only seems to focus on consistency, at best. It isn’t clear why or how we communicate with everything and everyone. Before, it seems we were just tossed around and there wasn’t much consistency.

My own thought is we’re closer to the past than the past would like us to think. I can call my parents out on some of their exaggerated hardships – the stories they were telling before have changed slightly nowadays. There’s a lot of talking and messaging online, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you I’ve uncovered a plethora of people other ages couldn’t have possibly known who are now my best friends. Rather, the people who have something to contribute and want to stay in touch make use of the technology. They say hi and we talk about things important to each other. Many other people have figured out that being an island is fun. I think the Internet especially is a haven for the passive-aggressive. Serres, strangely enough, has the right metaphor. It’s just not a narrative for then vs. now.

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