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Meatspace Revisited

by Lila Allen

January 10,2011

In October, I did something I don’t often do. I unplugged.

For four days, I tagged along behind a roving band of raconteurs and fiddlers through the winding highways of Georgia. I ate barbecue and baked beans in strangers’ back yards. I stomped my feet to the upbeat rhythm of tangy bluegrass played on a stage eight feet away. I even rode in a peddled carriage through dusty streets; no noise, just laughing and stories. If this sounds like something out of an old western, it’s not far off: I was on the maiden voyage of The Unchained Tour, a group of writers, artists, and volunteers committed to reviving the romance and connection of the pre-digital age.

From sprawling metropolitan areas like Atlanta to rural gems like Washington, Georgia, The Unchained Tour brought Moth storytellers live to audiences of 30 to 300. But these weren’t your grandpappy’s Br'er Rabbit stories – they were the painful and true personal accounts of the performers, told without any notes, and related with the sincerity and forthrightness typically only found in the deepest of friendships. Stories of coming of age in the South, pre-segregation. Stories of addiction, loss, forgiveness. Stories of mistakes.

While the stated mission of The Unchained Tour is to promote independent booksellers – the tour's founder, writer George Dawes Green, sang the praises of independent bookstores at each event, while book vendors flanked the stage – more than anything what it created was a sense of community and togetherness. Genuine togetherness: physical presence, sharing, and meaningful, prolonged interaction. One beyond a passing check-in with an acquaintance at a party, beyond a brief “Congratulations!” on Facebook. Because when someone is spilling their guts to you and everyone else in the room, how can you not open up?

The Unchained Tour is just one example of how the continuing rise of web communications is creating a backlash in the “meatspace,” to use Jeanette Winterson’s term. Though certainly much valid and heartfelt communication can occur online, many individuals are making efforts to maintain or re-create these interpersonal reunions, to nurture the tangible and the fragile relationships with neighbors, community members. To once again become accountable.

In a way, The Unchained Tour was a celebration of nostalgia: of nights, not too long ago – “we can still conjure them,” as the website describes – before satellite TV, before Netflix, when chirping came from cicadas and not the synthesized buzz of an iPhone. But those times never existed for me: I grew up in a digital age. Nostalgia for me is remembering playing “Oregon Trail” with my friends on the giant Macintosh in school, or creating virtual drawings with my brother in MS Paint. So why do I feel this longing for and recognition of something that was never mine to begin with? Is it just my own love of the analog, or something bigger?

For the first time in history, we have a choice of whether or not to participate in physicality. And as iPads replace books, as magazines adapt to the digital format, we’re also seeing something strange: LPs are selling more than they have in 20 years, despite the expansiveness and accessibility of iTunes. Publishing houses like McSweeney’s are creating and marketing hardcover books-as-art-objects at reasonable prices. And in Georgia, folks are gathering in bookstores to watch performers sing and tell stories. They’re filling up the seats and asking for more.

The word “nostalgia” isn’t strong enough after all. Though the Internet is nothing if not a tool for information and cooperation – and there’s a definite place for it – we’ve got to be conscious of maintaining our humanity. What gives me faith in The Unchained Tour and these similar palpable endeavors is the innate sensibility that they serve: the need to love and share with my neighbor. The need to communicate and collaborate.  It’s the same phenomenon that has led us to continue to gather around campfires since the advent of electricity, or go fishing when we could go buy fresh trout down the street. Sometimes, we just want to go home.

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