Throwing Shadows on a Wall: The Internet and Permanence
By Aaron Lake Smith.
Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service?
His time no better than hired drudgery?
Lying in bed I wonder, ‘When will it be day?’
Risen I think, ‘How slowly evening comes!’
Restlessly I fret till twilight falls.
– The Book of Job
I’ve been having a hard time reading books and finishing movies. I click through websites, scanning pages but not reading them, vacantly aware that events are going on in the world. I browse the titles of Wikipedia entries looking down through the section headers, just to trace the vaguest outlines of a subject I know absolutely nothing about. I’m so accustomed to the placid, oceanic motion of clicking, scanning, and window-resizing that I can now do it effortlessly, the interaction with the screen taking on the habit of a nervous tick. So caught up in the romance of the rolling news cycle, in the infinite access to infinite information twenty-four seven that the cache of my mind dumps out, leaving one empty-headed and forgetful-feeling. “Learning is hard,” Don Juan told Carlos Castaneda. Learning is so fucking hard! To really learn, the lesson has to be pounded in through experience: lost time, failure, repetition, student bruised and bloodied until finally trained like a dog. You have to drive your life to the brink of ruin to make the kind of mistakes you’ll ‘never make again.’ Learning from the mistakes and anecdotes of others doesn’t vaccinate you from making your own. And once you know – once you’ve really gone for it all the way you can’t help but think, “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone there.” One of the better allegories to describe the situation we face today can be found in the 1971 Gene Wilder film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where, while touring the inside of the magic facility, a young Mike Teavee [sic] zaps himself through the Television Chocolate machine only to find himself dispersed above the few remaining Golden Ticket contestants as fiber optic particulate, bits and bytes whisping above his former competitors. Mike lost the game – the other Golden Ticket holders were quickly shuffled into the next room, forgetting about poor Mike, that early victim of our resplendent Digital Age. Infinite knowledge equals infinite anxiety. Gang of Four put it most succinctly: She fills her head with culture / she gives herself an ulcer. Data circulates above us, impossible to synthesize. We’ve been provided all the tools to do great things, but due to some intrinsic human failing, we fail to utilize them in the right ways. It’s like how the old adage “it’s only human” has become synonymous for ‘I fucked up’. Given this fantastical virtual toolset we were told would save the world, bring us back from ruin and make our lives easier and more fulfilling, what did we use it for? — cartoons, YouTube videos, Wikipedia wormholes, virtual pets, philanthropy, and cheap, soulless laughs with the LolCatz meme. Like Mike Teavee, one day you wake up to find yourself dispersed all over the levitating cloud of the Internet: pieces of you are scattered all over the place. Whereas people once wrote and saved handwritten correspondences, in the near future, when we die, someone will print out and collate our dissolute online footprints. The new posthumous archive: social networking profiles, emails and saved electronic chats, message board posts, online journals, all the sorry detritus of embarrassing and petty lives. We seek ourselves out like amnesiacs, anxiously Googling in the void, hoping to pick up some clues of how we are perceived by others. We put ourselves out there for consumption, but it provides little relief from the all-consuming vanity. We wake up like Rip Van Winkle after a long sleep to find that everything has changed, and now, I’m going to just say it: what happens on the Internet is often as or more important than what happens in real life. The Internet is where the people are. In the same way that a person ‘getting back to the land’ is one form of protest against industrial civilization, going against the tide of the Internet, say, deciding to no longer use it, is a form of dissent that guarantees instant obsolescence. In the early 60s Guy Debord wrote:
Faced with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.
