The virtualization of experience
Recent thoughts on social media reminded me of a phrase I heard for the first time recently, which I suspect we will probably hear again – ‘digital natives,’ meaning the increasing fraction of young people who, like many of my fellow undergrads, cannot remember a world without ubiquitous cell phones and Internet access. This was in an NPR news item about the decline of the bookcase, by the way. It seems that furniture companies are making fewer of them, and redesigning them for what people are more likely to use them for now: holding DVDs and electronics. At what point does a bookcase stop being a bookcase?
And what does it mean to be ‘native’ to the placelessness of telecommunications? People are learning to socialize – making friends, falling in love, ‘growing up’ – in a virtual space we tend to think of as somehow overlaid on the actual world. It’s often struck me lately how ads for phone and Internet service typically feature an intense, emotional depiction of ‘togetherness’ across distance. We are supposed to feel like Skyping with someone half a world away ‘is just as good as’ being in the same room with them: in other words, being separate is the same as being together.
Of course we can all be grateful to not be entirely disconnected from those we care about, and sometimes that’s very valuable; then again, it’s not like people were ‘entirely disconnected’ in the age of landlines and letters (or before). Actually being somewhere, with someone, meant more because it required more planning, purpose, and above all, presence. Increasingly, the potential to always be virtually together devalues actually being there together. The possibility of communication makes a reality of isolation more tolerable, and consequently, more normal – an isolation seldom more palpable than while waiting for the phone to ring, or for the newsfeed to ‘update.’
Not only space, but time disappears too as the instantaneous simultaneity of ‘real time feeds’ collapses all moments into a kind of static equivalency, in an eternal present. It seems like only yesterday it often took 10 or more minutes to connect to AOL via dial-up; today our peers often become frustrated to the point of fury at a few seconds’ delay downloading some triviality or other onto their smartphones. The other odd thing about the phrase ‘digital natives’ is not only that there is nowhere to be native to, spatially, in the ‘networked world,’ but that this seems to be clearly a generational designation: only the young are ‘native’ to the ‘digital age.’ We are speaking of a time, not a place, yet any sense of temporality is missing from this term, or the perspective it apparently expresses.
Facebook, meanwhile, has gone from ‘walls’ to ‘timelines,’ flattening a biography into an automatically generated gallery of data. This is actually the model behind the increasing number of sites where we are not actually being sold something, but are being sold as viewers of advertising; “we” in this case refers, of course, to collections of data circulating through distant corporate servers. Experience is annihilated when it is turned into information; there is really no kinder way to put it. It’s not just that we are being tracked in this way, but are constantly conditioned to think like this in order to make it easier for consumers themselves to carry out the kind of market research advertisers once paid top dollar for.
Upon visiting any of a multitude of sites, or registering for various kinds of services, we are asked any number of questions about our lives and interests, as if by a sensitive and caring friend. Are we looking for someone to date? What kinds of art, music, film and literature do we enjoy? Where do we stand on politics and religion? Many people apparently receive these overtures as flattery; their opinion matters and now they have the chance to share it with the world!
The “news feeds” run constantly, like a news ‘ticker’ keeping track of changes in stock prices, ready to relay anything at all. The ability to say something instantly to a potentially oceanic audience attaches easily enough to our egos that it dizzily becomes the compulsion to say something. When someone comments back, we are reassured that we have a real social life (despite all evidence to the contrary) because we produce enough meaning to capture someone’s attention. Hence the explosion of blogs, Tweets, Facebook ‘timelines’ and so on delivering an unfettered torrent of trivial gossip, uninformed rants and embarrassing confessions – all quite useless except for the egos of those who emit them, the simulacra of community engendered with other digital “selves,” and of course the only-slightly-less-virtual speculative economies of advertisers and site owners who profit off this diffuse production of incessant discourse.
So this is why it is not only a question of me and my subjective individual existence, and whether I can abstain from the distractions of the digital environment to find some kind of ‘authenticity,’ but of the fact we have such an environment, the uncanny valley peopled by the digital natives. What we think of as our individual and social existence is shaped by an order of the world that hides behind terms like ‘information technology,’ ‘the Internet,’ the ‘new economy,’ that includes the massive deployment of devices that capture and circulate information as much as the sense of alienation we can’t seem to slake by socializing through them.
The bottom line of this world and its truths is that sociality and commodity have become identical, with only the most tenuous formal connections to “real life” that is becoming increasingly virtual anyway. A proxy form of social life transpires in this marketplace of information and identity, brightly-lit and always open for business, its every moment recorded and marketable. Hollowed-out experience reveals its form to be that of an ideal commodity, that can be anything to anyone because it is nothing itself, and it increasingly recreates our social relations as mutual absences. But the world of our shared presences awaits us patiently, if only we can put down our phones long enough to really be there.
Jan Dichter is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.