To say that people are occupied with their digital technology devices nowadays is almost redundant. One only needs to walk about in a big city and see how leering into cellphones has become a human reflex. What was not too long ago spoken about in terms of escapism is now a common and acceptable mode of behavior. The reasons for the meteoric rise in smartphone use are also fairly obvious, being a one-stop-shop for much of our informational and communicational needs, enough to outweigh its escapist proclivities. I wish to claim that much of the social disconnect that we experience nowadays can be explained by the rapid entrance of the new information media into our lives. That is, while we might believe that we are in charge of our thoughts and behavior, that we can choose how to examine things in front of us; our use of media ends up dictating our scope of perception, our expectations from reality, from ourselves and from others, and creates our cultures in its likeness.
Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ to encapsulate a natural law – that the means and structures through which we perceive reality impact that reality itself. This idea has predated McLuhan and appeared in many incarnations and not limited to any genres, from Emmanuelle Kant to Chuck Palahniuk. As obvious as this notion may appear, it is a profoundly useful tool for analyzing the changing world. By regarding the digital technologies in our disposal today – like computers and smartphones – not merely as instruments for executing our wishes, we might see them alternately as mechanisms that also require from us a particular set of actions and engagements, we could see how ultimately they cause us to operate in recurring ways, forming new habits, behaviors and modes of thought. By examining some of the habits we have developed in dealing with digital technology, it is possible to explain and predict many urging issues unfolding in the world today.
Digital technology is at its peak of accessibility nowadays. Personal computers and handheld mobile devices with an internet connection, or smartphones, are passing the tipping point in which over 50% of the world population has one, and is thus considered a ‘user’ (and in the top 10 developed countries in the world, that percentage reaches around 73% of the total population). With such dramatic numbers it is apparent that digital technology is causing a revolution of histories scale, with what seems like an unstoppable trajectory of expansion. Several thinkers expressed their predictions for the course that this revolution will take or, more accurately, how it will end, with a spectrum of conflicting ideas. The ecophilosopher and primitivist John Zerzan sees technology as a whole as a the abandoning and forgoing of nature, and sees digital technology as a culmination of humans becoming alienated and robotic; whereas science fiction author Bruce Sterling regards the digital revolution as a passing fad, much like the nuclear age craze of the 40’s and 50’s in the USA, which he suggests will pass with a silent hum by the 2030’s.
Even though this tidal wave of digital technology invites predictions of how societies and individuals will appear in the future, looking far ahead is unnecessary. The impact of over 20 years of internet access and of smartphone usage is apparent right now, in much of the western world today.
Did we choose to use computers and smartphones or did they choose us? Throughout history, other media have come into existence based on the requirements of their time, culture and history. The literary novel has changed its form over the years and around the world in both length and subject matter, based on how much free time people had for enjoying a leisurely read. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a cultural preference to use certain media instead of others. The rise of the internet managed to abolish much of printed journalism, just as the popularity of smartphones eroded the photography business. The more optimized and effortless our actions thanks to a particular medium, the better chance that medium has of lasting. And so, the most optimal systems of delivering and receiving information, that is also most suitable to our times right now is the smartphone. These transformations and metamorphoses of one media to another have often led to different cultural behaviors. The pace of living, the way we perceive the world and our expectations of ourselves and other people, are very much constructed by the channels through which we accept reality.
It would be helpful at this point to examine some of the recurring actions we are required to make in the routine use of a smartphone. These are all standard processes we accept as part of the operating rituals of digital technology, yet they have no parallel in the real, non-virtual life. We can try and extrapolate how each action becomes over time an actual habit, and how it is finally translated into to new forms of human behavior.
The Operating System makes the Real world Virtual
Most people over 18 in the west have already been shaped by digital operating systems even before the arrival of the smartphone, due to previously using a personal computer. The most popular operating system in the world, Microsoft’s ‘Windows’, has conditioned users to its mode of operating. A product of 80’s American corporate mentality, Microsoft Windows is riddled with metaphors and concepts[a] from the business world of an office. It has ‘files’ and ‘folders’, it has indeed and ‘Office’ brand for its top programs, it is built on the hierarchical language of DOS operating system, in which you give ‘commands’ and the computer carries out the tasks.