While dropping out of the techno-age marathon is an ethical decision anyone could easily make, it also means giving up the only real outlet for subversion. But if there is a sadder case than the lonely, radical farmer-Luddite who thinks the world noticed their conscientious decision to give up the cell phone and the laptop, it is the person who cheerleads for progress, who excitedly feels like they’re really on the cusp of something each time they laud the newest techno-innovation, salivating on the instant opinion dispersers of the day over the i-Whatever. Like the out-of-touch Hillary Clinton giving a commencement speech at Barnard College and shouting to the graduating class of women, “Get out there, Girls! MySpace and Twitter! Social network your way to the top!” This kind of blind faith in the power of social networking betrays a person eager to be tapped into the ‘next big thing’ in order to more efficiently wedge themselves in with the status quo, as we saw John McCain try during the presidential debates when, looking like a child expecting to be given a cookie, he made some desperate and cringe-worthy comments about how he had been using Ebay. It was easy to live without these things before we had them, but now we must not only have them, we must talk about them constantly. This pitiful game of one-upmanship bears a striking resemblance to playground boys arguing over who has the newest, most expensive video game system. Was it really so bad to run to the corner in the middle of the night to use the payphone? The laziness has built up slowly on the years like cholesterol on the arteries, cancers in prostates. To live without our electronic gadgets now would necessitate a decisive breaking with the addiction that has insidiously crept up onto us in the recent years. The thought that days might pass without getting a text message or a phone call from someone asking “What are you up to?” now seems intolerable and strange. Before, when there was much less interpersonal communication, I believe that more feeling had to be placed into the interaction – when the Puritans left Europe to come to America, goodbye was goodbye, possibly for forever. They cried, they felt sad, they knew it was serious and didn’t want to fuck up. People didn’t piddle around so much, making offensive blunders and then sending corrective, clarifying emails and text messages – they knew that their time together was short and would come to an end and that it would be nigh impossible to breach the silence of thousand-mile distances that followed. They wanted it to be real, because they knew it was. In our bright era of constant connectivity, a goodbye means nothing more than ‘I’ll see you on email or talk to you on the phone in a couple of hour’s’, making it that much more unbearable when one person is hit by a car while they’re texting on their walk home. Now, the thought of not being able to track each other down instantaneously, but instead having to cope with painful, soul-confronting solitude is the stuff of a 19th century novel – a joke that the people of the past didn’t realize they were living. The ideological real estate of having some space away from technology has become the territory of new-age types trying to sell you things and developers trying to market vacation homes as places we could go to ‘get away from it all’. The dreamtime past of writing a letter or stopping by unannounced without texting first is now the kitschy realm of grandparents and punk rockers – something ‘sweet’, but ultimately deviant and rare, tokenized. The joke is on us. People of the future, this is how we lived, and how we will no doubt be re-enacted in your bizarre ‘period piece’ movies -standing at payphones, writing letters, throwing rocks at windows, meeting up by chance; failing those things, we saw each other in dreams.
On that horrible kind of Sunday at dusk, cold-insides feeling, you might have found yourself where I was, anxiously Googling into the void for people that you hadn’t seen in years – looking at their freshly-posted and puckered sex expressions on the social networking sites, voyeuring their new identities traced out in rasterized lines – you too might have wondered: Why isn’t Tom on her top friends list anymore? Maybe Sarah and Angie had some kind of falling out? You might have taken notice that they had utilized their Internet persona to make themselves seem much bigger, much cooler than what they are, like throwing shadows on a wall. Or maybe their web profile is small-scale and ashamed, filled with abashed fragments of text like, “I really only use this to keep in touch with acquaintances” or the even more officious, “I only use this for work.” Scrolling down through their comments, through their ironic swirling clip-art pictures you can see the quick public comment exchange “I wanna hang out with you!” “Are you in Kansas City, yet? See you in Portland in a couple weeks?”
There they are. But what if you couldn’t find them at all? What about the Boo Radleys who lurk in the darkness on the edge of our digital village, utterly without a shadow? You get a shameful, voyeuristic feeling when you search to see if someone has a Facebook profile and you find that they haven’t wasted their time. A slight queasiness about the slipperiness of the thing, ‘The Internet’, like one of those China-made water-filled squirmy toys that are made to wriggle out of your fingers. When you pin it down and interrogate its intentions, it just rolls over and squeals, “I’m nothing but harmless fun!” But when free to roam with tacit ubiquity, it becomes a translucent blob, slowly terraforming lives and landscapes with its icy logic.
