For a while now, we’ve heard people talk about connectivity and networks and participation in all sorts of terms: hope, paranoia, idealism and cynicism, from the promise they offer to the dangers we anticipate.
One thing that usually haunts these thoughts is the implicit assumption, and the foreboding progression of eventual total mediation. A bifurcation between the past, where we were not online, and a future where we all will be. Isn’t this what we mean when we talk about the digital divide? When we imagine bridging it, we see new media as a form of essential literacy – something that will become absolutely necessary to survive in the future. We must become connected to the internet, so that we can access news and information, so that we can efficiently and conveniently manage our lives (from our finances to our romantic endeavors), and so that we can stay abreast of conveniences which will make our routines more efficient (apps to help with shopping, transit, and work). To say nothing of our correspondence – how many telephone numbers do you remember right now? Do you rely on a computer to store them for you? If you lose that computer, are they saved remotely so that they can be easily restored? If not, do you have a social network where you can ask friends and family for the missing numbers?
This has less to do with dependence than it does with the natural state of things. We don’t use phonebooks any more for the same reason that we don’t use public phones, or pagers, or telegrams. Most of our libraries don’t have card catalogs and many of our arcades have disappeared (to say nothing of Radioshack). The way we get stuff done has changed, and so does our expertise on how to do stuff. Knowing how to do that is a form of special knowledge that people describe in terms of literacy: computer literacy, code literacy, digital literacy, media literacy. Some describe it as a generational trend, with “digital natives” (oh how I dislike that term).
Is using the internet and computers as fundamental to being a member of society as knowing how to read? Or how to speak? Perhaps not right now, but it appears that we are moving that way. For everyone who approaches the “digital divide” like an anxious missionary, eager to spread the word, the idea of being disconnected is something akin to being in the outer darkness. Separation from the whole is a lamentable thing, and the answer is connectivity.
But non-users persist. Not just beyond the far reaches of the developed world and it’s neocolonial grasp, but within and throughout. Not as an oversight, but as willful, stubborn holdouts, nail-houses in the otherwise orderly datasets from whence we might summon Big Data truths. The efforts to connect everyone are frustrated by people who are not just presumably inept at technology, but who are active refusers and resisters. What is this about?
Bernard Stiegler described the way that mediation in forms like television lead to an industrialization of consciousness, because of how they order the flow of our experience. A potential for interruptions which reassert our control may result in a means of resistance. But we have seen how giving us control over not just the remote, but the programing, the channels, and everything else, result in a history and an experience which is dominated by the present. How are we building our memory? How are we writing our history? Events crystalize from their representation (like 9/11) or evaporate once our attention wanders (like #stopkony). If an idea does not go viral, it has no currency. If it does, it has no provenance. The chance for maturation is slim: new ideas which go viral are expected to perform at least as well as whatever has bored us up to this point.
Connection means adopting a new consciousness, one that is incapable of looking backwards. Walter Ong wrote on how writing “heightened” consciousness. What does digital media do? We still don’t know. It has certainly made itself essential to our way of life. Microtransactions are part of the stock market now. Algorithms are part of the security apparatus which are a major part of public policy. And we can hardly call our families without the computer dialing for us. If these processes truly are part of our cognition now, then any questions about computationalism might be put to rest.
Lastly, the state of being always on, always connected, always mediated would seem to mean that our experience is invariably referenced, connected, indexed, and able to be catalogued. When we talk about ways to “unplug” for our peace of mind, we do it in terms of the machine which brought us here: productivity. The “mindfulness movement” exists as a way to let overachieving professionals have a spa weekend and boost their productivity. The experiments at temporary refusal (not watching tv for a month, shutting off mobile devices before bedtime and so on) are only for the sake of being able to return refreshed, renewed and better. The search for a quiet space that escapes the “friendziedness of technology” is always a temporary one – our return is like some monomythic cycle, where Jonah emerges from the belly of the whale back into the daylight. Mediation is the new norm – refusing it is an act of defiance, something deviant and antisocial, which brings us to a separate place. Like so many refusers who went Amish, they become invisible, and their breadcrumbs are lost because nobody has marked them on Google Maps.
Some questions I would ask then, would be these: is this new consciousness inevitable? As mediation becomes a norm, is non-use a form of deviance? Is it ignorance to not buy a smartphone? Can I expect a poorer quality of life as an illiterate luddite? It seems too late to throw our shoes into the machine, but what strategies are there for holding onto a intracommunicative space where social media can’t tell me how to spend my time and attention?