Sunday, 6 January 2019

on the evils of a digitalised world


There’s an evil lurking in every corner of society, but rather than panic, I’m deciding to be very Carrie Bradshaw about it all. I regularly find myself having ‘I couldn’t help but wonder’ moments at 2am as I’m suddenly assailed by the power of this evil and taking a leaf out of Bradshaw’s book, I sit in my oversized tee and start to type. Here are the results of those Bradshaw-esque efforts.

I scrutinize and I muse about this evil. At times I go as far as worry, but mostly I just contemplate, for the evil is too pervasive for me to do anything other than investigate. It’s everywhere, omnipresent, and we’ve all encountered it. Some of us will be tormented by it, whilst others simply tut from the sidelines, watching the evil unleash and unleash and unleash. It’s hard, really, to effectively describe it, deconstruct it.  It’s labyrinthine and yet simple, intangible and yet tangible. To characterise it as a dark recess of the modern consciousness would perhaps be a little abstract, and yet to tie it down to simply social media as a concept seems too, well, simple. 

I encounter the evil when I begin to feel disillusioned with the actions I’m engaged in. I have horrible realisations that perhaps I’m in an episode of Black Mirror as I catch myself endlessly, incessantly, meaninglessly scrolling. I pause, and begin to suspect that my visceral need to keep ingesting frankly banal content is inextricably tied to the pervasiveness of the more more more mentality which has wormed its way into the fabric of daily life.  From targeted advertising which slots images of favourite online retailers next to unrelated and innocuous web-page browsing, to the currency of the way we receive the news (no longer a distant entity but an omnipresent force relegated to the status of smartphone notification) life itself is overshadowed by an intangible oppressor, the digital world and all its evils persistently reminding us of its hold on us. 

Is my creeping sense of disillusion tied to a serious, global case of Stockholm Syndrome? The danger lies in the fact that the evil, our hostage, (our phones? Social media as a concept? Reliance on the online world? - you fill in the gaps) is fundamentally inescapable, having become a necessity to the way we carry out our lives. Put simply, it’s always there. The evil doesn’t occupy space as an otherness, but defines the normative space we inhabit.

It derives its power from its subtle ability to brainwash as it distorts routine and cultural currency. Slowly but surely, it trickles into different realms. In domesticity and family life, its achievement is having made sitting down to watch ‘the news’ largely redundant as a ritual. ‘The news’ as a definitive, authoritative noun phrase, connoting ideas of it as an entity in itself, possessed by and the preserve of journalists, has all but disintegrated. Hans Haacke’s 1969 art piece ‘News’ (which currently sits on the top floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) relentlessly prints headlines as they come in, onto reams of paper which spill onto the floor of the gallery. In its day, Haacke’s piece was conceived as a means of breaking down barriers between art and politics, allowing them to coalesce so as to remove notions of seclusion assumed to belong to the holy sphere of art.

Today, it seems to carry a different meaning. Incessant printing of news feeds once seemed radical, a radicalness which seems incomprehensible in the age of Twitter, incessantly notifying us in our back pockets. Sophie Haigney writes for The Paris Review that Haacke’s News feels ‘like a reminder of when the News was still an object. It looks, in moments of stillness, like the sculpture it is’. In 2018, Haacke is breaking down new barriers, starkly showing us how the radical quickly transforms into the unquestioned norm. In light of this, perhaps our taste for shows like Gogglebox speaks volumes. When culture is compressed into content, and we no longer engage in ritualised watching of the News as it loses its status as an object, there’s something nostalgic about watching humans come together to view programmes, commenting and discussing them aloud, with more than 280 characters at their disposal.

Inundated with images, content and information, my brain has resorted to a somewhat continuous state of overdrive. This particular malaise manifests itself in a restlessness. My inability to cope with the weighty demands amid the pace of the modern world has left me feeling empty - the potentiality of things lies before me, and yet the enjoyment I receive from acting on this potential (the potential to read, to watch a film, to bake, to walk, to explore, to be curious) seems utterly devoid of value. Instinctively, I turn to the device beside me, the key into a world where all my worries are numbed in the act of mindlessly scrolling. This escapism, whilst appearing inoffensive, is tainting the way I engage with the world. It is then that my mind drifts to the awful realisation that if my actions aren’t going to be recorded, documented and uploaded in service of portraying an image to the world, validating my existence, is there really any point in doing anything other than blindly engaging with the plethora of content readily available on my trusty companion - my phone?

