The Cultural Price of Alienation (and the Hopefulness That Exists Beneath the Surface)

Photo by Ion Fet on Unsplash

As a writer, I understand that one’s own work is always open to interpretation. It’s not up to me to provide a definitive explanation of the texts that I produce, though this topic is something that I’ve increasingly considered as my novel Detached nears its publication date. While I’ve been writing from a young age, beginning on my father’s clunky IBM typewriter in the eighth grade, I’m also an avid reader. This obsessive love for reading developed much earlier than my addiction to writing, helping me to better understand the complicated world around me. In addition to gaining this crucial awareness, I feel one of the joys of reading derives from finding relatable themes and profound concepts that enrich the process of interacting with a particular work.

Through that essential context, I wouldn’t don’t want to interfere with my readers’ experience of Detached by defining its purpose, rigidly dictating how the public should view this narrative. To be honest, I don’t think any novel could be summed up so succinctly anyway, but I admit to my own bias on the subject. I also have no doubt that readers will notice certain facets in the story Detached tells, details that evolved in the text’s fabric without clear intentions on my part, which will undoubtedly heighten these ideas well beyond the pages themselves. As a result, those important impressions will most definitely enhance my own comprehension of this work and the mutiple themes I try to scrutinize. I look forward to such productive feedback as a source of inspiration, a pathway for my own growth.

With that being said through this lengthy preamble and without potentially spoiling the reading experience in the process, I do wish to write about a certain point that deeply matters to me, one which flowed through my thoughts while shaping Detached. Because I’m a constant worrier and an always-anxious observer, the continual sense of cultural isolation that only seems to worsen by the day has, quite sadly, captured my attention for a very long time. Beneath the layers of fear, the fixation on glamorized true crime documentaries that my novel examines through one of its three main protagonists, exists the somber reality of alienation. I invite you to view this literary element through your personal lens, if you read my work. And please feel free to share your thoughts with me because estrangement is a topic I reflect upon constantly, both in my day-to-day existence and through my writing.

Although it’s always easy to romanticize the past, viewing the parameters of life from decades ago as a simpler, more attractive era, I see a value in this comparison where such estrangement is concerned. Growing up, I remember a level of delicious personal interaction that’s gradually degenerated into stronger ties with glossy screens on various devices than face-to-face contact. Back then, entertainment involved playing exuberant games of kickball on front lawns, racing bikes up and down the street amid cheerful hollers while manuevering around parked cars, painting rocks to sell for a nickel each to the friendly neighbors who waved from across the street.

Of course, there were evident dangers, too, with people intent on causing harm. But the fabric of society seemed more cohesive then, where communities actively looked out for each other more, insulating the most vulnerable from such threats. To be fair, I realize that I lacked any recognition of dangerous circumstances in this period, never knowing of a predator, for instance, who stalked children on their way to school through the tree-lined streets until years later. Most children feel immune to the hazards that loom over them and I was no exception.

Still, though, I see crucial differences in today’s more detached world than what I witnessed in my youth. The welcoming embrace of warm connections, where households so often merged together and a neighborhood actually felt like a close-knit community, is now replaced with a stark separateness, even a defensiveness that continually saddens me.

During my childhood, we personally knew who lived in the houses surrounding us and an unspoken extended family developed. That affectionate understanding enabled our imaginations to flourish, to feel a wonderful support. We could play our adventure game that came to be known as “Pirates” by freely running across neighbors’ yards while escaping these invisible villains without ever feeling unwelcome. Unfortunately, that kindness evaporated over the decades, replaced with suspicion and hostility. Firm boundaries, attempts to wall ourselves from others in every conceivable sense, have erased good feelings and, quite simply, the bliss that blossoms from a natural, unquestioned acceptance.

Among the many reasons to explain this transformation, I believe the emergence of an electronic world holds much of the blame. In the midst of technology’s advances, eagerly opening divergent worlds, providing access to magical realms customized to a user’s preferences, divisions have incrementally taken over. Shiny screens are substitutes for actual interaction, enabling our minds to be manipulated by impressive special effects, messages designed to distort and to isolate, a coldness that has no concern for our well-being.

One might think that technology, with all its sophisticated polish and the capacity to expose us to ideas we might never have encountered otherwise, would foster more positive attributes, including a greater appreciation of diverse perspectives. Instead, though, the opposite appears to be the case, entrenching intolerance to shocking depths that only further serve to alienate. I mourn the heartfelt connectedness that I once knew, now superseded by the clench of a mobile device indifferent to my emotions.

The price of these increased partitions, which technology, whether intentional or not, encourages, is a culture in shreds. Of course, COVID-19 shares some of this dreadful responsibility, necessarily isolating us in a manner we’re still navigating and probably will for a long while. But the artificial contact that slick screens offer should also be held accountable for the societal disengagement that’s occurred as a consequence.

Yet I also acknowledge that every perception which provokes thought contains myriad dimensions. Therefore, while I condemn technology’s creeping takeover of our culture, I’m also thankful for its ability that, in actuality, contradicts much of what I’ve articulated above. Without the electronic domain, I wouldn’t enjoy the capacity to speak with you as I am now, supplying my reflections with just a few clicks. No communication of this sort could exist without technology’s masterful assistance. So although I criticize, I’m also thankful, which only compounds the complexity of an issue without a clear resolution for eliminating its destructive aspects. It’s a topic I’m sure to revisit in the future as I wrestle with its obvious intricacies.

Examining this idea distinctly resembles the experience of reading for me, where a multitude of enlightening interpretations are available for closer study. I guess that even through observations which instigate concern, causing fear and, perhaps, a pervading dread, hope can still be part of this complex fusion. That’s what makes life such an incredible and unexpected adventure in my view, where even the most depressing realities may, in certain ways and with creative effort, be overcome somehow.

Alisa Burris

Alisa Burris is a literary fiction author whose work depicts alienated lives with glimpses of mystery blended into the narrative layers. Her novel Detached explores how three vastly different women cope with the trauma of a violent murder in their townhome community as they face private secrets of their own. In addition to writing stories that reflect today’s complex world, Alisa holds a PhD in English. Her dissertation specifically examines the fiction of Jewish-American women authors in the context of the cultural estrangement that they personally experienced during the twentieth century.

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