Bill Morrissey, one of my favorite folkies, died this summer, and the other day I remembered a line he offered up as part of some stream-of-consciousness stage patter in about 1982 regarding the old video arcade game, Space Invaders. “It’s the ultimate existential game,” he drawled. “You can never win; all you can do is stave off impending doom a little longer.”
I flashed on this line just now as I snapped shut the lid of my laptop at 6:30pm EST on an August Friday, sitting on my porch. At that one moment there were finally no little bold numbers in parentheses demanding my attention as unread in any of my email inboxes or my Twitter feed. Staved off, for now.
In my Anytime, Anywhere life, email, in particular, is the new Space Invaders. My family (hypocrites all—they’re as bad as I am) scornfully point out the amount of time I spend every day clearing my inboxes, just to keep ahead, and too many of my messages feel like cheesy 8-bit aliens, to be zapped before they can actually touch down. A colleague needs something? Zing! Aim her in the right direction right now! An anxious parent? Launch a full spread of empathy and information missiles! The dreaded voicemail, requiring download and iTunes deployment? Hope that it can be redirected, or detonate a high-value customer service bomb. The point is to do the job in one rapid-fire salvo, because you know—you know—their numbers are without end, all ready to fall upon you from out of the sky.
If this sounds like a bad attitude, it’s really not; it’s just the way it is. The digital dexterity and fast reactions we once developed playing Space Invaders and then Tetris have their counterparts in the social dexterity and fast problem-solving skills we’re expected to have in a 21st-century school. Even if the messages are benign or even positive—and most of them are, of course—our schools give us 24 hours to respond, and our consciences tend to give us even less.
Sometimes, though, a message will come through—alight, as it were, upon our lives—that is so strange, so complex, or so baffling that we need to let it marinate. Sometimes we need help or good counsel—in person, even—from an expert or a wise owl. Such messages, even if they portend trouble, can be a Very Good Thing, because they remind us that we are not playing Space Invaders nor yet Ender’s Game. We are, after all, human, and sometimes it’s not just about customer service or the most expeditious solution but about letting someone—maybe even you—sleep on a problem, mull it over with a peer, or just let it find its own way to evaporate, as problems often seem to do, without any intervention at all.
And in the morning—or just before bed if I let myself pop the screen up just one last time—there will be more. And more.