Whether we gain or not by this habit of profuse communication it is not for us to say.
‑ Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)
In The New York Review of Books (issue dated June 23rd), Edward Mendelson, best known as an Auden scholar, scans a clutch of new and recent works outlining our – or perhaps America’s – anxieties about the personal, psychological and societal implications of what appears to be a full-on, few-questions-asked embrace of new technology, an embrace of course warmly reciprocated by the large corporations which supply our needs and from which, it is suggested, there is now little hope of extricating ourselves.
Mendelson finds Virginia Woolf’s hyperbolic yet seriously intended assertion (in the 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”) that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” to have been a hundred years premature. Human character, he asserts, in fact “changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.”
Of the many “probing and intelligent” books that have recently appeared to help us make sense of the digital age, some analyse the surveillance of the citizen, others the wealth of choice now open to that citizen, others the increasing tendency of some, and particularly the younger ones, to expose details of their lives – details previously considered private and “personal” ‑ to the scrutiny, and the potential malevolent exploitation, of strangers. Others still “explore the moods and emotions performed and observed on social networks”, or even “celebrate the Internet as a vast aesthetic and commercial spectacle”.
The common theme, however, is “the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives [my emphasis] are newly accessible and offered for display”. The less explicit theme is a newly transient sense of self, in which, as the expression of personality has migrated from the intimate group to a much more public sphere, validation is to be found only in the “shape-shifting judgments of the crowd”.
Judy Wajcman, in Pressed for Time, argues that “the culture of digital interruption places different kinds of stress on the interrupted (employees, children) and the intruders (managers, parents) leaving both unhappy, like Hegel’s mutually constrained slaves and masters”. Yet, she adds, smartphones can also be used to reschedule dinner appointments at the last minute, “thereby facilitating temporal coordination” (would Hegel, one wonders, have approved?). Some, however, might choose to see this latter “plus” as a facilitation of selfishness, even bad manners, a transaction in which, as like as not, there is some element of power play at work.
Mendelson, however, seems chiefly to be aesthetically repelled by the smartphone – or any other mobile phone – and as much exercised by its visible – and often audible – disruptions of what were once the widely accepted norms of interpersonal behaviour as by its possible social utility or (capitalist) oppressiveness. (Larry David memorably had a similar problem with Bluetooth.)
Dante, always our contemporary, portrays the circle of the Neutrals, those who used their lives neither for good nor for evil, as a crowd following a banner around the upper circle of Hell, stung by wasps and hornets. Today the Neutrals each follow a screen they hold before them, stung by buzzing notifications. In popular culture, the zombie apocalypse is now the favored fantasy of disaster in horror movies set in the near future because it has already been prefigured in reality: the undead lurch through the streets, each staring blankly at a screen.
Edward Mendelson’s (born 1946) sentiment here is one with which the present writer (born 1951) can somewhat sympathise on the aesthetic level, though I must admit it has rather an antique hum to it and I fear it may be not quite nice to consign so many ordinary folk so blithely to hell.
Bernard Harcourt’s Exposed surveys the effect on privacy of citizens’ habits of posting constant online updates about themselves. “We are not being surveilled today,” he writes, “so much as we are exposing ourselves knowingly” and indeed creating two selves, “the now permanent digital self, which we are etching into the virtual cloud with every click and tap, and our mortal analog selves, which seem by contrast to be fading like the color on a Polaroid instant photo”. This judgment, however, Mendelson adds, “overestimates the likelihood of digital immortality; in fact vast Web-based communities, with all their history, have been swept away with a click”. It also of course rhetorically inflates the supposed “disappearance” of our real, mortal selves.
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Updating to Remain the Same describes the ways in which the habit of making and seeking “updates” of our own and other people’s status creates a crowd, similar to that envisaged by Elias Canetti (the “baiting” crowd, the crowd that comes together to kill someone): “Through … habits, individual actions coalesce bodies into monstrously connected chimeras.” The Internet, Chun argues, is a world always in crisis, in panic at e-mail viruses, solving the problem of a fugitive Ugandan warlord (with the support in this case of Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Rihanna) simply by watching a massively popular YouTube video about him – and, of course, by collectively, and connectively, emoting. The network’s vastness induces a sense of powerlessness, Chun argues, that can be relieved only by joining a crowd – “until the crowd reshapes itself, as it always does, and must be joined again. As the Red Queen told Alice, ‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’”
Richard Coyne, in Mood and Mobility, is in Mendelson’s view a more elegant writer than Chun, but his conclusions are not dissimilar: “machines change the deepest experience of life”; “space is filled with devices and technologies that really do have a role in the way moods happen” by providing “mood-altering entertainment” that can “incite people to action, protest, and revolution”—or induce “existential vertigo … or habituation”.
Is it worse to read on screen than on paper? Mendelson would certainly like to think it is and “at least one report plausibly suggests” that if you read on paper you are more likely to follow the thread of a narrative or argument; on screen, apparently, you are more likely to scan for keywords, which “may have the effect of confirming in a reader the associations that those keywords already hold”. Mendelson relates this to a phenomenon identified by Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble (2011), which claimed there was a “narrowing effect to technologies used by Google, Amazon, Apple, and others to feed search results, or suggestions of books and music that might ‘also interest’ you, that match and confirm information that you searched for earlier, and that others who have been associated with you by algorithms also searched for”. Thus, the argument goes, people on the left, or people on the right, are nudged by onscreen links to books and sites that endorse the views they already hold. A similar phenomenon was said to account for the great surprise of so many British Labour Party supporters at their defeat at the 2015 general election: they had spent the previous few months happily cheering each other up and endorsing each other’s analyses on Twitter.
