There is a gem of an Italian film from the early 1970s that’s titled Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and stars the late, great Gian Maria Volonté. While watching it, it isn’t terribly difficult, even for someone like yours truly, who was not alive at the time of its release, much less a resident of Italy, to detect the righteous indignation burning and bubbling up through the film’s celluloid. Having committed what seems to be a murder of ennui, a police chief, played by Volonté, takes charge of the investigation and proceeds to do everything in his power to incriminate himself, short of climbing to Rome’s rooftops and broadcasting his confession to the world. A wry, brilliant, darkly comic, and ultimately infuriating film, it leaves a viewer to wonder, while witnessing his repeated failures in his quixotic quest: How could his associates be so blind, corrupt, or both?
A tongue thrust into the cheek, the film is also a finger, so to speak, raised and aimed at the Italian legal system. In its closing scene, before that damning fade to black, the chief appears before the commissioner and his gathered minions, who, from behind grave countenances, are there to hand down to him their stern judgment, the chief now a babbling wreck in pleading his guilt. Yet, unable to convince them, he yields at last and tearfully signs his confession of innocence. After all, he must admit, he is nothing more than a cog in this filthy and ramshackle, yet well-greased, machine. How dare he have the hubris to try and stand out for his reprehensible act? Thus, we arrive at the film’s denouement, our anti-hero made to suffer the consummate contrapasso: So culpable is he, he must live out the rest of his days utterly guilt-free, his values perverted to the point of absolute inversion. Dante, with his Inferno, never had it so wicked.
While recounting the tales told in my autobiographical novel, Howie and the Parcel Winch, I came to experience a case of faint déjà vu as I traipsed through the memories of various online hijinks, the highlight being the hatching of a cast of characters and the spectacle of them going and stirring it up amongst an unsuspecting public. Like with Volonté’s chief, it was intrigue born of boredom that first drove me to take this wayward path—my writing and working lives leaving much to be desired at the time—and a morbid, if mischievous, fascination with how much it would take to get caught that kept me going at it. Just how blatant and absurd would my characters have to be before someone woke up and spotted them for what they were: total fabrications sprung from some warped mind? And while, unlike Volonté’s chief, I couldn’t be accused of any horrible crimes, I did, by the saga’s end, feel as though I’d gotten away with bloody murder, my characters having long morphed into grotesque caricatures.
To be fair, however, the victims of my pranks must be given a little slack. As opposed to officers of the law, whose job, it would appear, these days, is to treat everyone they meet as completely suspect, these people were simply going about their lives and applying themselves to their own, happy pursuits. Still, as things progressed, a nagging sensation developed to tell me that something was tragically off. From what I could glean from the exchanges, these were, for the most part, educated, articulate, and intellectually thirsty (i.e., literate) souls. So what was the deal? How could everyone’s eye for artifice be so blind, corrupt, or both?
Unfortunately, in this day and age, there exists no shortage of things at which to level blame: for one, our ever-present devices that serve to distract us at every conceivable turn; or, perhaps, the infinite reaches of the Internet that have brought into our lives people of all walks of life—for better or for worse—such that we’ve all become habituated to extreme culture shock; or, on a sadder note, thanks to a mix of these, a casual indifference that’s been cultivated in a subdued scramble to salvage one’s sanity. But what if the cause of their obliviousness was something fundamental at its very root?
As early as 1958, in his Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley warns us all of the rising tide of a “sea of irrelevance,” in which everyone is now incontestably drowning, a perpetual flooding of the senses by the powers that be with its “vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal.” It would be these flashes of the unreal, such as the “other worlds of sport and soap opera,” that would act as irresistible bait for “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Exacerbating this condition of ours, reason itself—that ability to distinguish between the true and the false—would, Huxley writes, most likely succumb when up against “some enjoyable emotion, or where the appeal to unreason strikes some answering chord in the primitive, subhuman depths of our being.” As anyone can attest by having survived the gossip of middle school or the cacophony of Twitter or the chatter of a circle of inebriated friends, it would be tough to disagree when Huxley concludes with a bit of understatement, “An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling falsehood.” Examples of falsehoods might include Donald Trump’s scandalous golden shower or Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a child sex trafficking cult or any of a number of conspiracy theories peddled in recent years.
Bearing the torch of Huxley’s thesis, Dr. Neil Postman argues in his magnum opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, that, “As typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines.” When it was published, in 1985, the primacy of the printed word was being usurped by the televised image as we all fell in love with those television sets in our living rooms. As a result, Dr. Postman notes, “We have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane.” It is this incoherence and irrelevance that require support from a “pseudo-context,” which would provide “not action, or problem-solving, or change,” but, rather, “the only use left for information with no genuine connection to our lives,” namely, “to amuse.” The fact that television itself is amusing isn’t the issue at hand, Dr. Postman writes, but that “in courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.”
