Freedom and community have long been the twin poles of American identity. Writing in the 1830s, long before the telephone, radio, television, computers and cell phones created a dialogue about technology's impact on American culture, in the book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville cogently described a fundamental challenge of American life:
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.
In the fall of 2011, Jeff Ragsdale occupied a place that tragically -- and quite often voluntarily -- personifies Tocqueville's comment. Trying to make a go as a comedian in New York City, Ragsdale found himself stymied. Add to that the end of a romantic relationship and Ragsdale was down and out. Consider it a keen spot for creation.
Ragsdale crafted a simple message and put it on a flyer that he posted all over the city:
"If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me, (347) 469-3173. Jeff, one lonely guy"
Personal ad? Missive from desperation? Performance art?
Within days, Ragsdale received hundreds, then thousands of calls, text messages and voice-mails -- not just from New York, but also from many who'd seen his request once it was posted on the Internet. Repeat: thousands -- many heavily confessional, laced with tales of family agony, substance abuse, sexual desires.
Jeff, One Lonely Guy is a distillation of these messages and conversations, crafted by Ragsdale with Michael Logan and a former teacher of Ragsdale's, David Shields. What does it mean to be lonely? Communal? How have technology and attendant communications tools given us the chance to connect -- and then not connect? How do words bind and separate us? These questions are Shields' strike zone. In such books as Black Planet, Remote and Reality, Hunger he has employed a pastiche-like array of tools -- essays of his own, quotes from prominent thinkers and random media persona -- to twist and ponder our notions of self and society.
Ragsdale's tale reveals contemporary democracy's new relationship with technology. For decades technology appeared the province of monsters, imposed on us from above from the monolithic and ark forces that drove everything from the Procter & Gamble database of homemakers to the dreaded military-industrial complex.
But in the last 30 years the paradigm has changed. Everything from the microcomputer to the cell phone have given us the chance to deploy the technology ourselves.
And then what?
In Jeff, One Lonely Guy we are light years removed from the Orwellian Big Brother. Instead we relate face-to-face -- more accurately, device-to-device -- with the man with the iPad in the café, the woman on the train clicking through her cell phone, the executive who can't stand to be away from his Blackberry for one minute, the teen who sends hundreds of texts a day. Alas, technology tempts us with the potential for genuine interaction. Or does it? The text messages and voice-mails Ragsdale receives are also a form of one-way traffic, flavored less by the give-and-take of personal interaction and more a form of self-engagement.
"Look at the moon," Erica writes to Ragsdale. "I hope the universe is treating you well."
"I'm sort of a recluse," writes John. "I like having people to interact with, but it stresses me out for some reason."
"I think I could love you," writes Ashley. "I feel like that's difficult to say never having touched you. ... But I love the idea of you."
All based on responses to a flyer no different from one you'd see at a supermarket advertising guitar lessons or a macramé class.
"Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb," Allen Ginsberg wrote more than 50 years ago in his poem, "America."
Now our own fingers are on the buttons.