Losing Touch with Reality
Welcome to the cool, smooth, flat future
Never mind Proust’s madeleine. You could write an eccentric history of American literature by tracing instances of sensory memory that occur in it, from Huck Finn describing something as “all still and Sunday-like” (he remembers the feel of a Sunday); to Hemingway’s Nick Adams thinking that “the tent hung on the rope like a canvas blanket on a clothes line” . . .
Lee Siegel, writing in City Journal, wonders about the diminished role of sensory experience in our daily lives. What happens when screen taps and clicks overwhelm actual reality?
I fear the effects of the loss of sensory experiences of reality that bind us to our own lives and to the lives of other people.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. We live in Small Screen World, inside the CGI Universe, surrounded by AI bots. We risk losing the subtle, direct sensory associations that give life flavor. Siegel anticipates worse to come:
The magnificent linguistic sub-structure of simile will cease to exist. And without simile, language will lose the double joy of using physical sensations to evoke meaning beyond the world of material appearance. Robots do not possess and will never possess sensory memory. Welcome to the age of robots.
Indeed. It’s already happening in the world of fragrance. Takasago wants to grab customers and plunge them into the metaverse. Olivia Jezler’s ScentGenie wants to insert its AI-powered API between a customer’s nose and a perfume.
I think there’s something to be said for face-to-face, skin-to-skin encounters. The lady at the fragrance counter will look at you, listen to you, speak with you. Her observations on a social level lead effortlessly to suggestions of this perfume or that cologne. Does this not “facilitate rich human connections”? (Takasago). Does this not help “people find fragrances that reflect their needs but also expand their horizon so they can experience something new and exciting”? (ScentGenie).
We are discarding the fragrance lady for the superficial allure of chatty AI. A bot requires so little of us that our social skills atrophy. But we do save time—which we can then spend on the company Slack channel or looking at more TikTok videos.