As if our society hadn’t grown vacuous enough—its feeble attention span, its insistence on infusing its every facet with entertainment—along comes a technology to deliver the coup de grâce, and with a masterful stroke of irony that Dr. Postman no doubt appreciated. Thanks to the keyboard and the liquid crystal display, typography and the televised image have now formally wed in that abomination and place of intellectual rot known as the Internet. We now read more than ever—emails and forum posts, visitor comments and news reports—but, as Nicholas Carr asserts in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, this change in our reading habits, “the shift from paper to screen,” greatly affects “the degree of attention we devote to [reading] and the depth of our immersion in it.” How likely are we to find in the wild someone reading printed and bound material? Instead, everyone is online, “an environment,” writes Carr, citing a plethora of research to support his claims, “that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” Most alarming of all, in my opinion, it is this “cursory reading” that ensures, according to Carr, that “we’re no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of the text’s connotations.” In one’s skimming of a text, the pulse that palpably flows throughout—the subtext—goes unheard, a detachment that, unsurprisingly, comes at a steep price. Toward the end of his book, Carr cites an experiment in which it was discovered that “the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.” Is it any wonder, while online, that so many of us are at one another’s throats?
So how did I get away with Howie and the Parcel Winch? Sure, here in the twenty-first century, everyone suffers the ravages of distraction with so many things vying for our attention, both real and unreal: that text from an old friend, that notification from Facebook, that series on Netflix that you’re just dying to binge. Then there is the constant deluge of diverse voices from all over cyberspace. And, yes, this introduces into our lives a kind of psychological fatigue. Who really has the time to sit and fully absorb—on a deep, emotional level—the words scrolling past on the screen in front of them? Such an act would require an investment of self that would trigger a panic attack from FOMO alone. So, given the choice, any sane individual would pick ADHD over bipolar disorder, the only way to stay afloat while surfing the Web. With all this in mind, I’m ready to wager on the following argument: These educated, articulate, and intellectually thirsty souls, their minds scattered to every corner of the ‘Net, were stripped of sufficient empathy to prevent them from detecting the entertaining falsehoods in my characters’ utterances, which were, regardless, nigh-indistinguishable from the ones made by people in real life. So, in the end, who could really blame them? Given how outrageous our world has become, their passing under the radar shouldn’t come as much of a shock.
But enough about books. Back to the film! Toward the end of Investigation, a scene plays out between the police chief, a colleague of his, and a hapless citizen, to whom the chief had confessed while out in town, whereupon he menacingly dared the citizen to turn him in. At the precinct, the colleague is grilling the citizen about this encounter when the chief walks in, bathing the citizen in a sickly sweat. The dialogue that ensues:
CITIZEN: He did tell me if I didn’t go, I’d be in hot water.
CHIEF: What kind of job have you?
CITIZEN: A builder. You know, engineer.
COLLEAGUE: A janitor.
CITIZEN: When I work, an engineer.
CHIEF: Now, you know, you’re a janitor, aren’t you?
CITIZEN: Well, you can call it what you want—
CHIEF: Say it. Say, in fact, you’re a janitor.
CITIZEN: Yes. Yes, I work as a janitor. Yes.
CHIEF: You better say it again.
CITIZEN: Yes, exactly, sir. I’m a janitor.
CHIEF: But there’s really no reason to worry.
CITIZEN: You promise me that, eh?
CHIEF: You can just relax now.
CHIEF: You’re a citizen, aren’t you?
CITIZEN: Oh, yes.
CHIEF: And we policemen honor all our citizens.
CITIZEN: Wonderful. Thank you. Thank you, sir. I know.
Once upon a time, we were all engineers, magnificent architects of those inimitable works of art developing within our skulls. To an extent, we still are, but, at the same time, we’ve also become janitors—nothing wrong with that—save that, instead of disposing of waste, we’ve begun to eat it. In the grand evolution of our society, we have become consumers of one another’s excrement as we all vacuum up every dropping happened upon on the Internet. Swap out “CHIEF” for “ZUCKERBERG” in the dialogue above, and the analogy grows that much more apparent.
Nowadays, it isn’t a question of education or even literacy but one of the human soul, the measure of which can best be taken by something as crude and as pointless as Howie’s parcel winch.
Bio: Gavin Wicklow is the author of the autobiographical novel Howie and the Parcel Winch. A former resident of New York City, he now makes his home in nearby New Castle, Delaware, where he is currently working on a collection of non-fiction short stories.
Author link: http://author.to/gavinwicklow
Book link: http://mybook.to/howieandtheparcelwinch
Written by Gavin Wicklow