"Digital exuberance"; always connected, never there

From a Feb. 2006 Prospect article (pdf) by Will Davies.

This article lays out Davies’s argument that as we move toward perpetual connectivity, we need a “new ethics of inconvenience” to preserve community in the face of the implicit individualism of gadgetry. “For every technologically enabled gain in convenience or efficiency, there is likely to be a cost to cohesion or stability.” Yes. This is because we have come to understand convenience as a special kind of efficiency — the elimination of the need for social compromise, for politics. Convenience has become the guarantor of the self, or “real identity” to ourselves, since it consists of the fantasy of complete personal autonomy, of total self-sufficiency in pleasing oneself. Against this fantasy stands the real “public value” of democratic institutions that create collective conditions of equality and fairness, that worth of which is easy to forget about in the midst of all the spectacle and self-regarding forced upon us.

Davies suggests that “technological bottlenecks can also be necessary conditions of social interaction or valuable moments of isolation.” In the friction generated as we adopt new technology, we are reminded of what is jeopardized by it. Atavistic states of mind can suddenly no longer be taken for granted, and we see for the first time the conditions of everyday life as they are in the process of slipping away for good. Among these conditions are the kinds of makeshift strategies we have derived to sustain community and connection, which new communications technologies tend to supplant or facilitate to such a level of ease that they appear almost superfluous. Communication in many ways inheres in the friction, in the difficulty involved in making it happen, in achieving reciprocal understanding. This same difficulty also limits the degree our personal communications can be commercialized, though emerging social media work to overcome this, removing the stigma on smooth, broadcast interpersonal communication and ending the equation of difficult talk with authentic connection. We may lose sight of the “authentic” as a relevant category with regard to friendship or intimacy.

Davies points out how internet technology has brought benefits mainly to the consumer in terms of efficiency and ease of consumption. Technology makes consumption more convenient, mainly by removing the unpredictable human element. “The assumption underlying the digital model of progress is that we want fewer obligations, more immediate satisfaction, less contact with strangers in public spaces and more with those we already know.” The result is a growing selfishness, or rather, a sense of entitlement of being left alone coupled with the delusion that one is at the center of everyone else’s world because one is linked to them in a persistent network.

Digital technologies are generally personalised and ubiquitous, allowing us to opt in and out of social situations in a particularly egocentric fashion. Already, mobile phones offer us an almost permanent get-out clause from the here and now. As the ubiquity and bandwidth of the wireless internet grows, so the forms of technological connectivity that are constantly available to us will grow also.

Connectivity is, somewhat paradoxically, a way of never needing to be specifically present in a particular moment. Always connected, never there. It extends an on-demand sociality to every consumer of other people’s conversation. You time-shift it to when you can be bothered with it. Synchronized reciprocity ceases to be a cultural norm. Collective identity derived from the habits or even the experience of co-presence is harder to achieve; politics becomes self-centered. Davies argues that “community depends on some sense of continuity and co-dependence, and a sense of the inescapability of social relations.” Otherwise we imagine ourselves with limitless individual autonomy, and regard the inevitable limits as gross injustices. We seek to eliminate limits by shunting them onto someone else, gaining freedom at their expense instead of compromises for communal welfare.

Thus we must seek out the “beneficial checks on individualistic autonomy” and find some way to implement them. Davies hopes that the “economy of presence” — the idea that co-presence, since rare, will come to seem valuable — will reincentivize difficult communication and consumption inefficiency and inconvenience. But it may be that the passive pleasures of consuming media will more than compensate for the loss in aura that was once derived from face-to-face talk and live performance. He is right that “privilege will lie in access to rare face-to-face services” — that granting facetime will carry more significance, that human customer service will be reserved for elites who can afford it while the rest of us deal with automated “help” that serves mainly to drive us to distraction until we give up our grievances.

But this basically means we only want human contact in a crisis of some kind, and under normal circumstances it is a democratic triumph that most of us are freed from the indignity of other people’s frailties. Wanting to talk to a person in virtually any situation is a signal that everything is fucked — that the self-sufficiency of the individual has been breached. We are forced to face our lack of autonomy, and we likely hope we can buy our way out of extended human contact — that we can purchase help as commodified labor. When people recognize the need for each other, the need to unite in collective purpose, it is regarded as an extraordinary, and unpleasant, situation, an anomaly rather than the norm, let alone the ideal.

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