While the language attempts to portray ‘Windows’ as a physical place of work, the actions it allows users to make are still performed in virtual space, and so none of its executions has any repercussions or gravity in the physical, real world. The recycle bin can make anything you previously saw or heard on the computer vanish with a click. Despite the fact that new information is still needed to overwrite the “deleted” data in order for the actual deletion to be performed, the message of this medium is that you can make your unwanted things and trash disappear in an instance; and the message, as said before, is reinforced through countless performances, through muscle memory, into a habit of thinking and behavior in the real world.
We still use personal computers, and so the underlying assumption that we can perform those actions in reality still lingers very much in the minds of the current generation. It is worth mentioning that computer use is on the decline, with most youth in the west nowadays preferring consoles and video games to the PC. Therefore, the engraining of ideas and behavior that is illustrated here applies mostly to those people 20-60 year old, and might indeed perish when they are no longer alive.
The Digital Rhythm and Responsibility
While they are often lauded for their fastness, their quick processing and speedy reaction time, digital media – when compared to speed of human capabilities – only fulfills the promise of being fast paced on some occasions. Computing powers of calculation now dwarf most of human ability, as is evident in performing basic and elaborate mathematical calculation that are unsurpassable by even those humans who have dedicated their lives for its mastery, as in the games of chess and ‘go’. On the other hand, operations which require more dexterity, flexibility, reasoning and even what to humans is considered basic communication skills, are a thing which as of yet, no digital system was able to approach. Computers take time to load, to connect, they require electricity, batteries, they are replaceable and, most noticeably, they tend to malfunction.
Examples of these can be found abundantly, and are epitomized at every locale where digital machines carry a sticker displaying the human contact’s number to call if it breaks down. In our case of personal use, computers and smartphones both engage many systems which appear as innovative yet mimic human capabilities with slower results. These include printing, since the operations needed to print a page – from connecting the cables, clicking files and commands, loading paper, etc., are much more elaborate and time consuming than handwriting onto a piece of paper. Handwriting, being more tactile than typing on a keyboard or pressing on a touch screen, is also disappearing thanks to the use of the computer and phone. While this might be environmentally healthier, the relocation of the written word to an exclusively virtual space marshals the vanishing of its reverence and gravity. In explaining why he prefers to write his jokes not using a computer writing software but with a pen on a yellow legal pad, Jerry Seinfeld mentioned the stress induced by the ever-present, ever-blinking line at the end of your digital word processing sentence. Adding to the diminishing gravity of the written word is the digital media’s ability to update and change their texts at any time. The words in a printed book acquire their significance from their being unchangeable, and being so, they have real consequence.
As opposed to that, today with the decline of printed journalism and books, their online digital versions are easily changeable and updated, with the headlines of every major news organization alternating more rapidly than ever, even for the same article. Given this ability to correct and edit on the go, true consequence is gone. Newspapers in the digital age, perhaps without our noticing, have lost their status as moral compasses, of being reliable and responsible. With responsibility gone, cynicism and despair take hold, as is very much apparent in today’s world of journalistic coverage. As will be discussed soon, the current climate of ‘fake news’, much like ‘reality TV’, resulted from the internet’s placing higher merit on changeability than on consequence and research.
Here too, it is interesting to notice the language used for renaming and altering perceived reality within the digital medium that is the internet, and to observe how it is then passed on to venues in physical life. When changing a digitized piece of text, the most common terms are “edit”, “update” and “refresh”. These words seem to refer to a text as a part of a series of appearances, each rejuvenating and giving it renewed life. This change of pace has indeed created an impossibility for news coverage to continue in any other structure but the 24 hour news cycle. But while the new corporations have all the machinery to observe and report (a word originally meaning “account told, rumor“) things that are happening in real time, they are also driven to display those concurrent happenings in real time, lacking the breadth of vision and the distance needed to process and investigate deeper into the worth of a story. Much of the extreme outrage characterizing western culture nowadays (and the emergence of ‘fake outrage’) is a byproduct and incarnation of the 24 hour news cycle. With news corporations playing by the digital media’s pace, they have become a reactionary medium, offering on-the-spot commentary to the events they are witnessing; whereas given more time, they could have stopped and investigated deeper.
