Thursday, 10 March 2016

Stop That! (You Are Being Watched)

In a recent TLS review of a book on the impact of social media (The Four-Dimensional Human, by Laurence Scott) I read these interesting but oddly familiar sentiments:
“It’s astonishing to think how in the last twenty years the limits and coherence of our bodies have been so radically redefined”, he observes. “We have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation” ... But “everywhereness” takes a toll, “for it can make life feel both oppressively crowded and, when its promise is wasted, uniquely solitary”.
Moments that are untweeted or uninstagrammed come to seem lifeless, incomplete; “It has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a word or a sign from elsewhere”. Because “everywhereness” demands a blurring of here and there, it “can produce a sense of absenteeism, and the suspicion that, despite being in many places at once, we’re not fully inhabiting any of them”.
Others have made similar observations. In fact, substitute "photography" for "social media", and it may even seem wearily familiar. This technological thing you like to do gets in the way of real life! Indeed, we could point yet again to Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", and doubtless a whole genealogy of jeremiads stretching back into antiquity on the inverse relationship between technology and "authentic" experience, and wonder when, if ever, anyone has truly experienced anything authentically since people first started gathering around a fire, thus failing totally to really get into the true experience of an Ice Age winter. Wimps! Get back out here and suffer! It's meant to be cold!

But that bit about the "everywhereness" of social media making the world simultaneously overcrowded and lonely does ring true, doesn't it? In many ways this craving for an empty ubiquity might be said to be filling a psychic void left by the decline of religion. This is probably simplistic, theologically, but until relatively recently I think the vernacular experience of religion was:
  • You are watched
  • You are known
  • You will be judged
  • You can have no secrets from God(s)
Christianity's USP was the addition of "you will be forgiven" (although the Christian church's unforgivable contribution was to add the clause "... maybe... but only if you do as we say").

Obviously, the downside of this was to experience oppressive and disproportionate guilt over the smallest acts of transgression, but there was also a major comfort in believing that you were never truly alone, that your smallest acts of kindness or cruelty had been noted, had significance, and ultimate, existential consequences.

With the decline of religion, art took up some of the slack. A conventional novel, for example, is the mirror-image of this consoling belief: you yourself, as reader, are the silent, angelic witness to the travails of fictional characters, in whatever desperately solitary predicaments they may be portrayed; it's an inverted experience of omniscience. But this is very far from the child-like faith in a personal, all-knowing, all-seeing guardian angel. Knowing all, seeing all, you can nonetheless do nothing to help, except stop reading! It's more like that sobering moment when you become a parent, and realise you have been handed the job (for a while, anyway) of being – or attempting inadequately to be – some poor child's all-knowing, all-seeing guardian and guide.

Collecting and giving "likes" looks rather like earning and bestowing Get-Out-of-Purgatory-Free Points (a.k.a. "indulgences"), once you remove the underpinning theology (get me Martin Luther!). It also looks a lot more like an addictive palliative for the anxiety of isolation rather than any means of engaging with its causes. I  can haz mo bettah kittehs, nao? Pleez? But there is no doubting that the social media clearly do something for a great many people. A very great many. It does no good for preachers and teachers to complain about the shallowness or triviality. We are shallow, comfort-seeking creatures, who rejoiced in the convenience of fire and warm clothing in the face of the harsh "reality" of an Ice Age winter, and who would rather watch Breaking Bad than read Proust. But to regard engagement with Facebook and Twitter as an actual social life strikes me as close kin to the belief that TV personalities and soap-opera characters are your actual personal friends. Though how and how far this differs from believing that Emma Bovary is a character possessed of a real human psychology is an interesting question.

I'm certainly in no position to judge when it comes to an energetic social life. If, like me, you're a "high-functioning introvert", you probably find (real) socialising highly enjoyable, but very tiring. Three hours is about my limit. The pleasure of my own company then becomes a necessity, not a terrible burden. My father was much the same: he loved a party, would sparkle after a few drinks – you might even mistake him for an extrovert – but famously would fetch his pyjamas to warm in front of the fire to alert guests that they were about to outstay their welcome. I suppose the contemporary equivalent might be to ostentatiously turn off the WiFi router, especially if your guests are all face-down over their phones checking their incoming messages, like peasants fiddling with their prayer beads.*

But, my, is that the time? Good night, everybody!

* Although my daughter insists that NO-ONE ELSE turns off their router overnight. I always do. It saves electricity and means our IP address is new each morning, and thus makes us a moving target for the Forces of Evil.


Struan said...

I like the way your public facebook page has a couple of pictures, and then jumps to 'Events from 1372'.

I avoided Facebook for a long time. Then joined because so many of our kids' activities were being organised through closed FB groups. Still cynical, but it is a good way to keep up with distant friends, and provides ice-breakers for when you occasionally meet friends of friends. I dribble photographs, mostly likable ones, out into my feed, but reactions are rarely unpredictable, or critical.

The same complaint that the proles waste their time has been made of every form of mass entertainment, and some poor souls do become entranced by the tat, and neglect their 'real' lives as a result. I am impressed by how our yoof manages to keep up with friends spread over an enormous geographical area, and how it feels natural for them to have a two-language, nine-way conversation with a sibling in the next room, some school friends elsewhere in town, and holiday mates elsewhere around the world. Seems like a good thing to me, even if they don't get much Vit. D. out of it.