Having jettisoned myself out the escape hatch of several different generations of social networking sites, I can report that my days became more fluid – they blended together – there were no longer widgets and comments and Tweets to pace my hours, to give my life that extra little endorphin-boost that one feels when returning to a computer and finding an inbox full of messages. Like a lab monkey test subject who’s had it both ways, I can report back that the most obvious side effect of excessive use of the Internet was the noticeable dispersal of ideas. It is harder to focus now. Libido decreased. Eyesight permanently damaged from now more than two decades of burning into screens. We have been coerced into relying on the web as an essential part of daily life and quite frankly, the urge for mindless drift is irresistible. I’ve forgotten the passages I memorized from Shakespeare, my stanza memory having been diminished through epic YouTube watching binges of talking cats and hilarious Japanese game shows. If I’m concentrating hard on trying to write something and stumbling over what to say next, instead of continuing to focus on it, I compulsively minimize the work and pull up another window to check my email for the umpteenth time or find some other panacea to keep my mind dully engaged so I won’t have to strain in the heat of concentration. But only a fool takes pride in pursuing distraction: nothing is as satisfying as doing the work. And nothing so inhibits total immersion in the work so much as the compulsive scanning, filing, and self-questioning that is enabled by staying constantly connected to the Internet. It seems like there is an inverse relationship between convenient modern technology and productivity – the more convenient and modern it gets, the less productive you become. I have come to envy the lot of the visual artist, who can put on an LP and get massively stoned before losing themselves in the timeless trance of their drawings and paintings, easily achieving that happy ludic state. Someone once wrote that photographers are more fun than writers, and this is an observation which, to me, seems indisputable. For me, complete unbroken silence is required to string together even the simplest sentence, and the thin rope of my concentration can snap with the roar of sirens, a loud cough, or the sound of kids playing outside. As the ludic trance becomes harder and harder to achieve because of the invasive kudzu of digital access, the writer lusts after it more, falling over again and again in an un-winnable battle with modern life that is reminiscent of that scene in The Lord of the Rings where Gandalf grapples in mortal combat with the Balrog; falling, falling down.
Every time I am on the brink of falling into the work, into that ludic trance and the gray world is beginning to open up and look somewhat three dimensional I am body checked by an uncontrollable urge to open up my inbox, or check Nytimes.com – when I come back, the trance is broken. I am warped back up to level one to skid along the icy one-dimensional surface of the computer screen. The interlocking shadows and mirrors of the World Wide Web – everything opinion and fiction positioned to appear as truth and meme. Some blogs are so heavily trafficked that they have become bigger and more vital-seeming than centuries-old newspapers – and like celebrities who are rocketed to the top too fast, their egos grow wild and unchecked. Almost everyone in the West is now some kind of web denizen, plugging ever outward into the void. We indulge in endless shadow play. The illusion of fact and credulity wipes away into pixels as we zoom in closer to the image. While we fritter away constructing tiny replicas of our personalities and ideas in the virtual world, making computer scans of the grains of sand in the desert, of Google views down every street, the real world – land, natural resources, years of human life are all destroyed for our titillating cultural expedition. Wikipedia! Endless knowledge! Endless convenience! Free culture, who wants it! Looking for some form of resistance to these sorry times, I turn to the modern Oracle, Google, to search for “Criticism of Wikipedia.” The top result listed is Wikipedia’s own page on itself, giving a perfect encapsulation of the new fragmented reality. In a great sweeping wave of bland, neutered, vaguely authoritative information, The Wikipedia page mentions the few scattered naysayers who oppose the website’s structural monopoly on information. I think back to the guy at a party who told me he had spent days just thinking about making a Wikipedia entry for himself, to have some proof that he was real, only to have it destroyed by the Wikipedia’s shadow editors, power-hungry nerds who spend their late nights working to moderate content and regulate, judging some histories as ‘relevant’ and others as ‘not’. More and more, it seems that proof of existence and relevance is determined by the length of the shadow cast by your Internet self.