Uniformity of Information and Tribal Mentality
The standardization and uniformity of written texts predates the modern era, and can be traced to the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1440. Before that, texts were hand copied so that different versions of the same texts would be varied with many nuances and idiosyncrasies. Since Guttenberg, uniformity has become a standard in the reproduction of visual and auditory works of art. Uniformity is an artificial manmade construct, which does not occur in nature, much like right angles, yet years of industrialization and automation have instilled its image in our cultural psyche. But where previous media and technology outpoured “forgivable” uniform creations such as cars, clothes, machinery, etc., the internet risks promising the standardization of information itself.
The internet works much like a telephone conversation. It connects between one side and another side for the exchange of information. This can be symmetrical, as in a chat, or one sided, as in browsing through webpages. Nevertheless, the internet is often portrayed as an “information superhighway”, or more colloquial is the term “world wide web”. Again, much like the computer’s operating system, metaphors of place and space appear. We start browsing on our “home” page, move to different “sites” send emails to “addresses” and webpages are assigned a “domain”. Along with the web metaphor, the internet is often conceptualized as a huge network, an equivalent to a big city, a massive library, or the universe. All these are ways or trying to order the very much unstructured nature of the internet.
Where the internet reveals its underpinnings as being a cluster of callers on a circuit board is in the chat rooms and online message boards which allow anyone with a modem to sound their voice. As expected, such sites are notorious for the impossibility of creating anything similar to a real life conversation. The sensation of such forums is of a rabble of people attempting to talk over one another since that’s the only way they could get a word in.
If you managed to identify moments like these in real life, you’re not alone. In the last decades, groups of people all around the world have been expressing themselves increasingly vocally, with a significant rise in protests all over the globe. The Financial Times ran an article which describes 2020 as “The Year of Protests”, and have asked whether these gatherings are so popularized that they have become less effective.
While one could say that it is not just the discordant nature of the internet that leads to more violent communication patterns but the information itself that is becoming more available and horrific, I wish to claim that the internet has shaped our very perception of information and knowledge, making us expect a uniformity of thought on a grander scale than ever. The expectation of uniform, identical information has become so prevalent, that its clashing with the many voiced world leads to violence, intolerant behaviors.
With the powerful ability to instantaneously receive information and answers to questions, we have become, in a significantly short time, willfully dependent on the internet and on smartphones as its most accessible vehicle. The ability to reach to our phones and find seemingly inexhaustible responses to our needs has created a sort of reflex reaction. You do not need to stop and count the times you have reached for your phone to search for something you don’t know, but simply look around and see that it is already ubiquitous in our culture. The internet does the same thing for emotional distress, of course, offering optimized communication that serves as an instant fix, but it is extremely dangerous when information itself becomes fixated and perceived as uniform – which is what our new reflex of quick-answers has brought about. In other words, we have grown accustomed to thinking that the internet has all the right answers.
Given the fact the internet is carried by binary media, most of us have unknowingly became habituated to seeing it as a life calculator, demanding of it answers for what is true or false, right or wrong. And this habit, especially at the hands of young people who grew up using the internet, is an instrument of uniformity. It abounds with informational sites for life answers, from Wikipedia to Quora, from Snopes to FactCheck. The irony is that these websites, originating out of a desire for critical thinking, ultimately contribute to the abolition of human questioning. The internet, in other words, started as a promise for polyphony of opinions and cultures and ultimately makes us crave absoluteness.
And this absoluteness is already experienced in many countries today. For a generation of well-off people all around the world, and particularly in the rich western countries, growing up with the internet has bred people’s expectation of the world to appear a certain way and not the other. Going through a generational clash as did countless other groups in history, many western youth today present the novelty of not being able to understand or deal with the existence of opposing opinions. This is often touted as part of their being the ‘snowflake’ generation, yet I think saying they are spoiled misses the mark – their inability to understand, I believe, is based in their view that no person who was exposed to the same information could reach different conclusions. That is, the free information found online has caused them to assume that the truth itself is uniform, and anyone who disagrees with their perception must have an ulterior motive.