My photography is fairly neutral when it comes to FB and the like. I have always drawn more inspiration and example from things external to my social circle (when I meet *real* artists, I never know what to say). No change online then.

Mike C. said...

Does it really? Not a great year, 1372, though Wikipedia tells me this was the year of the "Encounter of Sintra" when twenty Portuguese knights routed four hundred Castilian infantrymen. Not surprised, as it's bloody chilly up there (I was there last summer) and I expect the knights had their thermal hoodies on under their armour.

I tried Facebook, but abandoned it when I kept getting deluged by photographs of friends of friends' grandchildren. And cat videos, lots of cat videos. I occasionally look in, then shut the door quickly. It's a handy way of getting reminders of friends' birthdays.

I am baffled by electronic multi-tasking. I'm either watching the TV, reading a book, or checking my email -- never all at once. You're right about the kids keeping up with each other: my daughter is still in close touch with a girl who left her class in Southampton for Yorkshire aged 12. In my day, that would have been it! In fact, the great divide of grammar vs. secondary modern at 11 was enough in itself to end long-standing friendships, as I know to my cost.


Struan said...

I may have exaggerated a tad on the date....

I've always hated the sense of someone looking over my shoulder as I read, write or think. Never want a Kindle for that reason, and gave up the reader on my computer, despite it being a good (cheap) way of reading the classics.

Google is so pervasive (I got served nothing but adverts for £2000 coffee machines for *months* after I googled a bit to fix the one at work) that FB doesn't add to the surveillance so much. I've turned off most of the cat videos, but even they help me understand what other people are talking about. Introvert cheat sheet.

Most people have never been turned on by everyday creativity, or things that are truly new, or people who challenge their fixed ideas. The difference now is that the mainstream is so blatently visible. For the moment though, it can still be turned off.

Mike C. said...

I've never thought of my Kindle that way, and it really doesn't bother me if some algorithm somewhere knows how often I don't finish a book. But those Google/Amazon adverts that follow you everywhere... As David Cameron is wont to say, "you fuck ONE pig..."

"Introvert cheat sheet"! Indeed...


Anonymous said...

Funny thing: The world wide web should in principle be a great platform for each individual to speak up and publish his/her content which they want to share with others. What we created instead is a gigantic platform for tribalism. People seem to be seduced by being "liked" to conform to the rules of their tribe - but what I find even more scary is the bullying and mobbing which sometimes happens to dissenters.

Best, Thomas (who just bought a replacement battery for his ancient clamshell phone)

PS: If someone comes up with dissocial networks - count me in!

Mike C. said...


True, though the awareness of such hostile tribalism when one enters "indian country" (i.e. an unfamiliar blog or website) can have a positive effect on one's own instant, hostile reactions. Not always, obviously. But, quite often, I fight down my urge to make troll-like comments and either abandon the comment, or reframe it in a more positive way. This is quite good for me, I suspect, and reminds me (in a good way) of being at work...


Zouk Delors said...

God will know if you breach the orange safety netting!

Have you ever read the SF short (1p!) story, The Answer, by Fredric Brown (from Angels and Spaceships, Dutton, 1954)?

Mike C. said...

Yes, but the devil put it there...

No, hardly read any SF, but seeing as you kindly provided a link, now I have. Must be where Douglas Adams got the idea for the "42" bit in Hitchhiker's Guide ("The answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything")! Which is kind of disappointing...


Zouk Delors said...

I think such stories are pretty much a sub-genre. If that's given you a taste for SF (They're so short! The characters are so 2d you don't have to wonder whether they're realistic or not! It's the crack cocaine of literature!), there's also Arthur C. Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God and Asimov'sThe Last Question. You can Google them (only the first one is free!).

Of course those are just stories; AlphaGo is real!

Mike C. said...

The interesting thing about that Fredric Brown story is the language, given it was published in 1954 - "supercircuit", "supercalculator", "cybernetics machine". Daft names, though... Kept checking to see if they were obvious anagrams!


Zouk Delors said...

Then how about "hyperspace" in The Last Question?. Actually, I'm wondering if the way we use the term was adopted from this story.

PS It's now AlphaGo 3, Lee 0, so the best-of-five is won and it could well be a clean sweep! Check out The Now Show for the (comedic) implications.

Mike C. said...

3-0? Crikey, this is looking bad for humanity... Is Lee really the best we can put up? Won't some shambling, bearded old head rock up to save the day? Surely, in the film, that's what would happen? "Ladies and gentlemen, Lee has [sadly] topped himself in the green room... Does anyone here know how to play Go? Yes, you, sir!"

Zouk Delors said...

Nah, everyone would spot that's a ripoff from Circus Maximus, where the Colloseum is one Christian short of a full show and Nero invites volunteers from the spectators to fight the lion. The script I'm running in my head is the US/S.Korean "practice" invasion of N.Korea going live, directed from the Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul where the match is ongoing. Research has hit a brick wall as you can never get a connection to kcna.