I often wonder if the existence of a so-called online world (a rather oxymoronic term, really) is relegating the real world (again, an unnerving adjective to apply to existence, as if it needs to be qualified as ‘real’) to a second-class state of being. As we enter into the world of the Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’  we’re overwhelmed by pastel hues. Everything is saccharinely perfect. It’s eerie and unnerving, and yet it takes a television episode, possibly even viewed on the same devices it is commenting upon, for us to acknowledge its similarity to the modern world. We have to enter into another world in order to understand our own. We’re blissfully unaware, cloaked in the same atmosphere of pastel hues as the protagonist of the episode, Lacey (Bryce Dallas Howard), and yet we have to see this atmosphere dramatised in order to spark a reaction. It’s ‘thintelligence’, as Howard aptly labelled it, in a press interview. Our vision has become so narrowed, so distorted, so conditioned, that we embrace the new normal, without taking a step back to witness ourselves. We need programmes like Black Mirror more than ever.

A year or so ago now, I remember asking a friend if she could take a photo of me “for Instagram”. The act of taking the photo was not an end in itself, for the content within it was a means to an end, in what I now understand was a gross servitude to the evils of the online world. The reason behind this photo (specifically styled as ‘candid’, because, of course, it simply had to appear as if social media was the last thing on my mind as opposed to being at the forefront) was that, earlier in the evening, I had remarked to the friend in question that I didn’t feel as if I “existed” on my Instagram. My friend agreed, and we chuckled at the fact that the content on both of our Instagram accounts was largely of things we had done: arty shots of food, buildings, other people, carefully curated snapshots of books at angles on tables and such. As individuals, we didn’t feature amongst this steady stream of content, and required a boost, a sense of validation. We needed to supply images of ourselves in order to feel as if we existed. Social media was demanding that we provide proof of ourselves. 

This sense of needing to provide proof of oneself within the online realm as a means of validation extends beyond afflicting only the younger generation. The BBC recently reported that the Conservative party’s Brandon Lewis had arranged sessions for MPs to learn how to utilise social media, especially as a means of showing their ‘human side’. The document leaked to the BBC revealed tips and guidance offered to MPs, as well as what to avoid, namely anything that didn’t ‘feel real’. The article’s headline was eerily oxymoronic in itself: “Revealed: Advice to Tory MPs on how to be ‘real’ on Instagram” - as if virtues of genuineness and oddly, humanity, could be validated online. To become a man of the people, one must ‘project [their] personality’. The way to likeability is to cultivate an image, and so reality becomes conflated with a realm that, really is far from anything that could truly be defined as real, however much the online realm plays a part in our so-called reality.

In service to social media, it is as if, and worryingly so, it is not efficient to enact individuality in the real world, when it can be so carefully curated online. Why read books, watch films, bake cakes, go for walks, travel, meet new people and discover new things - why find yourself and craft your contours, find your idiosyncrasies and understand what makes you tick, when you can post a photo and formulate a tweet. Why be yourself in a world that demands you simply project an idealised self?

One of the saddest things I see on a regular basis is people sat behind the steering wheel, scrolling through their phones in supermarket car-parks, complete with gormless expressions on their faces. I think this somewhat encapsulates the paradox of social media as it incessantly projects images of people living, uploaded by people who are often doing anything but. We scroll and we scroll, hungry for more and more images, feeling more and more worthless; throwing our hats in the ring in order to fill the void. We are all trying to appease this void-like feeling, and yet we are all simultaneously projecting images which do anything but reflect the real world. Perhaps the void that gapes, empty and hungry, yearning for something intangible, is not really inside us. Perhaps it is we who enter into it. If we do not enter into it at all, perhaps we can seal the void once and for all. 

One interpretation of the title of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series ‘Black Mirror’ is that it reflects the darkest recesses of the human condition. Whilst I think there is scope to this interpretation, perhaps the blackness of this mirror is related instead to its hollowness and inability to reflect anything real. It has become our reality, reflecting back a darkness yes, but it is distorted and unnatural: it is a mirror which is desperate for us to realise the nightmare we are perpetuating daily. We have become unstable, feverishly engaging for the sake of engaging, valuing news articles, cups of coffee and holidays for the content-potential they offer. Susan Sontag, writing on the subject of reducing culture to content nearly half a century ago, paints a rather nightmarish, post-lapsarian, Gothic vision in which the mass media churns out a ‘disseminated glut of unending stories’. The evil of a digitalised world lies in the fact that the human instinct for narrative and for stories has been usurped by a disfigured hierarchy in which the value of a story has been replaced by a desire to thoughtlessly produce content - the ‘unending stories’ of our modern world.


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Maira Gall