For what these websites create is the assumption that it is natural to have all the information at the palm of your hands at all times, and that everybody else is supposed to have it as well. Such expectations induce stress and generate a shock – realizing that copious amounts of information do not make people likeminded or uniform in their thinking – signals that we do not have a single answer for most of the prevalent questions in life.
This behavior is not endemic to the snowflake generation, to social justice warriors, Gen Z, or any other name by which to call new groups of young people. It has invaded most of our cultures. In many western societies who are smartphone ridden, straying from cultural norms has begun to be seen as more grotesque and downright impossible, than ever before. We begin expecting each other to become in sync with our own mentality, as if in perfect unison. This explains the phenomenon known as ‘cancel culture’ (another computerized phrase thrown into real life). We opt to do away and discard anything that strays from the norm. The dangers of this computerization of the living world only start with the social deterioration we are witnessing the last years, but might end in a collective schizophrenia, a war waged for the sake of purging unwanted (natural) elements that do not exist in the binary realm.
Commodification and Comfort
There are plenty of other changes that the new media has imposed upon the smartphone carrying man and woman. It is possible to talk about how the quickness and uniformity of typing has led to a similar expectation of human communication, in conversation. I would venture into claiming that the pace of a talk show or a TV sitcom – that is, eliciting a laugh every 5 seconds or so – has transfigured from the appearance of the typed word, and since it bled into our lives. Moreover, the web’s ability to display only visual and auditory information has caused a stifling in activities based on the other sensory perceptions, with the exclusion of beautiful food, since it is possible to display it in visual form and elicit a taste-bud reaction. On the contrary, there is no trend of taking pictures of wines, perfumes or bubble baths. Time will tell whether the collective peak in the usage of exclusively visual and auditory devices will cause a development in the neuronal clusters in the brain in charge of those parts. With young children playing more hand-eye coordination games on console devices, I believe this will be the case.
Add to these the option to scroll endlessly and swiftly through more and more information and you will understand how impatient and demanding of new stimuli the internet prompts us to be. As an inverse of this, we are now driven to shallower thinking, with much less stamina for judging and analyzing the information given us. In a way, we become more accepting, yet unquestioning, similar to robots on a convey belt of images and sounds, and expect ourselves and other to behave in much the same manner. This is but another way in which the operating mechanism which we use begins creating us in its form – we become the things that we own. And so, robots operating robots is a bleak image for our society, which might have appeared exaggerated if it were not for the way in which the new media objectifies and commodifies our reality – and eventually, ourselves.
Becoming robotic is not only a hyperbole but in fact a point worth stopping to think about. Since using smartphones stifles our habit of deep and clear reflection, we eventually lose our ability to asses our own inner feelings. It is easy to notice how today, from a young age, this is already taking place. When cellular phones only started becoming popular, debates have arisen about whether or not children should be given them, and at what age should we start giving kids access to a smartphone and to the internet. In the second decade of the 21st century, such debates seem out of touch with reality, and parents are using the pacifying capabilities of smartphones on children from as early as toddlerhood. The irony behind such acts is that it is impossible to dismiss them as merely bad parenting; since pacifying is something all smartphone users take part in, whether they can admit to it or not.
From the comforts of having all the information we need at hand, to the seeming proximity we get to our loved ones, the smartphone is today’s quickest route to short term happiness. It has the ability to supply endless neurochemical stimulants and relaxants. From watching pictures that create the sensation of enjoyment, such as nice food, recognizable people and beautiful places; to receiving approval and even constant complements in the form of social media clicks, reactions and comments – the smartphone, with all its many helpful features, is put to use principally as a form of self-medication. By being continuously comforted, we begin expecting this state in real life as well as online, with our pacifiers firmly in hand.
Social media offers the drug of companionship, of amity and of approval. It has already changed much of the way we interact with one another in real life, I will claim, and is the foremost instrument for our increasingly commodified view of reality. By placing the carrot of social acceptance and companionship in front of our faces, social media has done away with much of the mechanism and structures created naturally for people to gravitate towards one another in real life. And while it may be true that entire social constructs such as etiquette, courtship, even hobbies and friendship can be seen in fact as byproducts of desiring the same neurochemical pleasure that social media provides in its instant version – they are not interchangeable since each of them offers different types of experience, namely a subjective and an objective experience.
