Monthly Archives: January 2010

Thinking and the internet (2)

More from the Edge.org survey about internet thinking.

1. From Brian Eno’s response:

I notice that the idea of ‘community’ has changed — whereas that term used to connote some sort of physical and geographical connectedness between people, it can now mean ‘the exercise of any shared interest’. I notice that I now belong to hundreds of communities — the community of people interested in active democracy, the community of people interested in synthesizers, in climate change, in Tommy Cooper jokes, in copyright law, in acapella singing, in loudspeakers, in pragmatist philosophy, in evolution theory, and so on.

Community as a concept has been emptied of its original meaning and been replaced by its opposite — niches, the sign of refusal to deal with the compromises and explanations and negotiations that come from belonging to a community.

The Invisible Committee manifesto made a similar point about the “environment”.

What has congealed as an environment is a relationship to the world based on management, which is to say, on estrangement. A relationship to the world wherein we’re not made up just as much of the rustling trees, the smell of frying oil in the building, running water, the hubbub of schoolrooms, the mugginess of summer evenings. A relationship to the world where there is me and then my environment, surrounding me but never really constituting me. We have become neighbors in a planetary co-op owners’ board meeting. It’s difficult to imagine a more complete hell.

No material habitat has ever deserved the name “environment,” except perhaps the metropolis of today. The digitized voices making announcements, tramways with such a 21st century whistle, bluish streetlamps shaped like giant matchsticks, pedestrians done up like failed fashion models, the silent rotation of a video surveillance camera, the lucid clicking of the subway turnstyles supermarket checkouts, office time-clocks, the electronic ambiance of the cyber café, the profusion of plasma screens, express lanes and latex. Never has a setting been so able to do without the souls traversing it. Never has a surrounding been more automatic. Never has a context been so indifferent, and demanded in return – as the price of survival – such equal indifference from us. Ultimately the environment is nothing more than the relationship to the world that is proper to the metropolis, and that projects itself onto everything that would escape it.

2. From Gerd Gigerenzer’s response:
He argues that the internet is the latest in a series of technologies that “shifts our cognitive functions from searching for information inside the mind towards searching outside the mind.” That is to say the informational organization schemes of our brains are supplanted by the ones that organize information online.

But search has gone from social to antisocial, he suggests: “This is not to say that before writing, the printing press, and the Internet, our minds did not have the ability to retrieve information from outside sources. But these sources were other people, and the skills were social, such as the art of persuasion and conversation. To retrieve information from Wikipedia, in contrast, social skills are no longer needed.”

The search engine of the past was making smart friends and asking them good questions. Now we can fire a bunch of phrases into Google and peruse what comes back. More convenient, but atomizing. We now must deliberately choose to collaborate; ad hoc collaboration stemming from information sharing and seeking is disappearing. Also disappearing perhaps are the diplomatic arts of everyday life.

Thinking and the internet (1)

Lots of interesting ideas in the Edge survey about how the internet has changed the way people think.

From Hans Ulrich Obrist’s response:

In the years before being online, I remember that there were many interruptions by phone and fax day and night. The reality of being permanently linked to the triggered my increasing awareness of the importance of moments of concentration — moments without interruption that require me to be completely unreachable.

We need to make a deliberate effort to disconnect ourselves from a particular form of mediated reality. Once we needed to make the same deliberate effort to connect ourselves. It’s disconcerting to be caught in the middle of that shift. We have been trained humanistically to want to “only connect” as E.M. Forster put it, but what is becoming clear is that the medium through which that connection with others is made matters a lot. Connection has lost its old meaning. Must modify that dictum to remove the networking connotations of the language and restore some sense of organic interaction. “Look people in the eyes.”

Obrist is also alert to the paradox of memory and online sharing: “The ever growing ever pervasive records that the Internet produces make me think sometimes about the virtues of forgetting. Is a limited life space of certain information and data becoming more urgent?” What we share becomes forgettable; we are in danger of failing to nurse our own memories and of losing the capability to be selective. With that we lose the ability to make meaning for our lives our of our own experiences rather than brands and products and social signifiers. He quotes Rem Koolhaas as arguing that the secret agenda of the information age is systematic forgetting. I take that to mean that the information age renders our remembered self irrelevant, and forces us to be in a continual process of making new selves from moment to moment. Related, this from artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik’s response:

As John Berger pointed out, the nature of photography is a memory device that allows us to forget. Perhaps something similar can be said about the Internet. In terms of art, the Internet expands the network of reproduction that replaces the way we “know” something. It replaces experience with facsimile.

From Clay Shirky’s response:
“Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.” A good point, but slightly misleading in that the scarcity in question that is being obviated by the internet was always an artificial product of intellectual property laws. The internet has made “collaboration” into socially acceptable code for ignoring intellectual property laws and mores. The threat to capitalism is the idea that people will begin to reject the idea that money (or property rights) is a necessary incentive to create things. “Expression” needs no incentives.

