New media, old lies.

by waxbanks

A rant follows. –wa.

‘Social media’ is, for the most part, a marketing term — the ‘social’ dimension of e.g. Twitter is actually only a small part of many (most?) users’ experiences, which consist largely of ongoing broadcast streams with brief semisocial side interactions. Check-ins. Socializing means two-way interaction; Twitter’s format militates against that. You interact directly with a tiny fraction of the people you follow, right? You may well follow 300 people, or 1,000 — how many of them did you exchange words with this week? And so now what were the other ones doing in your feed?

Twitter users you follow but don’t interact with are little different from TV stations you leave on in the background while you attend to…let’s call it ‘real life stuff.’

The idea that clicking on a link means ‘interaction’ has permanently cheapened that term. If I throw out a piece of mail and you take it out of my garbage and read it, you and I aren’t interacting.

This morning I read a Medium post about how Slack — a groupware application which replaces email with a more robust version of IRC — has ruined some UX designer’s life, by fragmenting his attention. The trouble with the piece isn’t its unfunny conceit (a breakup letter) or its tone of hip abjection (‘You are such a wonderful sane ethical corporation, please fix what you’ve made wrong with my life!’), but rather the unexamined assumption, totally unsupported by anything like evidence, that an adult should be able to live a happy healthy life sitting in front of a screen having IRC conversations with coworkers and ‘friends.’

And where did that ludicrous idea come from?

Not from Slack or Twitter or Facebook. Not from the Internet, Compuserve, Prodigy, or Illuminati Online. The idea that a good life was one in which you had time to settle down before a flickering lightbox and pretend to be connected to other human beings is very, very old. And because it’s transparently false, it has to be sold to us.

What’s deeply wrong with the Web was deeply wrong with TV

One of the most important pseudophilosophical currents of the last hundred years is the technophilic triumphalism that animates Silicon Valley culture. (I say ‘pseudo-‘ because it’s too poorly thought out to rise to the level of philosophy.) The idea that personal computers, and then the Internet, and then smartphones, and then more elegantly designed personal Internet smartphone computers will (1) fix what’s wrong with human civilization while (2) costing us nothing is a pernicious myth that (with honorable exceptions like that maybe-crank Morozov) goes essentially unchallenged in the cultural mainstream today. A lot of people are getting rich off the idea that the Singularity is not only real but here already. ‘Disruption’ is the watchword and dysfunction is the result.

But we should be aware of the roots of that dysfunction, which extend back a good deal further than the latest antisocial outrage. The problems with our all-Internet-all-the-time lives are outgrowths of much older cultural movements.

The broadcast-TV consensus wasn’t killed by YouTube but by cable TV and the VCR.

The atrophy of social/empathetic faculties now manifesting in our politics of secondhand identitarian outrage-cosplay has been in progress since long before the Web existed — for all the vaunted cognitive benefits of video games, Atari killed more brain cells than Snapchat.

The total collapse of trust in American news media owes a hell of a lot more to Ted Turner’s insane idea of a 24-hour ‘news’ network than it does to Matt Drudge or Gawker or whoever we’re blaming now.

Controlling the televised image has been essential to national political success for more than half a century — ask Richard Nixon — and remember that this country already (re)elected a second-tier movie star and cigarette pitchman to the White House.

(Don’t you dare fall prey to the stupid idea that Trump’s candidacy has been ‘conducted via Twitter.’ Even younger voters who didn’t constantly hear about his Yuuuge Business Deals in the 80s (as I did) know him from The Apprentice, which laid the groundwork for his current performance by normalizing his repugnant charismatic-villain persona. Funny, I didn’t actually watch the show. Did you?)

It’s not exactly controversial to say that computer-dependent life is dangerous and costly, though saying so won’t win you any popularity contests. But — I know this is basic but it needs saying because it’s, y’know, basic — what’s shitty about staring at the Web was shitty about staring at the TV half a century ago.

‘But we have such short attention spans today!’ Blame the handheld infotech device known as the remote control, which fed you the daft notions that not needing to get up from the couch was a measure of meaningful control over your media diet, and that if you didn’t immediately like a work of televisual art you should ‘see what else is on.’ And remember that most of us now watch our movies at home — in a domestic, distraction-filled ‘curated’ environment, rather than the sense-heightening identity-submerging collective ritual strangeness of the movie theater. We’re too ‘enlightened’ to recognize the importance of the magic circle of ritual transformation which surrounds the theater, and too lazy to seek it out, at fatal cost to our imaginations.

There is no magic circle around the Web. There can’t be.

Obviously the Web differs from TV. Obviously. But the danger it poses isn’t anonymous comments, it’s that your computer is a glowing box that you stare at while a stream of mostly irrelevant nonsense flows by your face, barely registering beyond its immediate sensation — and you convince yourself that you’re ‘interacting,’ that you’re an ‘active viewer.’ Does that sound familiar? We’ve replaced CNN with, People Magazine with TMZ, watching Arrested Development with downloading Arrested Development, talking about comic books with tweeting about comic-book movies — but the basic problem of dependence on the screen, of its fundamentally antisocial and dehumanizing nature, has only deepened. It’s not new. We sit motionless in our ‘filter bubbles’ and congratulate ourselves on how comfortable our chairs are, how carefully ‘curated’ our Twitter feeds, but before ‘Web surfing’ there was ‘channel surfing’ and we tried not to think about what it was costing us because we’re in love with our illusions, not least the Illusion of Choice.

Hey by the way, remember when anyone gave a damn that Goldman-Sachs was one of the most dangerously powerful organizations ever formed by a group of human beings? No, of course not. That was a long time ago. It’s scrolled off the bottom of my screen.

We’ll have to catch it in reruns.