As a binary medium, displaying visual and auditory information, the internaet offers an exclusively objective experience, by which I mean that turns our perception of anything put inside it into an object. For example, watching images of our friends on Facebook, no matter how dear they are to our hearts or even if we closely remember them from a meeting in the near past, is still placed within a square frame, among an endless scroll of other bits of information, related or unrelated, being held or placed on a desk, being able to click, and mostly static – with the ability to manipulate. All these are attributes of frozen and unchanging objects. The mere appearance of anything within a medium makes it objectified. Whereas seeing our friends in person provides a constant change, an unexpectedness as well as many more parameters for sensing, like smell, touch etc., all of which are attributes of subjective existence. And so the more time we spend replacing real life, subjective information, with media-ted, objectified information, we begin losing the ability to subjectify – that is, to relate to others, to sense the world around us as alive and having an individual existence – and begin commodifying our surroundings as if they were a part of an endless scroll, there for our instant gratification.
The Great Objectification – The Flattening of Reality
The continuing of all this has already led, in my opinion, to the further demolishing of such social constructs as friendship, marriage and the family. With the almost metaphysical law that what we create and repeat will make us in its own image, the internet’s constant informational flow would seem to be turning us users into information seeking and delivering automatons. E. M. Forster’s 1909 short science fiction story The Machine Stops depicts a future where humans are living solitary lives in pods which supply them with endless communication with other people around the world. They spend their time either creating or listening and seeing others giving lectures on various topics. Forster’s famous saying “always connect” predates the experiential tug of war currently taking place between the objectified and the subjective dimensions of real life. While the internet’s virtual nature has no bearing on real life, the expectations and behavior we have repeatedly come to employ while using it are sticking out into subjective, lived experiences, and dismantling much of the communication and perceptions involved with everyday social life.
As with the rise of ‘Cancel Culture’, many subcultures and movements in today’s society are displaying the push and pull of the internet onto our real experiences. No longer are the old considered as wise for their experience, since experience is knowledge found in subjective information. For well over a generation now, western culture is profoundly children-centric, placing higher values on youthfulness and its characteristics, like swiftness of action, dexterity and freshness. Yet a bigger change that the internet has brought forth is in its striving for collective, group mentality.
Being submerged under a constant flow of superfluous data and information that the internet provides, it is practically impossible for anyone to sift through it all and evaluate which bit is correct and which is false. Our latent desire to keep scrolling for more stimuli while being able to handle new information in extremely high dosages has led to an inevitable decontextualizing- a flattening of our valuation systems. This flattening which enabled the optimizing our reaction speed, has led to the reactionary and inflammatory nature apparent in message boards, forums and Facebook comments– with numerous funny laws appearing to explain the failings of its communication framework – most of which originating, to my estimation, from the habit formed online to expect absolute information, in a clear binary yes-no fashion. A mere disagreement online is immediately cast as an argument with two distinct sides. The fault is in the medium itself and I our expectations of it. Yet arguing online is benign compared to taking this flattened perception of reality into the streets.
The inability to analyze information in its context is a growing problem of character, leading many younger people to crises of personality in numbers far exceeding anything in past years. The inability to detach from objectified, media-ted information, has desensitized a great number of people and brought upon a rift in their ability to identify their own personal, subjective sensations. Many today are stripped of having a real sense of inner monologue and moral compass, and with such existential insecurity bubbling, have made their most basic affiliations a safe haven and meaning. Tribal mentality is a new name for such classic phenomena as blind patriotism, nationalism or chauvinism – it is the weak individual’s falling back on a certainty; the confused psyche’s escape towards things that it cannot change, like its country of birth or its race or gender, and tapping into it as a source for safety and strength, often in a violent and overcompensating manner. While there is much to say about the psychological changes brought upon by the internet, the point combining most of its various expressions all is an insecurity and new forms of doubting reality – all of which create frightful and often vicious individuals, willing to use drastic measures to latch on to their identity.