Shirky argues that the influx of amateur content into public discourse has caused a “shock of inclusion.” This has led to a loss of standards: “the average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not?” This statement hinges on how “public thought” is defined. Most people are not out to contribute to “public thought,” social networking has allowed them to participate in public meaning generation without feeling pretentious or pompous on a public stage. The key is to think about how “public thought” is constructed, what formal qualities establish the publicity of a statement beyond its simply being broadcast. That is what the internet has forced us to come to terms with. Those formal stipulations were always there, but now they are becoming overt. Journalism is appearing less as a credo, a set of practices meant to secure objectivity (long its ideological disguise) and more as a guild, a profession that wants to thrive by establishing a monopoly on what determines a “fact”.

The beneficiaries of the system where making things public was a privileged activity, whether academics or politicians, reporters or doctors, will complain about the way the new abundance of public thought upends the old order, but those complaints are like keening at a wake; the change they fear is already in the past. The real action is elsewhere.

Making things public is still a privileged activity, only the privilege being claimed is more naked, the rights to it more tenuous, the means more likely to be questioned or rejected. The danger is that “publicness” will disappear altogether in the surfeit of data. Credentialing will fall into such disrepute and disrepair that no information will achieve the level of truth.

Phenomenology and objects

From Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception:

The things of the world are not simply neutral objects which stand before us for our contemplation. Each one of them symbolises or recalls a particular way of behaving, provoking in us reactions which are either favourable or unfavourable. This is why people’s tastes, character, and the attitude they adopt to the world and to particular things can be deciphered from the objects with which they choose to surround themselves, their preferences for certain colours or the places where they like to go for walks.

Merleau-Ponty, citing Sartre, argues that we grasp an object’s various qualities simultaneously, with each justifying the others and defining themselves in terms of the others. A kind of gestalt is necessary for the object to become identifiable to our perception as a particular thing. A thing has a “halo,” according to Cézanne.

How does this apply to being perceived ourselves by others? Are we deciphered, decoded, as the passage suggests, or are we perceived as an unstable mix of traits all straining to become tautological, all seeking to signifying each other and then ultimately the self from whom they have emanated? The former is the consumerist trap that Baudrillard delineates, the reduction of identity to a code from which it cannot escape. The latter offers a different possibility, a way of nullifying the signification dimension of objects in a complex self that reconstitutes all those meanings as something else, or perhaps nothing.

And then there is this:

the relationship between human beings and things is no longer one of distance and mastery such as that which obtained between the sovereign mind and the piece of wax in Descartes’ famous description. Rather, the relationship is less clear-cut: vertiginous proximity prevents us both from apprehending ourselves as a pure intellect separate from things and from defining things as pure objects lacking in all human attributes.

We are aware of being both subject and object, each category slipping away into the other; when we seek to build subjectivity out of objects, the horizons of that subjectivity are objectified, autonomy is sacrificed in favor of rendering being concrete, perceptible to others.

Also:

So the way we relate to the things of the world is no longer as a pure intellect trying to master an object or space that stands before it. Rather, this relationship is an ambiguous one, between beings who are both embodied and limited and an enigmatic world of which we catch a glimpse (indeed which we haunt incessantly) but only ever from points of view that hide as much as they reveal, a world in which every object displays the human face it acquires in a human gaze.

Whose face is that? Are we having a war with others, fighting to establish our identity in the things we share the perception of, negotiating how it will mean something about and to each person who sees it? Does this ambiguity resolve itself or is it anxiety inducing, leading to the need to avoid the “hell” of other people? An object anchors our limited but unique and particular point of view; it entices us to ground our unique sense of self in a kind of glorified ignorance. We exist only as long as ambiguity about the object persists.

The processes of self-knowledge Merleau-Ponty describes in the following passage have become the skeletal structure of serial consumerism:

There is no
way of living with others which takes away the burden of being myself, which allows me to not have an opinion; there is no ‘inner’ life that is not a first attempt to relate to another person. In this ambiguous position, which has been forced on
us because we have a body and a history (both personally and collectively), we can never know complete rest. We are continually obliged to work on our differences, to explain things we have said that have not been properly understood, to reveal what is hidden within us and to perceive other people.

We know ourselves through the medium of others and the objects we associate with them by proxy. Consumerism seeks to remove the direct person-person relation so that all our self-knowledge comes from glimpsing the ghost of others in things, so that the things themselves seem to have life (brand identity) of their own. They become fetishized. How does the direct human relation get blocked in a society dependent on consumerism? By extensive mediatization.

Want friction

The ready availability for impulse satisfaction keeps our desires from ripening. If we can readily access too much of what we want, we become acutely aware of a time shortage, pressuring us to move through the atomized wants rapidly. This habituates us to shallow satisfactions and a wariness (or weariness) toward depth, toward the obscure of difficult, toward the recondite satisfactions only theoretically available to us. Deeper desires are stifled in the rampant satisfaction of superficial yearnings. (Example: listening to a new album everyday instead of develop a deeper relation to a single one. consuming media in a compulsive serial fashion rather than permitting time for reflection. Choosing consumption over other kids of activity, that don’t help clear the overhang of what’s available.

The seed of our desire is wasted when it can’t ripen into a complex longing. The sun of desire is killed by petty gratifications, ersatz satisfactions. But can satisfaction be false, or should we take what we can get?