At the punk show promoted entirely on the Internet: The attendees mill around awkwardly, sad little 21st century trolls, socially-maldeveloped from their big, distended web personalities. The show-goers and promoters come off as distinctly unsure of themselves, hesitating to approach the others who they’ve known primarily as avatars on message boards, or are shocked to find the pretty faces whose profiles are easily voyeured on public social-networking websites are not quite as attractive as they had appeared in poised, self-conscious images. The promoters sit in a corner of the living room drawing up an in-real-life flier for the event that is already half-over as the awful bands pound away, a supplement to the Microsoft Paint flier that had gone out over the data waves to let people know about the event – The promoters are engaged in constructing an actual physical artifact, a flier to provide posthumous proof for the documentarians, in case the hard drives were to be accidentally wiped clean on Facebook’s central server. These are horrible, self-reflexive times, with everyone overly aware of what they’re doing and what it means. It’s not enough to just do something – you have to talk endlessly about what you’re doing. The promoters visualize themselves in a lineage of D.I.Y. punk music but are focused primarily on to the external image produced, on the makings of some parasitic micro career, symbiotically dwelling on the underbelly of the mainstream, suckling upon its rancid teat for survival. There is a kind of nostalgia for a past, for that glorious time when people used payphones to call each other and put up fliers in public spaces to let people know about things. But now, if an event takes place and isn’t documented or promoted on the Internet – did it actually happen? Most events have a certain element of kitsch to them, as if only half-experienced by the parties present, the bulk of their energy going into getting the digital proof: camera phone photos and videos or silent observation of the event to be shared as anecdote later to friends on a blog. I think of a passage Flaubert wrote in a letter to a friend way back in 1850:
The pleasure one can have strolling through a virgin forest or hunting tigers is marred by the idea that one must later make an artful description to please as many bourgeois people as possible.
The world has gone on without us, ever-versioning itself up to some miserable techno-climax. Signs and signifiers like alarm clocks, waking you up to the horrible present. Like this past Christmas Eve at a dinner with my brother’s best friend, a kid I have known since he was ten but who has now just turned eighteen. I walked into his living room to find him behind a black plastic drum set staring at a screen, playing along on RockBand to a pixilated song and animation of a punk band I saw in a smoky club several years before. In the future we’re living into teenagers won’t start awful, rebellious bands like MC5, like the Ramones, like the Beatles. They’ll buy plastic, triggered gear and play along at home, the screen their silent companion and sole arbiter of socialization. The open field of creativity once afforded by banging away on real musical instruments will be relegated to the field of museums, history books, to the most inaccessible music scenes. We have been effectively standardized to one another – similar clothing, similar behavior, similar Mac laptops. Accents, dialects and mannerism slowly become a thing of the past, something to be seen in old movies or in the most socially and economically isolated parts of the country. Everyone begins to look the same, talk the same and dress the same, while paying lip service to the memes of difference, individualism, and multiculturalism. We sit around in living rooms with friends doing karaoke, hypnotized by the glow of the screen, singing along to all the same songs.
Almost everyone I know experiences some form of phantom-cell phone syndrome, feeling a vibration or hearing a ringtone in their pocket that isn’t there, or, turning their heads to the sky like the actors in The Birds, thinking that they’re imagining something on the wind. I’m hallucinating that I’m hearing my cell phone ring at all hours, that I’m feeling its text message vibrations even when I don’t have it on me – I pop my head into the room and look at it suspiciously – no new messages – am I going crazy? Thoroughly addicted to communication – completely tied to the beckon call of others, chained to my need to “be in touch”. Instead of narrating my life in words on a clunky laptop, I narrate it over the phone to friends – social networking put us on the path to the complete fragmentation – oversaturation, a mandate to transcribe all life happenings into easily-disseminated “bulletins” about how we’re doing, narrating our lives in real time. The problem of knowing things only from their shadows – you can interpret a network of symbols without having any real knowledge of the subject. An entire generation of dilettantes, like young Alzheimer’s patients, twenty-something amnesiacs who recognize names, faces, and buzzwords, and much-repeated news headlines but have a poor understanding of history. Cultural happenings dissolve into a mist of Groundhog Day repetitiousness – deep analysis is pushed away by the flurry of new and breaking transmissions. The idea of thinking about just one thing over the course of several days or a week is unheard of and would require a closing of doors and shutting out. We change gears every twenty-four hours, reacting to whatever buttons they are pushing in the central control rooms. We are simply reacting to what they put out there, letting them direct the conversation. Walter Benjamin described it:
It is as if one were trapped in a theater and had to follow the events on the stage whether one wanted to or not, had to make them again and again, willingly or unwillingly, the subject of one’s thought and speech.
