I think sometime last week, (my sense of the time-space continuum is all FUBAR due to teething-induced sleep deprivation), I came across a great article written in 1994 about cyberspace. It’s a bit long and potentially dense, but I highly recommend it. The author (humdog) accurately observed how humans and corporations interact in the “electronic community,” though she could not foresee how far we would take those interactions down the rabbit hole. I’d like to address some of her points below and compare them to what is happening today.
“Cyberspace…is a black hole; it absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as spectacle.”
Anyone with a Facebook account can attest to this; in 2010, it became the most visited URL in the world. Heck, anything (“social” networking) that surpasses porn for internet usage ought to bear closer scrutiny. Although there are some FB users out there that share way too much, most of us present a very specific persona to the rest of the online community, something we do indeed spend a lot of energy on cultivating. Yet this “spectacle” that we present is subject to ridicule, bullying, and even short-lived fame. I wonder if we spent more time developing our actual interpersonal relationships, where we would be?
“we prefer simulation (simulacra) to reality. image and simulacra exert tremendous power upon our culture. almost every discussion in cyberspace, about cyberspace, boils down to some sort of debate about Truth-In-Packaging.”
Again, the facades we create for our social networking sites are our “preferred” (dare I say “idealized”) versions of ourselves (in many cases). Whether it’s for job-seeking on LinkedIn, mate-seeking on eharmony, or our alter ego in Second
Life, we have taken humdog’s idea about simulacra and multiplied it tenfold. I don’t know if this is some mass-psychological epidemic of multiple-personality disorder or merely a desperate desire for us to live our lives as someone else that stems from dissatisfaction in our daily lives. Or maybe it’s none of that. But somewhere along the line, we could very well lose sight of our true selves, or at least do things for our fake personas that we wouldn’t normally do (hopefully).
Of course, with the explosion of the Internet, savvy users are always on the lookout for scams, phishing attempts, and other assorted false sirens meant to lure the unsuspecting. From ads to photos, one of our first questions is: “is that Photoshopped?” In other words, the process of fakery has been turned into a verb using its most popular tool. And apparently it only really bothers people if it’s involved with selling beauty products that might give folks a false sense of reasonable outcomes should they use their products—and even then, only if Photoshop has been used “too much.” Our sense of reality is being distorted gradually and insidiously, and it does manifest itself in the “real” world. As science pushes the frontiers of AI and robotics, I suppose it’s only a matter of time before mankind falls to some sort of robo-pocalypse that was previously relegated to though exercises of extrapolation by science fiction writers.
“i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself…i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. increasingly, consumption is micro-managed…”
Quietly but inevitably, simple chat conversations or searches are turned into a means of highly-specific advertising aimed at the user. Whether it’s on Google or Facebook, we’re providing these companies with a means to efficiently streamline their advertising dollars by giving them a big old bull’s-eye on our virtual forehead. Why should they spend their millions on advertising scattershot-style when we’ve lined up on the shooting range like those little ducks moving in a row? Worse in some ways are how search engines’ algorithms are filtering for us, based on what they “think” we want to see (based on past searches and demographic factors). In other words, they’re taking control out of the users’ hands and are effectively censoring what we see.
Beyond the ordinary conversations, it’s truly astounding what people will say (or exhibit themselves doing) online. Perhaps the most outlandish things are often posted anonymously (which points to the trend of a lack of accountability for what we spew online). Yet, I’ve seen embarrassing, vulgar, and hideous things posted under social networking accounts (assuming that the profile is real, which, sadly, I personally know to be the case in some instances). Such outbursts provide their viewers with fodder for entertainment, and may even have been posted to produce some sort of shock-and-awe campaign of narcissistic warfare. To me, it shows a lack of dignity and self-respect (or a pathological need for attention).
“the rhetoric in cyberspace in liberation-speak. the reality is that cyberspace is an increasingly efficient tool of surveillance with which people have a voluntary relationship.”
Yeah, no one forces us to post the intimate details of our lives, yet we often do. And we certainly know the problems of privacy/security that these sites have. Yet we continue to share our personal information for some irrational reason (yes, I’m including myself). Further, we no longer have to only watch out for Big Brother, but also for Little Brother since nearly everyone has a portable camera on their cell phone to capture anything going on in the street and post it via YouTube for the world to see. We willingly sell-out our fellow man for that spectacle of entertainment (though it is sometimes warranted in cases of criminal conduct or keeping an eye, ironically, on Big Brother). But then, Big Brother is still out there—government agencies are constantly trying to gain access to the terabytes of personal information that companies have about their users. Heck, iPhone users are not only tracked with GPS, but their photos are taken without their consent (and presumably stored somewhere). I’m not saying this is a nefarious plot to track and record all of Apple’s users, but…
“so-called electronic communities encourage participation in fragmented, mostly silent, microgroups who are primarily engaged in dialogues of self-congratulation. in other words, most people lurk; and the ones who post, are pleased with themselves.”
Yeah, I’m a blogger, so I fall into that latter category—I just hope I’m raising some awareness along the way! But I think more broadly, the problem with this information-age is the self-filtering most of us do by going to those sites/groups/list-servs that reinforce our views. Whether it’s AlterNet, FOX News, or some conspiratorial cabal site, we don’t regularly seek out the “other’s” views. And all too often, our sites are about pointing out what’s wrong with the other side and why our ideology is the right one. This doesn’t seem to pave the way to a reasonable, rational dialogue which we so sorely need (current debt crisis anybody?). These tendencies are exasperated by other media outlets, but that was a post from another time.
To wrap up a fairly long post (if you’ve made it this far, thanks!), I think we need to remain vigilant and in a cycle of constant analysis of how our culture deals with technology, the division between reality and the digital (simulated) world, and how those tools are being used by various parties. It’s not up to a few watchdog groups, but rather it is our responsibility as a collective (lest we be assimilated!). I’d rather not prove any of the dystopian authors correct if we can help it.