Remember when you only went online to check your email (oh yes, and porn of course)? And email consisted of person to person requests: letters from friends, work requirements, meeting times, etc. We laughed at snail mail and admired how quickly we could communicate. Now that personal email is buried under so much junk, scamming, selling, promoting, promulgating, campaigning, email has become pretty dysfunctional. It no longer saves us time, because we spend more hours every day winnowing the grain of connection from the meaningless chaff.
Perhaps that is why we moved to other online societies. Facebook persisted and pervaded. We loved reconnecting with old friends, with family from around the world. We saw opportunities for speaking directly to each other rather than through the stolid diplomacy of governments; opportunities for a more global humanity. We played games; cat videos became even more popular than human porn. But then we became the commodity, sold to even the lowest bidder. Our feeds filled with things we were thought to desire (need, rather), and all that junk, scamming, selling, promoting, promulgating, campaigning, swamped us again. Facebook adapted a little, giving us constrained opportunities to see less of that, more of this.
But now, I feel online social media offers a deeper threat, not just to our time, but also to our lives. Here is what I see happening:
The online world reduces and simplifies what happens in our real lives. Twitter is judged on how witty it is, rather than whether it is true. Posts are shared to confirm an already simplified viewpoint, rather than to invite open and informed debate. A five-hour event is reduced to a biased inflammatory five-second video. A five-year endeavour becomes five minutes of confabulations so as to promote only the best of what happened. Clickbait (and everything is clickbait) becomes increasing sensationalised. The records stand in for reality and we think that by clicking on them, we have taken part. We participate less and less in the actuality; although, from such reduced information, we feel enabled to like or condemn. We have become judge and jury in trials that no longer admit complex reality or even witnesses.
And because we are more comfortably removed from the direct personal encounter, we are also able to ignore our own personal culpability in any engagement. While we hash tag support for one cause, we ignore the same issues in communities not so like our own (and hence exacerbate them). We argue to a reduced absurdity while ignoring our lived messy realities. Indigenous groups campaign for reconciliation, while escalating internal conflict. Environmentalists boast of international travel. We abhor violence while carrying guns. We participate in games whose processes destroy their intended goals. We proclaim our rights but not our responsibilities. We hide under others’ memes, claiming no accountability later. We spend increasing time scrolling, forgetting how to be human in local company. We are absorbed by an online world we can never actually inhabit.
None of these critiques are new and many others have made them; they have applied to media long before the internet. My fear is not just that we reduce the world into something that fits in our hands, but also that we forget to look up. My fear is that we forget the deeper complexities of every interaction, and hence we forget compassion. My fear is that we become so obsessed with representations of human interactions, that we forget how interconnected we are with the non-human world all around us and within us. My fear is that we no longer see or care for the actual places where we live; virtual reality binds us and blinds us.
My fear is not that the online world completely reflects reality, but that its obsessions and reductions begin to shape the realities that we can perceive. My fear is that everything is simplified and pushed to its polar opposites, because online popularity is more important than the genuine middle ground.
The multifaceted more-than-human world that we truly inhabit has become reduced and elevated to a photo-shopped beauty that we can never visit, rather than somewhere we live; an afterlife of paradise rather than a place to be husbanded.
And so, my plan for a little while, is to inhabit my full, slow, reality. To be fully present and engaged in this small humble place, right here. To make slow craft and slow meals. To live with less of the human obsessions and intolerances, and more of its creativity and connection and complexity. To spend more time reading slow books and writing and making art and gardening and talking to real people sitting with me in this space. And many of those people are more than human; they have wings or fur or leaves or scales or spores. My plan for a little while is to spend time breathing in the scent of the earth. To spend time sitting under a tree. To awe, to wonder, to replenish. And then I’ll see if I want to come back to the online fast lane.
PS: Yes, I’m going to blog about the experience and yes, I’m aware of the irony. But if you want to debate, comment, discuss, or generally interact, then come along any Open Studios afternoon every Sunday at the Cooroora Institute. I’ll be more than happy to drink coffee or wine with you and point you to a few good books. It’s about time more of us showed up in person, and we operated more in our locales and cared more for our immediate neighbours and communities, human and otherwise. One of the things I’ve discovered after a few years of concerted and mostly enjoyable effort on social media, is that I don’t need likes or viral trending; what I still value is complex and compassionate authenticity that come from slow inhabitations and real experiences. I have a better chance of finding that in my own backyard than I do on any online platform. So… see you here!
Dr Tamsin Kerr