There’s a word someone came up with for the over consumption of media products – “Museum fatigue” – this unnerving sense of uselessness we feel in the face of art that doesn’t need us. The art exists and we come to be moved by it, but then a creative anxiety overtakes us: why are we standing around looking at all these paintings of blocks? We could do better than that! Thus, the new mandate is that artists make their products seem ‘interactive’ to keep us entertained – all the big sitcoms have these online fan fiction communities around them, where people expand the mythos of someone else’s idea, authoring creative speculations on the different possible futures of the show. But this kind of work offers no generative moment, no way out of the artist’s creative dominion for the viewer. If the work seems interactive, it might be nothing more than a self-reflexive scam, a marketing scheme by the artist to command the viewer’s attention and make them feel like they’re somehow more involved. Poked and prodded by the media networks, we have come full circle back to the animal-like stimulus and response – electronically twitched this way and that by advertisements, by memes, by hyperlinks. And then the sense of impending doom when the wireless router goes down. My roommates pace the house anxiously, complaining out loud to no one about how they can’t check their email, plugging and unplugging the router and the network adapter, disconnecting the whole thing and throwing it on the floor before frantically setting it up again. Without a computer with the Internet, I sit in my bed with no vested interest in it ever getting fixed. And I enjoy watching them struggle. My housemates eventually give up, despondent and marooned without that access, now such a vital component to our work and communication with the outside world. We have to work, we have to keep abreast, and most importantly we always have to stay in touch.
There’s a certain process that you have to go through for doing something right. You can’t just skip a step and backtrack later, expecting everything to work out smoothly. Each and every decision is an important one, possibly a representative one that could irrevocably affect the course of the future – Is it better use of my time writing this essay or keep sending out resumes and trying to get a job? Do you want to squeeze yourself into the system or build your own thing on the outside? Procrastination can assume many forms – trying to glut your brain with information and trying to meet the right people are hidden forms of procrastination but dwell under the banners of “getting smarter” and “networking.” I thought getting rid of social networking would free me from my time-wasting, life-sucking demons – it didn’t fix any of the fundamentally human flaws. I found new ways to distract myself, like doing research and compulsively checking my email. It seems the only solution is a small white room with a lock, with no way to avoid doing what needs to be done. Now, I am sidetracked by the most menial, the most petty things like blogs where people post daily pictures of their injuries and how they’re healing – people chat with me on my email address and I fruitlessly try to locate an obscure quote in the landfills of advertising-heavy mirror sites.
The barrage of ideas which, if you give each equal attention, you will achieve nothing. The book that read, I can choose to observe one experimental set-up, A, and ruin B, or choose to observe B and ruin A. I cannot choose not to ruin one of them. The self-defeating dispersal of passion of choosing plan Bs and the insufficiency of stacking your plans based on a ranking of importance to the world. The more we work, the less we get done. This is the ego fantasy of a system of total achievement and expression from some Nietzschean roar of productivity. The question of what’s important is a petrifying one, asked and agonized over by people with too much time on their hands. The sole result of this kind of circuitous inner dialogue results in what Erin K. Drew used to call ‘analysis-paralysis’: the inability to find anything really worth doing, and so watching your cools ideas deposed by miscarriage. What’s worth doing? Living fully and saving the world seems like the obvious top priority. But writing is the opposite of doing either of those things, but is strangely more fulfilling than either. It’s a wasted feeling to fiddle with the little personalization machine. The internet is an unexplored territory that we can crawl into as the world ends, to sleep off apocalypse in a cool, temperature-controlled womb. It seems to say, ‘step inside here where it’s warm, where there’s beautiful people to look at and things to do if you get bored!’. Of course, standing against the grain for it’s own sake can be a unique kind of damnation – like a guy I heard on the radio who called in and told a story about quitting the company he was working for in the 80s because they were developing a thing that he was sure was going to flop called “The Internet.” Our lust for something real is insatiable – from the patronizing heights of philanthropy it can be seen – people paying ridiculous amounts of money simply to know where their food comes from. Corporate childhood reversion – the compartmentalization of all impulses. Exercise belongs in gyms. Sex only happens in bedrooms or with escorts or when watching pornography. Crying is what you do at the therapist. Crawling and acting and making noise like an infant must only be done in yoga class. In Japan, businessmen even pay to break plates and rage in special rooms when they get off work to blow off some steam. Spending all day an office feels little different from spending all day at a public school – the Internet-addled silence of all modern, standardized institutions. The same feeling of cold, air-conditioned skin exiting the building and reacclimatizing to the hot sun. Paying admissions fees to historical parks or into programs for the chance to do grueling labor. The carnival amusement of letting their children ride a donkey, we laugh and ironicize how silly it is that our ancestors and people in undeveloped foreign lands have to do things like ride a donkey – we parody their struggle and backbroken lives with our entertaining diversions, our cartoons and sitcoms, while we lean back on couches watching, dead-in-life. There’s the wish to force our way back to the garden through fire and struggle through some apocalyptic wage of sin so that we can be pardoned from the original misdeed. It seems like we almost want to be sent to bed without dinner. This is the lust of people who want to sacrifice, who want the real thing – the final goal is to have no recourse from our fasting.
