The problem with the living is that they’re, well… alive. And living people tend to have a mind of their own. They have what is sometimes called agency—they do things, choose things, want things, avoid things. This is often quite conve­nient. When you ask someone a question, for example, they just might answer.

I’m kidding, of course. But this agency business is neither simple nor stable. The forces that drive the human mind are many and they are in a state of continuous flux. Which makes conversing with the living an activity that is fraught with peril. People change their minds, regret decisions, contradict themselves, undo previous choices, tell half-truths and whole untruths, don’t know why they think what they think, and are generally—human.

You can never truly see inside another person’s mind. But in the living, this lack of clarity is compounded by the fact that that mind itself is always evolving and adapting.

Yay the Dead

Enter some of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet: the dead. Unlike everyone you see around you, they have one terrific advantage: they’re not alive anymore.

This has a slight drawback in the sense that they lack—here it is again—agency. So if you ask them a question, they won’t ponder it and craft a freshly-minted reply for you. They are, after all, departed.

But here’s the escape hatch: while they were still alive, they left their mark on the world. If you knew them personally, that mark can take the form of memories, photographs, letters, gifts. On top of that there’s a whole host of perfectly acceptable dead people whom you never knew and who can still be of service. They are the artists and philoso­phers, scien­tists and vision­aries whose presence is still felt long past their due date. They have a head start on you with a wealth of life experience, they were good enough to capture their wisdom in paintings and poems and postu­lates, and best of all… they’re dead.

Refresh. Influence. Repeat

Unlike many dead people, the internet is very much alive. It has taken over the way we look at the world. Information is no longer a rare commodity that you have to go prospecting for; it is now an unceasing avalanche of mostly irrel­evant bits (and bytes) of data. Information has gone from being the gold nugget at the bottom of the river to being the streaming torrent itself. The trick now is not to find the nugget, but to stay afloat.

As a result, messages have to be louder, more frequent and more outra­geous to stand out. Your social media news feed is a massive choir of voices whose main concern is not to say something of value, but to even be noticed at all. And behind the scenes, there are singers in this choir whose goal isn’t event to tell you anything—they simply want to mine your data to influence you. Because you, after all, are not the “user” but the product.

This brings with it entirely new rules of play for an entirely new game, whose troubling spawn includes things like fake news (AKA propa­ganda), alter­native facts (AKA lies) and the likes of Cambridge Analytica (AKA Iago to your Othello).

Your news feed is populated by messages that are customized for a quick attention grab—not for long-term relevance. The trash heap of oblivion is always just one refresh away.

The Not-So-News Feed

In the history of art and philosophy, by contrast, your “timeline” is much more stable and dependable. History, in a quite literal sense, is the timeline.

An inquis­itive mind who read Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1918 to glean some insights into the human condition will have found the identical “content”—I hate that word—as you would if you did the same today. Unlike brands, corpo­ra­tions, political parties, bloggers, celebrities, insti­tu­tions, interest groups and other “influ­encers,” the Bard is bliss­fully dead and therefore has no stake in how he contributes to your life today. If he guides your mind in a certain direction, Will will not benefit from it anymore.

Neither will Homer when you read the Iliad; nor Picasso when you study Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; nor Vivaldi when you listen to Le quattro stagioni. You may be moved to tears by reading Sappho, even though her poetry lives in a sublime realm beyond time. A world where you don’t swipe down and reload to see new updates, but where ideas that have stood the test of time await your attention.

So take a break from the dopamine-powered dominion of your notifi­ca­tions feed and strike up a conver­sation with a dead person. To stick with Shakespeare: he has, for example, something to say to you about “the insolence of office” that may shed new light on what’s going on in politics nowadays (Hamlet); and if the state of the world sometimes makes you “tired with all these” and cry for restful death, give Sonnet 66 a try.

I somehow doubt whether in 2418 anyone will still be much concerned about, say, some or other ice bucket challenge or wardrobe malfunction. Shakespeare’s own restful death came more than 400 years ago, but his words still ring true and they’re worth a listen.

• • •

Image credit: Prospero and Miranda from “The Tempest” of William Shakespeare by William Hogarth, c. 1728 (source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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