Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Internet and Hard Work

Susan Sontag wrote an essay about the personality of Walter Benjamin called, Under the Sign of Saturn. It is about the saturnine or melancholic type. It is a fine description of attributes and traits and maybe it is quite accurate of Benjamin, I don' know, but it sure has a few parts that resonate with me.

Underlying Sontag’s understanding of the saturnine personality is the basic world view inherent in the piece that "l'existence precede l'essence" or existence before essence. That is to say, we are an act of creation - of our own will and of our own environment. We exist and we are active participants in the development of our essence, of what will become essential about us and to us.

That there are several forces at work here is key. We have a say; there is an aspect of self-determination in our lives, but we are also heavily conditioned by our environment. Beware of this construction - choose - find a place for depth and breadth that is different from mere quantity.

Maps, labyrinths, cities, arcades, vistas, as Sontag writes of Benjamin, become metaphors of self construction and journey. Diagrams of being and discovery. So many paths and possibilities becomes an indecisive blundering about - a stasis of becoming, of almost, of contemplating commitment or action. She also considers the idea of the self as a text to be deciphered or a project to be built.

The self can also be seen as a collection, an acquisition of experiences, a kind of library in the making. Learning is a form of collecting, of acquisition as well. The desire to learn is an admission of the inadequacy of the self: 'I am not enough to thrive.'

Sontag saw Benjamin (as I occasionally see myself) as one who is 'multi-positioning.' This is living at the cross roads - available to see and defend many positions from a single stance. This is, of course, something with positive and negative aspects. It is an acknowledgement of our epistemological limits, though it can also be seen as a kind of vacillation or a big 'maybe' about what comes next, about what to do.

I read a couple of things in the New York Times this weekend that got me thinking about these kinds of things in the 21st Century. The first was a piece on a new book by Eli Pariser called The Filter Bubble. This is about the concept of the internet as an echo chamber, as something that gives back what we give.

"Personalization [of the internet via filters] he [Pariser] argues, channels people into feedback loops or 'filter bubbles' of their own predilections." 'Filter bubble' is a good term and it reminds me of Thomas Kuhn's concept of the Paradigm Shift. It's as if the internet, with all its cookies and algorithms has arranged for each of us to become our own little paradigm. We become, in cyberspace, an example of us - we become a set of forms and the particular element that is the thing in common. There is no crossover or shift or the chance to create or become our own Venn diagram of overlapping interests and struggle with our own complexity and contradiction.

If this is coupled with what I would call (and what I think I observe) a diminishing level of self discovery via primary experience - by actually doing things, reading difficult texts and going places instead of some kind of secondary experience in which we watch, search and we're fed back some semblance of our own expectations and desires as perceived by the web then we may be in serious trouble.

We need hard work. We need to struggle with opposing ideas, conflicting ideas and take this work seriously in order to come close to this thing called our 'potential.' To think through difficult, nuanced arguments and concepts takes time and effort. If we are kept from conflict, from difficulty by a technology that wants us to be 'happy' with the results of our interactions with it, then the cart is before the horse and the servant has become the master.

There is this thing called 'self-awareness' and it exists on many levels. Going back to the intro of this essay I called for mindfulness of depth and breadth and not just of quantity when we contemplate the perspective with/from which we interact in the world. It is not the number of ‘friends’ we have that makes a life. A filtered interface diminishes this opportunity for depth.

Another op ed piece in this weekend's Times by Jonathan Franzen posits, "the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace the natural world that's indifferent to our wishes - a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance - with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self." This is another writer finding the filter, the echo of technology, of the internet as a means of distraction. This is a temptation away from the hard work.

Franzen writes of being 'likable' - something so essential for Facebook, as "incompatible with loving relationships." More hard work. Long term, loving relationships with a friend or a partner don't come with filters. There are times when we are not likable; we get each other, warts and all.

Now who/what is creator and created?