The wish for automatic writing to transcribe feelings, places, and experiences immediately, with a perfect distribution model so everybody knows what you’re thinking and feeling at all time. Also the perfect cataloguing system so if you forget you can type in the first letter, or the week you had an experience you’re trying to think of so you can cross-reference what you were thinking with what you said, for there never to be any doubt about what has happened, all parties having total recall of an event. To solidify your stuff against the ramparts of time – to be safeguarded from the inevitable amnesia of a mind that doesn’t remember because it no longer has to. Google, creating such a system of convenience, for information accessible with total recall, will leave us all completely incapable. I thought not having a computer would force me to go long spells without using the Internet. The opposite has proven true. Without bedroom access, my first thought upon waking was to rush to the library to use a computer. New belief that steady Internet access will be a good way to limit my use of it is a piece from the “you have to overdose to quit” school of thought. This is our inheritance: all the knowledge in the world at our fingertips thanks to the World Wide Web, but now we’re already too abstracted from the world to put it to good use. The last humans will live on empty vessels circling the remnants of a ruined planet, Google searching into the void to try to figure out what happened. Looking through plexiglass out into darkness, it seems like we’re only living in memories.
I would hazard to conclude rabid internet use is killing many potentially-brilliant creators, who have spent nearly a decade suckling at the digital teat, given in to the seduction of the instantaneous; Making things takes time, and so does reading books – surfing the web and puttering about in a purgatorial state of multi-tasking does not. Are we thinking in strained silence or just watching in high-definition? One solution is to place artificial limits on oneself by getting a machine that doesn’t have the Internet or access. Another solution is sabotaging the machine from the inside out – but we continue to wait for our young Skywalker who has the boldness to fly the X-wing all the way into the Death Star and destroy it completely. Can we value our own intuition and prescient thoughts over Wikipedia searching for what’s already been said? There are no data analysts to tell you how you’re doing. No doctor can tell definitively what’s making you sick. No pie graph, no productivity charts, no online survey or technics can give you a true reading. There won’t be a summation flow-chart at the end of your life that you can look back on and mark the high and low points, seeing clearly where you went wrong and going back for a do-over. I would assume these things only become clear in the moments before death, at the climax point when all the self-correcting and diplomatic apologizing is at its most futile and useless. The life is made, and then it’s gone, fast, violent and irrational. We’re driving snow-blind into the future, with only intuition to guide us.
But everything is still possible. We can see the world in an entirely new way where we’re not just prisoners here, seeking diversions to pass the time on our life sentences. We can be the yeast of new worlds and create new situations. We’re all caught in the riptide of time together, getting one year older at the same pace, unable to slow down or turn back now. No matter how much we fixate ourselves on the movement of the clock, time doesn’t pass any slower. The seconds turn into years, vanquished with long hours on the job, bad parties, and concerns about the future. And the worst part: stakes is high. Time passes no judgment on our decisions. It won’t tell you whether you did the right thing or blew it. It has no way to judge whether you gave up or stayed true to your vision and dreams – only you can tell that. The years chunk on, and the feeling begins to germinate inside that you get in the moments at the zenith of a rollercoaster: we’ve crested the top and are about to begin the plunge downward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Lake Smith lives in Brooklyn. He has written for the NY Times, Brooklyn Rail, Epilogue Magazine, Arthur Magazine and the Washington Post.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 19th, 2010.