Do I Owe Everything I am to The Internet?
When I attempt to reflect upon my relationship with the Internet and the way it seems to seize me, my intellect is occluded by a profound and impenetrable shame. Though I sometimes find myself frustrated with it, using it compulsively, or inspired by it, its nature remains elusive to me. When I pursue it intellectually, I cannot but see that the Internet has involved me so much within itself that it is difficult to come by an outside perspective. This is my relationship with the incomprehensible, all-knowing, invisible, ever-present, ever-expanding, all-containing being known as the Internet.
1. The Internet is a Symbolic Space – At a convivial occasion with my family in a restaurant, I recall a quite electric dialogue about the affairs of my cousin. All at the table were thoroughly engaged in the conversation. No one could be said to be withdrawn in the least bit. Meanwhile, as we each offered commentary and took part, four of my siblings, my cousin and myself were all using our mobile phones to access the Internet. We had all logged into Facebook, where an absent cousin had recently uploaded a photo. Each of us at the table was also commenting on that photo, and responding to each others' comments, silently in electronic space. Those of us who were both speaking aloud and commenting in type were interlocutors in two conversations taking place at the same time, while we were in the same space. I looked about me and noticed several other parties using their mobile devices while conversing.
So where is the Internet? In terms of physical space, it exists as hardware within servers as stored electronic codes that control the opening and closing of circuits on microchips. It also exists as electronic signals traveling through wires, and hardware on individual computers. As WiFi it exists as waves traveling through the air at frequencies our senses cannot detect. In this way, any space in which wireless Internet is available is a space saturated with airborne code, with the potential for interaction. Through computers, we harness and interpret this coded information. Computers do what our eyes or ears would to help us to perceive these coded waves that saturate the environment. In this way, the Internet takes up the same space as a sight or a sound. We've created a new sense through which to interact and receive information, and we've created a new dimension of space to transmit it. The Internet as we interact with it is a separated type of space, a cyberspace, which we imagine contains things.
2. The Internet is Our Mind – There is another dimension of our lives for which we use a spacial metaphor. We say that ourselves, actions, and things are 'on our mind', 'in our head', 'in the back of my mind', 'off the top of my head'. Things can also be 'on the internet', 'off the internet', and 'put up online'. We interact with our minds in much the same way as we interact with the Internet; we focus on the symbolized content which in physical space is composed of electrical signals and waves. Like a mind, the Internet is navigated by categorical association; a search engine looks through a network of categorically related subjects for those most relevant. Also, like the mind, most of the content is pornographic, trivial, or irrational. Collectivity is the difference between the Internet and our private minds.
All of us can access and contribute to the information which makes up the internet. Anything that we are able to articulate in words, graphics, or sound can be shared in a way that any mind in any physical space can access with the same proximity to the screen, to the text, and to one's experience. We all access this information in the same way, by surrendering our mind to this other space, with our physical bodies in a similar position, nose one or two feet from the screen. In this way we project and symbolize our mind into the Internet. We go online. Not only do we engage our personality with the Internet, we recreate it there. Many websites allow one to fill in a profile with their personal characteristics, to, in effect, inscribe their identity onto an electronic entity which takes up electronic space.
This 'profile' then becomes a representation of the self-categorized, self-described and self-signified physical being performing itself in this space. One function of this self-categorization is the ease it provides for information collection. Identity becomes commodity. This information about one-as-profile helps tailor-market products to users whose consumption interests are spelled out. Yet these ads are often also based on assumptions about what one's demographic consumes. The categorical-associative demographic model reinforces cultural assumptions about what certain identity categories should or shouldn't consume and look at. It also dictates what products and information one will be exposed to. Personal data provided by users also helps statistical and scientific organizations collect information about social trends. It may also help those who want to know one's location, or one's religious, sexual, or political affiliations to discover them.
60 years ago, when people with non-normative beliefs and ideas were more openly persecuted, few would have dared consider that one day we would freely offer up to public access all of our culturally divergent and radical ideas, beliefs, and affiliations without being interrogated. In fact, we'd joyfully blog about crimes we have committed, people we have slept with, and philosophies we subscribe to.
Am I my profile? What if my information is false? Do I know about myself to speak confidently about what I am? If I create a different persona in this second social world, is this person I have created made real by the beliefs and experiences of those who interact with me? How is my physical body and my physical relation with humans related to electronic space and interaction? What happens when the profile is active, but the body is dead?