The End of Subjectivity as we know it?
Observing current daily life through common media channels, a sense of immanent finality is inescapably present. It appears as if culture has run its course and new technology and its promises for a better tomorrow is only making things worse, commodifying the world and ourselves while turning the planet into a wasteland. The present-day intoxication from internet technology, social media and the uninterrupted flow of information, are changing our behavior and views of reality right now. It is all the more tempting to predict how our psyches and societies will change on account of the internet and digital media, since such prophecies are another form of escapism and desire to correct the wrongs perceived at the present time. Instead of predictions, I would like to consider the one thing that is changing due to our new capabilities of simulating reality, which is our subjectivity.
As stated, the internet has the ability to objectify our perception of the world – to dilute real happenings from any context, to extract the human element out of them, to make the world appear to us as binary, with the only things possible for consideration are those quantifiable and calculable. In gradually stopping to turn to our inner voice for answers and comfort, we are losing touch with its existence. The term “gut feeling” is very fitting for describing that subjective sense of inner knowing, a trustworthy way that is closest to us.
The French sociologist and philosopher of culture Jean Baudriard observed mankind’s growing ability to signify reality, and saw our times as being post-modern in the sense that the relation between our instruments and tools for signifying reality and that reality itself, are becoming indistinguishable. For such a world, in which we cannot tell apart the real from the signified, Baudriard coined the term “Simulacra” as a simulation and mimicking of reality that has become identified with the thing it is mimicking. This is apparent in our current culture in its most recent embodiment in the rise of Deep fake technology, which is a video and audio representation so similar to reality that it is difficult for us to identify it as being computer generated. The rise of “fakeness” as a term to describe the simulating nature of the internet is to me a sign of the medium’s deteriorating power of representation. We distrust only what we can sense is not true to begin with, and while the technology is getting better at copying reality, it is ironically seen by us as chiefly an act of fakery. I see this as a sign of something unchanging, a subjective element in mankind, which puts the new digital media in a perspective of human evolution since the rise of symbolization.
The ability to create a symbol, and thus, to simulate reality, has been around for millennia. As a unique, thinking species, ours is the ability to symbolize and to mimic. It is quite possible therefore, to see in the many inventions of humanity through the ages a mere copying of nature, from language to the computer, from the wheel to the internet. There is an almost biological predisposition for people to copy themselves into things they create. This recreation of ourselves is repetitively done perhaps for the sake of expanding our infinity-reaching minds out of our limited corporeal bodies, in Ernest Beker’s terms -much like winning an award or securing everlasting fame. The creation of digital media and of the internet is our most recent attempt in simulating reality, in encapsulating every piece of the landscape in a single objective framework. Yet, as all reality is subjectively experienced, it is relentlessly changing, and so in itself is endless and infinite like our imaginative minds. It is my subjective feeling that in the future additional attempts will be made to capture as much of reality as possible, and in so doing various new technologies will be utilized, yet these would also diminish when reaching the point of obvious mimicking, when they – like DeepFake technology, reveal their intentions of simulating the actual surroundings.
This does not diminish the already devastating impact of the digital media on the current pace of living. The 24 hour news channels have created a heightened sense of stress that is enough to cause anyone relying on it as a source for news to become morbidly frightful and enraged; the smartphone and GPS navigation have annihilated our former ability for orientation and memory; and with every new popular app, a previous human capability is extinguished. Yet all of these are still tools, and require us to use them, to operate them, and to turn them on. Although we have become a generation that would rather record reality and comment on it than create it or experience it, a backlash is immerging with the same protests discussed before signaling a change in moods. The global pandemic has reminded many of the reasons they crave being outside, breathing fresh air and engaging physically with other people. Although Forster’s portrayal of the future as a being willingly cooped in a room for one is becoming a vivid concern, virtual existence has not won yet in the fight over human consciousness.
[a] The idea that metaphors and figurative language are revealing of how we perceive our concepts, was suggested by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1980’s book, Metaphors We Live by. It is a vital source for understanding how we create meaning by building our concepts of the world with metaphoric language.