Station Eleven is a love letter to technology, one I never could have written myself.
Love letters require distance, and when it comes to me and technology, I can’t put any distance between us. I learned to type as I learned how to read and write. I’ve had computers and the Internet almost as long as I can remember, and a cell phone a little less than that. I’ve memorized three phone numbers, some Latin conjugations and declensions, the complete scripts to five or six movies from the late 1990s, and probably nothing else. When almost every fact available in all of human knowledge has been stored somewhere online, why would I bother storing anything but the most important things I’ll need to access over and over again? (Yes, like the complete text of Clueless: You think the death of Sammy Davis Jr. left an opening in the Rat Pack?)
Technology is more than electronic devices; it’s any skill or tool applied to the enhancement of human life. It remains only as useful as far as it’s adapted. Technology that isn’t adapted to our purposes, that doesn’t change us somehow, might as well not exist.
And just as I can adapt to having the phone number and email address of every person I know at my fingertips, I can adapt to having all that ripped away from me. So I learned through Station Eleven. In the novel, a pandemic wipes out nearly the entire human population on Earth, leading to the total collapse of the global infrastructure—a collapse so profound that a group of survivors can’t discover if the world exists outside a loop between Toronto and Michigan. Station Eleven, more than any other trendy dystopian novel, showed me the distance between the life I lead now and the life I would have to lead if technology were taken from me. It’s in that distance that I saw how much technology was a part of me, and how much I love the life it helps me live.
Adapting comes in stages.
I live in West Philadelphia, a little further west and south than where the Fresh Prince was born and raised. A trolley system connects West Philadelphia with Center City across the Schuylkill River. A tunnel runs parallel to the east-west trains, and the trolleys leave the tunnel and run on tracks above ground when they reach 40th St. and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.
Every year for the first two weeks of August, that tunnel is completely shut down to all trolley traffic. Five lines’ worth of commuters in West Philadelphia board their usual trolleys and, two blocks short of the tunnel, are sent on a 15-minute reroute to the east-west trains to reach the other parts of the city. A year’s worth of maintenance on the tracks and electric system is performed during these two “lowest use” weeks of the year. Those are weeks when people still need the damn things to get to work, but they’re the weeks before the city’s massive university population moves back for the new school year.
This technology is built into Philadelphia’s infrastructure. Our infrastructure survives on the investment and effort of past generations. We’ll likely ride out this inheritance until its sudden and violent collapse claims enough human life to justify large scale investment, planning, and action.
For now, I adapt to a flaky transportation system that requires twenty minutes added to any ETA. I adapt to a daily fifty-minute commute to work (one way). I adapt to delays that can make getting home a ninety-minute journey (one way). I adapt just like I adapted to the smothering humidity of the Delaware Valley, or the fact that Philadelphia prides itself on the revolutionary concept of meat-and-cheese sandwiches and a broken bell three blocks away from the real star of Old City Philadelphia—the privy pits below Ben Franklin’s house.
I adapt because what’s the alternative?
Where do you live? Is it any better?
If the infrastructure collapsed, as it does in Station Eleven, I would try and make my way to a small town near Hoboken, New Jersey to be with my family. This assumes that I survive long enough to travel again—that I survive the pandemic, starvation, my fellow scavengers, and anarchy. This assumes I survive long enough to think about something besides survival and find that survival is insufficient.
If the infrastructure collapsed and I did make it to the post-pandemic New York area:
- Holy shit the cannibalism would be unreal;
- I would still never see most of my friends again.
Most of my closest friends are scattered throughout the country and across the ocean. Now they are a plane away. If the infrastructure collapsed, there wouldn’t be enough miracles to ever let me see them again.
If the infrastructure collapsed, I would never write again.
That isn’t to say I would never tell stories again. If I did manage to survive the pandemic, the collapse, and the starvation long enough to join up with other survivors and create a community, the stories would come. Think of how much TV there would be to recap and remember, and for an actual purpose this time! We would be preserving cultural history!
No, the world would be too utilitarian for that. Would I steal a really solid journal from the last Barnes and Noble to start keeping track of survival tips for the next generation? Sure. Would I write to create again? No.
The idea of writing stories by hand again would be the thing that breaks me on hard days. I could never type, delete, type, delete, search thesaurus, type, type, consult research across four other tabs, type, change punctuation, type, substitute word, in seconds. I could never see my thoughts appear in front of me as I’m thinking them and watch myself, the living wonder of my mind, try for something close to perfection again and again. I would have to ration paper and ink because newly rare resources like paper and ink would suddenly make every written volume as precious as something out of the Library of Alexandria.
(Speaking of lost things, I refer to the fake Library of Alexandria, the one standing in our collective memory as a monument to where We Got Everything Right Once rather than what it was: a storehouse of imperfect things made by imperfect people. It’s been two millennia since the place burned down and we’ve likely rewritten everything that was lost. It’s absurd to bestow immeasurable value to what we’ll never see rather than confront our shitposting demons.)
Writing, already difficult and painful enough when my hands and my keyboard and my software can keep up with the speed of my thoughts and revisions, would become unbearable. I’d teach myself to forget what I could never have again.
So this is my love letter to Station Eleven. In the distance between me and the story, I can see all the ways I would have to change without technology, because of all the ways technology has already changed me.
I’m visiting home, now in the days before the infrastructure collapses, in the time when rerouting trolleys is enough. On Saturday morning, my brother and I are watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail while our parents are out running errands and picking up lunch. We’re all texting each other.
Mom: If your father disagrees with me one more time or stops watching the road to look at the trees I’m going to strangle him!
Me: ok but lunch first
Bro: Michelle thinks you suck… don’t spit in my burger.
Me: spit in his burger it’s the bacon one
also his coke it’s the diet coke
eat his fries
mom he called me an asshat
Mom: Oh I like to feel the love
This is what we’ll miss when it’s gone.