by John R. Barner
My second story idea revolved around the amount of what I call spiritual investment in our online presence. I use the word “spiritual” in a very general sense, and not indicative of faith traditions as such but rather those emotions that seem to define who we are as people: our personalities, hopes, dreams, needs for attention or consolation, our ups and downs, what we value and what we hope is valued in us by others. Hence, the great amount of time spent on “investment” in tools like computers and social media, which, if all is well, we get a “return” on, be in the form of “likes” or “retweets” or “friends.” But often we seek that kind of return, that “connection” and sense of community at the expense of real human interaction. What if that was all that was left? Only those digital traces cast adrift in the void of cyberspace—incorporeal and disembodied—that are today’s technological ghosts in the machines that connect our world.
I remembered immediately the Kate Bush song, “Deeper Understanding” from her amazing 1989 album The Sensual World (and later revisited on 2011’s Director’s Cut). The song was so eerily prescient about today’s technologically-informed social life and laid the foundation, in many ways, to the story I wanted to tell.
Another burst of information and inspiration came again from Rutledge’s Kūhaku. The hikikomori are the socially isolated youth of Japan. Government figures from 2010 suggest there are more than 700,000 individuals, most under the age of thirty, who live completely isolated lives, rarely, if ever, venturing out in the world and completely cut off from many forms of social life like family, friends, school or work. Many hikikomori get family support or are able to earn a living or have a solitary social outlet through computers, be it gaming, e-commerce, or virtual living spaces such as Second Life, but their lives are often filled with debilitating depression and psychic pain and the phenomenon can last for years, decades, or potentially the rest of their lives. I felt a tremendous resonance between what I was developing as a story idea and the tales I heard of the hikikomori. I was particularly impacted by a story I heard from a young woman who was the older sister of a hikikomori. In an interview, she stated that she empathized with her brother, and even respected his isolation, even if it meant he would not attend the funeral of their grandmother, but admitted that she herself suffered from an acute anxiety that the world itself might go out of existence and her brother would never know. It was as if, she said, he was already gone, already a ghost.