Why does the much talked-about politics of sharing fall apart when it is applied to the act of communicating, asks Soumabrata Chatterjee.
While researching for this article, I remembered one of the episodes in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble series that hadn’t struck me as relevant at the time. Captain America bars the rest of the gang from using the Internet during some team-building exercise on a distant island. No social networking, no gadgets—except the one in Iron Man’s chest—no use of technology, including JARVIS.
A fun 20 minutes later, the team—especially Iron Man—realise that what makes them heroes is not their superpowers or the invasive use of technology, but an innate urge to ward off evil and protect mankind. Routine stuff, but what struck me was the need to communicate, the irresistible desire to stay connected to the entire world through the Internet.
I suppose there’s a growing sense that our younger generation is losing touch with the ‘real’ world by staying glued to devices that provide us a digitised pseudo-world. You hear things like “Children don’t play anymore” and “Children don’t talk to each other”, suggesting that despite the Internet being an invisible force that connects us, it somehow compartmentalises us, creates more categories than it dissolves, reduces the world rather than stretching it to its extremes. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that it promotes globalisation as an encompassing project that is not at all divisive in its politics of ‘sharing’, but we all know the perils of a globalisation that is increasingly Americanised in nature.
Why is it that the Internet is considered to be brilliant as a whole for a society or nation, which needs to be connected with the rest of the world, but a menace, a threat, to interpersonal relations?
This article, however, is not about the dangers of globalisation and the pitfalls of American imperialism; too much has been written about that by smarter people. No, what I want to suggest is a dilemma at the heart of this debate. An incommensurable puzzle, if you will. Why is it that the Internet is considered to be brilliant as a whole for a society or nation, which needs to be connected with the rest of the world, but a menace, a threat, to interpersonal relations?
Sure, the Internet is empowering. For a nation, for its military programmes, for raising awareness, for our research, for access to foreign journals, magazines and news, for songs we thought we’d lost forever, for the torrents without which we wouldn’t have known the films of Kurosawa or Renoir, or seen the Golden Age of television unfold. But it isn’t good for people who need to connect on a more human level. It makes us crave all those Russian novelists who wrote stories of grand suffering and the human potential to persevere, to strive, to seek. No, the Internet is Sysiphian in its laborious utilitarianism, as opposed to life, which celebrates the Ulyssian spirit.
Why is it that the much talked-about politics of ‘sharing’ falls apart when it is applied to the act of communicating? Emoticons have become a viable way of expressing your emotions, even dictating them to some extent. You cannot express a feeling that doesn’t have an emoticon associated with it. The act of communicating via this medium has devolved to delivering news of safe arrivals and “catching up”, as opposed to a heartfelt conversation over coffee. Why is the Internet so un-human?
The Internet has somehow given us the power of blissful amnesia. Those of us who have been exposed to it cannot remember a time when they could live without it.
This would have been an easy argument to settle if we could just go back to the pre-Internet days and witness what was different. The truth is, however, that we can’t. The Internet has somehow given us the power of blissful amnesia. Those of us who have been exposed to it cannot remember a time when they could live without it. You could argue that you can, but just try to think about your life without Internet banking, smartphones and email. You could live without your refrigerator, your television, your washing machine—or at least you think so—but can you live without the Internet?
We always read that necessity is the mother of invention. Internet is a commodity that predates the “necessity” part. It’s a little like being born. You didn’t want to be born, did you? I mean, it’s not like you raised slogans for it or filed a petition, but you cannot imagine an alternative. This is what the Internet has become for us: it’s not a necessity, not a compulsion, not a threat, not even about entertainment or pleasure. It is about existing. The Internet is a distinct part of our evolutionary process. It is an intervention that rewrote the future.
All of this reminds me of a video I once read about. The article used the theorems of Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, to talk about what happens to our subjectivities when they interact with each other in the smartphone era. The YouTube video, ‘I Forgot My Phone’, features a couple addicted to their smartphones, describing a day in their life. When the girl is out with her friends, everyone else is busy with their phones, responding to texts, catching up with social media; she sits alone, because she has forgotten her phone.
Foucault would say that the Internet somehow gives us a sense of entitlement, that it allows us to be authors of our own life, to script our life on the fly and not in a book written in the sunset of life, about a life gone by.
Such a small device, meant to facilitate conversation, improve human interaction and serve as a bonding factor in society, turns out to be a tool for dissipating loneliness and social disempowerment. Foucault would say that the Internet somehow gives us a sense of entitlement, that it allows us to be authors of our own life, to script our life on the fly and not in a book written in the sunset of life, about a life gone by. He would argue that it is a form of desire to play to the audience, to perform in front of a crowd that consumes our life and its activities as something delicious, even though it is raw data.
It feels good to be “known” by a few hundred friends and followers, to be “cared for” in a material, scripted sense when people post their best wishes on your birthday, to be pampered with likes and smileys, to converse in a completely digitised space, where your connections are quantified. One click and Facebook can tell you how many friends you have. It chooses memories from the past year, automatically creates an album you can share with the world and so on.
But what about life, that interminable mess? I constantly read that “order” is an illusion that society—and most importantly, language—imposes on us. Chaos is imminent. What happens when you realise that there was no order to begin with? That chaos is a “good”, natural thing, while order is structured and regular. We say the Internet is chaos, but is it? It is about free-flowing information that comes from everywhere and goes everywhere, dismantling the idea of space or geopolitical politics, but it is ordered on some meta-level even we don’t understand.
We say the Internet is chaos, but is it? It is about free-flowing information that comes from everywhere and goes everywhere, dismantling the idea of space or geopolitical politics, but it is ordered on some meta-level even we don’t understand.
There is a “self-reflexive structure” to how social networking performs. It is not a mess. People who think that postmodernist methodologies are a disorienting mess are wrong on many levels. It can fashion itself as a champion of multiplicities, but there is an inherent structure in everything. There is order in everything we say or do or write. We know we are being watched; we know we are cutting across different avenues, creating different personalities as we go along, as opposed to the unitariness that we play at in ‘real’ life.
I leave you with an incisive passage from Sherry Turkle’s brilliant book Alone Together:
“On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are…But because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance.”
As Chandler Bing once said, “Looks like this Internet thing is here to stay.”