When my friend Celia was in the hospital, I read about it on Facebook. When her parents decided to take her off of life support, I read about it on Facebook. I read the announcement on her profile when she died. I read the grieving messages written on her 'Wall'. I thought about leaving one, but couldn't think of anything to say. Instead, I chose the option to 'poke'(1) her. In that way, at least metaphorically, I was able to touch my friend who had passed.
To be honest, I visit her profile fairly regularly, along with the profiles of Christina and Alex, other current active Facebook friends of mine who are no longer living. All of their profiles still have a smiling photo of them to represent it. And each of their walls is covered with comments from friends, who share links and photos and stories. The surface of their profile, its wall, has become a space of mourning where my friends are endlessly eulogized.
Yet, despite the absence of response from them in the realm of interactions, they still play a role in social networking. Their profiles are still visible in my list of friends, and still adds to the count. In addition, the friend-finding application uses their social connections to suggest friends for me. I can meet and interact with their friends via their profiles. Even six months after her death, Celia can still introduce me to her friends. After a period of inactivity, Facebook will automatically suggest that I 'catch up' with Celia. Whenever something like this happens, I visit her page, look at the colorful images of her face, read her last comments and feel an array of emotions, from nostalgia to disgust, all of which stem from the endocrine system of my physical body reacting to the emotional charge of the associations in my brain.
Despite their lack of a body, my friends are still quite active in the world of Social Networking which acts on the physical world in much the same way things on our mind do. The contents of the Internet affect the physical world through many of the same processes as the contents of a mind, yet the contents of the Internet as a public mind can affect many more minds, and many more bodies than a private mind.
3. The Internet is a Productive Force – The Internet has been designed, to a large extent, with intentions to make marketing and access to information easier and more convenient. Thus, within most Internet spaces there are links to related information, products or media. The Internet is also represented as a Web, by which everything is connected. Many sites will use the information they collect about one's interests to suggest more. Examples of this include radio stations that find new music based on one's taste, or online bookstores which suggest more reading. Even Porn sites will suggest content that is similar to what one is accessing.
I must admit, online recommendations have played a large role in the development of my intellectual life. I frequently access wikipedia, which can lead one through a maze of linked subjects. I download music, movies, and books. I shop at online bookstores which suggest further reading. Most if not all of the ideas and personalities I consider essential to my intellectual, spiritual, musical, and emotional life I discovered through a search engine. I have downloaded hours and hours of lectures, printed entire books, read comments and blogs, corresponded with authors and thinkers through the Internet. I have discovered communities. I have discovered real living people who think and believe like I do. Most of the sex I have had has been facilitated by online communication. I have applied for and been hired for jobs, found places to stay while traveling, purchased and sold vehicles, looked for a house, set up work-trade and barter through the Internet. In fact, there is no aspect of my identity that I can think of that has not been directly affected by information and content I accessed via the Internet.
It was often the whim of a program that suggested a topic of study, a product, or a person. If the algorithm had produced a different topic, my mind and interest and interaction and personal development may also have gone a different direction. So many of these suggestions have become things I identify with. I have incorporated this information into my self-definition (I may even have edited my online profile to reflect my new interest). Through the actions of these websites, the Internet has affected my experience and thought in the physical world. Much of that which I call 'me' came from the Internet. The Internet has produced me.
I have seen through this shame that I feel. In reflecting on my relationship with the Internet I have realized that not only has a new dimension of human experience been created, but I am inextricably tangled in The Web. I exist in, to, and from it as much as any other part of my world. Yet technology has often proven to strengthen existing power relations. It has often served to deepen and exacerbate the problems in our culture. This is why I feel so deep a shame. I know how powerful the Internet is and the ways in which, by accessing it, it can access me. It would seem I have already been assimilated and addicted to it. For me, the only thing to do is to live as consciously and responsibly in this extra dimension as I try to in the other ones. I worry, though, that the Internet represents a new force for the oppressive power relations to exert. I think we must stop resisting the Internet as a force, and focus on how we can use the collective-mind-like function of that force to create change and reprogram the structure of power.
1 The 'poke' option sends a notification to the recipient that they have been poked, and presents them with the option to 'poke back'. This seems to represent a non-verbal, quasiphysical interaction between two person's profiles.