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The Metaphorical Shrug

Sometimes, I come across things and ideas that make me rethink.

Couch potatoes in the traditional sense, for example, are fast becoming a rare breed. This is not because more people are settling for an active lifestyle, but because more people are finding it convenient to be glued to handy gadgets rather than to stationary TVs (even smart TVs).

With the thought of couch potatoes disappearing from the face of the earth comes the horrifying image of the things I grew up to love walking on the road to eventual extinction.

The chance is slim in my lifetime, but I ask and tell myself: “What if the paperback industry loses and the sort of technology that is more advanced wins yet again?”

“What if companies that manufacture dolls and stuffed toys go bankrupt? Little girls today would rather see Barbie on an app than see her in real life. If and when such bankruptcy happens, the sort of technology that is more advanced wins yet again.”

These questions are at best rhetorical and at worst useless and impractical. I brush off the image of Barbie dolls and stuffed toys going on a mega sale for the last time ever and the thought of construction workers demolishing Fully Booked. I brush off all these, go back to earth and to my daily routine and tasks, and shrug.

I don’t shrug to show uncertainty, and this reminds me of how Ayn Rand’s novel called “Atlas Shrugged” made me rethink about the act or meaning of shrugging.

The novel is more than a thousand-page long, but the symbolism behind the title of the book appeared only once — in a conversation between Hank Rearden and Francisco d’Anconia:

“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling, but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders — what would you tell him to do?”

“I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”

“To shrug.”

Rand’s philosophy is embedded in her fictional works, and it would be near illogical (if not stupid) to even make a direct, obvious connection between Atlas Shrugged, couch potatoes, paperback industries, and doll manufacturers. It would also be overly presumptuous to think that I, at this stage of my life, could do the symbolic shrug as pictured in the novel.

But then again, the human mind is wired in such a way that it always finds links and associations. I see dots linking my literal shrug and the metaphorical shrug in Rand’s novel.

Again, the literal shrug, as I’d like to call it, is not a sign of uncertainty. It is my way of saying that I’d feel a pang of loss and frustration if, for example, paperback books were to be completely wiped out from the world.

In all honesty, this hypothetical situation shows that I probably have some kind of longing for “old” things to stay, some kind of wishful thinking that technology would stop improving every minute of everyday. This boils down to the battle between a good old book and Wattpad — the battle between “old” and “new”, or between “so yesterday” and “so today.”

And this is just about the time when the metaphorical shrug comes to my rescue.

Ayn Rand originally had “The Strike” as a title for the book. The novel reveals how it is like to live in a world where innovators, inventors, industrialists and other so-called Prime Movers mysteriously disappear and go on strike. It shows a “picture of the world with its motor cut off”, or a picture of the world when Atlas shrugs.

It is a world where economy, man, reason, and hope tumble and fall. This dystopia and the titan’s act of shrugging remind me that “the book vs. the iPad” debate is only a jigsaw piece in a big puzzle. Admitting or accepting this does not mean downplaying the importance of choosing one over another, or of striking a balance between the two. Rather, it means that there must be something more consequential, something more “tragic” than the hypothetical situation where actual Barbie dolls get phased out and their virtual counterparts take over.

The metaphorical shrug reminds me that while the advancement of today’s technology comes with disadvantages, risks, and an almost unquenchable thirst for a simpler, more laid-back and private life, the advancement’s merits and influence remain phenomenal.

If someone asks me, “What would make you more annoyed and angry — the unbelievably speedy progress of technology (and consequently, the immediate pile up of disadvantages and risks that come with this progress) or the disintegration and annihilation of technology’s present and future state? I’d answer, “The breakdown of technology would make me more annoyed, angry, and hopeless. I’d give all angles of technology a big tight hug. Turning back to pre-2000s technology is not an option because, like millions out there, I’ve already become a witness to what today’s technology can bring and create.”

I hope that Atlas never shrugs on me or anyone who has grown a little too dependent  on “tech” — a word that is now less technical for probably half of the world population.

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