I am not sure if this self-willed ideological isolation is an entirely new phenomenon or indeed one exclusively dependent on the Internet. It is a few decades since I first heard the view expressed (by a British writer) that a newspaper’s main practical function was to “massage the prejudices of its readers”. And in a country of fifty or sixty million people this works – or used to work before the collapse of newspaper sales – very satisfactorily: Mr Robinson in No 23 always took the Telegraph because it stood up for Britain, while Ms Green in No 25 took The Guardian because it was not afraid to point out the injustices in society. And neither of them felt any need whatsoever to even sneak a glance at the other’s paper. In a small country like Ireland we do not have the luxury of having a newspaper for the middle class left and another for the middle class right so we must be content just to boycott the columnists we do not like (some, of course, prefer to deluge them with hate mail).
The expanding “Internet of things”, Mendelson writes, can give a smartphone user remote control over a home heating system hundreds of miles away. Isn’t that amazing? Well yes, but actually no. Mendelson writes, wisely enough:
The psychological effect, for everyone I know who uses these devices, reproduces the stress felt by managers who can demand obedience from subordinates at all times: greater control over things too distant to touch brings greater anxiety about matters otherwise too distant to worry about.
Philip Howard, in Pax Technica, forecasts that new device networks, feeding information about everything to centralised databases, will “bring about a special kind of stability in global politics”. The winners in the future game will be those who can demonstrate truths through big data and disseminate them over social media and the losers those whose lies are exposed. But as Mendelson sharply points out, this vision requires a utopian faith in the rational, autonomous judgment of everyone whose lives are shaped by firms and governments, not to mention a faith in the good intentions of such entities themselves.
I have only touched here on some of the books mentioned by Edward Mendelson. In a few cases, I must admit, I didn’t quite understand what was being said or thought it was so soaked in postmodern modishness as to be merely tricksy and as useless as spilled mercury. But what strikes me most about the review is the assumption shared by, it would seem, all of the writers and the reviewer that we are dealing with a phenomenon that is all-engulfing and a fate that is ineluctable.
Does Mendelson’s “we” include you? Can nothing really be done about the tyranny of our smartphones? Don’t we have a say? It may very well be that teenagers, on whom the pressure to conform can be overwhelming, feel they have little choice: not to have an iPhone Six Plus when everyone else has one can seem like the end of the world, but parents, who have seen the world not ending a few times before, may feel entitled to make a judgment on that, while bearing in mind that adolescence can be so difficult an experience that everyone is best helped through it with a little kindness and indulgence.
Adults, however, it strikes me, are, within certain limits, autonomous beings. If your employer insists that you must be contactable at all times you might point out that you are only paid for forty, or forty-five, or whatever, hours, and indeed you have a contract to prove it. If he or she remains recalcitrant you might even go to your trade union, though perhaps that’s a thing that started going out at roughly the time the smartphone came in. Equally, yourself and your spouse or partner might agree that it would be more conducive to the sanity of both of you to be not always contactable but contactable in cases of genuine emergency. Who knows, even the children might accept it (“Dad’s like real weird, he keeps turning off his iPhone Six Plus”).
E-mail, junk mail notwithstanding, is of course a huge blessing and has helped millions of people to keep in touch, regularly or sporadically, with friends and family in a way that they very probably would not have done had they been relying on carrying through all the multiple successive actions that are required to send a letter. But the phone? A dozen or so years ago people used to say (often they were the kind of people who championed the politics of Mary Harney and Charlie McCreevy): “Do you remember the time when you had to apply to the Department of Posts & Telegraphs and it might be a year or more before you’d get the ‘line’?” I do indeed. And it was a time when (having got one) you could understand on what basis your phone bill was calculated, a time when you weren’t persecuted by strangers phoning you up trying to get you to change your account from one utility to another on the basis of a supposedly more advantageous “tariff” that you hadn’t a hope in hell of ever understanding. It was also a time when people might say – if there was, for example, an illness in the family: “I’ll be on the road most of the afternoon but if there’s an emergency you can phone Marie; she’ll get the message to me when I get into Ballina.” Did that delay in receiving information make us, individually or collectively, a great deal worse off?
Edward Mendelson’s vision of the zombies lurching through the streets staring at their screens is an amusing one, and it’s not far off the mark in terms of what this looks like to a non-believer and non-practitioner. However, the main point is surely not an aesthetic but a material one. Is it the case that twenty or thirty years ago many commuters spent some of their travel time reading a book or a newspaper, which is to say communicating with something outside themselves,, something in the public sphere? Of course they can still do that now, and occasionally one does see it, but what one sees mostly – and often hears – is a continuation, on the train, of a conversation interrupted just twenty minutes previously over the breakfast table, or a prequel to one that is to be consummated that evening in the pub. To whose gain? Is there not enough gabbling in the world? Never mind reading: the pop neuroscientists, who it seems have a theory on everything to do with “the digital era”, might even be able to tell us what we are missing by having lost the taste for staring blankly and contentedly out the window.
Photograph: City office workers outside London’s Mansion House. Duncan Harris/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons