Boredom, Lady Gaga, and My New Friend Olivia

by Matthew Raley When I saw that Lady Gaga wore a dress made of meat, I considered rejecting the Internet again.

Early in my summer sabbatical, I found that I couldn't abide the Internet anymore, that I loathed it both for being frantic to get my attention and for being a colossal bore.

Twitter, for me, has turned into the annoying person who won't stop recommending stuff to read. The actual information on it is paltry. I watched the #sanbruno feed last weekend roar to life like the flames from PG&E's old gas line, but quickly abandoned it. How many RTs of "1 person confirmed dead" do we need? It was like reading a cable news crawl.

I find that most news websites are stridently partisan, offering little of what the ancients used to call reporting. The vast majority of blogs are unreadable, thuggish, self-absorbed, and profane -- irritatingly profane, as though profanity still had shock value. To spend any length of time on Facebook, it seems that my appetite for kidding around has to be gluttonous.

We say that we use the web to "connect." We rejoice over "connecting" with old friends, people with similar interests, and fellow professionals, as if a connection of 140 characters is significant, as if hitting "tweet" compulsively while your eyes dry out and your face goes slack from hours in front of a screen is personal engagement.

Bottom line: I got sick of trying to convince myself that social media are as great as they claim. I decided that crowdsourcing web content was less a brilliant insight than a desperate ploy to keep boredom at bay. So I paid rude, token snatches of attention to the Internet once a day, and then ignored it.

I resumed normal life this month, with its unavoidable web-staring and "connecting," just in time to see Lady Gaga and her meat.

Gaga is Our Lady of the Internet, a saint of cyberlife who personifies the web ethic of giving and receiving: I'll do a little stunt for you if you'll do one for me. Every day, she feeds the web with a new dress or hat, a new exposure of her skin, or some new pose of her glazed face. And last week, apparently running out of ideas for another stunt, she wore meat.

It happened that I went to speak at a small church in Cottonwood last Saturday. A woman entered just after I began to teach with a person the size of a seven-year-old draped over her shoulder, and at a distance I took the person for a girl. It was clear that she was severely limited: unable to move, hold herself up, or speak. She would moan, and the woman would shift her to the other shoulder for a change of position.

At the first break, I went over to meet the pair. The caregiver introduced me to Olivia, not a girl but a thirty-year-old woman, and she held her up to look at me. As I locked eyes with Olivia, the caregiver said that Olivia had just been released from the hospital. I said to those silent eyes, "I'm so glad you're here today!" Suddenly the face that had seemed inert moved, a slight but definite pull at the side of Olivia's mouth. I got a smile. I got another one later as we said goodbye.

A connection.

So there is a woman on the Internet who flies around the globe trying to keep everyone from getting bored with her. There is another woman in Cottonwood who is shifted from one of her caregiver's shoulders to the other, and who smiles when she meets new friends. Ultimately, I do wonder whose life is richer.

I suppose I won't reject the Internet. But I will be rude to it, with all its pretense of liveliness. I prefer smiles.