Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category
……Cadillac (1960), Winchester, Virginia, June 2010…… Ubik, first hardcover.
In his novel Ubik, Philip K. Dick imagines a world in which corporations employ telepaths to undermine the interests of their competitors. In turn, the competition hires firms with anti-telepaths in order to defend themselves against their adversaries and protect their privacy. Dick is having a good time. The use of psychic powers by companies merely mimics the dirty tricks employed by current corporate spies. It’s still chess whether played in two or three dimensions. New frontiers, same games. (The best science fiction always makes the implicit present explicit.)
It seems that we face the world of Ubik today but on an even more personal level. The World Wide Web is a marvelous thing. But it doesn’t forget. If you say something you might regret or post an unflattering picture, it is caught by the Web and freeze dried. Employers, friends, strangers, those wishing you ill, or old-fashioned voyeurs will have you under their gaze with the click of a mouse for the foreseeable future. It’s hard living in a Facebook culture when we can’t always control how we appear. Different sorts of answers to this dilemma have been proposed. Some legal: prevent the firing of employees based on information that does not reveal illegal activity. Some technological: posts that automatically self-destruct after a number of months or years. Some positively Dickean: neutralize those who would do you harm by hiring a company to transform your presence on the Web. Here is how the latter strategy is explained in a current New York Times Magazine article by Jeffrey Rosen, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” (Catch the name of the company below, ReputationDefender. Dick might have called the company PsycheDefender.)
[W]ith the help of the kind of search-optimization technology that businesses use to raise their Google profiles, ReputationDefender can bombard the Web with positive or neutral information about its customers, either creating new Web pages or by multiplying links to existing ones to ensure they show up at the top of any Google search. (Services begin from $10 a month to $1,000 a year; for challenging cases, the price can rise into the tens of thousands.) By automatically raising the Google ranks of the positive links, ReputationDefender pushes the negative links to the back pages of a Google search, where they’re harder to find.
Perhaps this is akin to how the anti-telepaths worked in Dick’s novel. But Dick’s concerns were not just with corporate dirty tricks. The issues were deeper. If one is always being watched, tracked in some fashion, defined by the gaze of others who one does not control, how does one become a person? Being a person involves the possibility of changing the course of one’s life, of making choices to be (somewhat) different from how one has been. The Web presents a real danger. We can find ourselves permanently defined by past words and deeds, some from the long past. Americans have always been especially attuned to the idea that we could remake ourselves, change our lives, start all over again, perhaps by going West. But the Frontier option is no longer available, according to Rosen.
In the 20th century, however, the ideal of the self-made man came under siege. The end of the Western frontier led to worries that Americans could no longer seek a fresh start and leave their past behind, a kind of reinvention associated with the phrase “G.T.T.,” or “Gone to Texas.” But the dawning of the Internet age promised to resurrect the ideal of what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called the “protean self.” If you couldn’t flee to Texas, you could always seek out a new chat room and create a new screen name. For some technology enthusiasts, the Web was supposed to be the second flowering of the open frontier, and the ability to segment our identities with an endless supply of pseudonyms, avatars and categories of friendship was supposed to let people present different sides of their personalities in different contexts. What seemed within our grasp was a power that only Proteus possessed: namely, perfect control over our shifting identities.
But the hope that we could carefully control how others view us in different contexts has proved to be another myth. As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.
One crucial point that the article does not address is that we appear to be shackling ourselves to a digital past at a time when real income for most Americans simply hasn’t been rising in line with the American Dream. We believed, and were led to believe, that economic progress would provide us with opportunities in which we could realize ourselves in new and different ways. The objects of our material desires, like the Cadillac pictured above, were objects that allowed our fantasies to play out. If I buy one of those, I can be like those who own them. If I buy this, and this, and this….I will be different. I will be free. Free of my past. Free of the past.
But now that the party appears to be over, the new technology of the Internet has stepped in. Give me an avatar and freedom will ring. Yet the Web may have as many bobby traps in store for us as the unfettered materialism of the go go economy myth. Unless of course we can call on a new company, ReputationCreators, that will give us whatever persona we would like. The catch…for a price that many of us won’t be able to pay.
You will laugh. You will scoff. You will be befuddled. But I have finally figured out why Obama is so familiar. At first I thought it might just be his politics. In my day job as a political philosopher, I recognize deep similarities between Obama’s political orientation and a tradition of American progressivism that had its heyday in the early 20th century. This form of progressivism had roots in the Midwest and was linked to the Social Gospel Movement. In some ways Obama is reviving this tradition.
But there was something more familiar about Obama, and about how his campaign has managed to galvanize so many young people. Well, maybe it was simply a flash from the past, the political organizing that many of us engaged in to stop the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights. He is leading a movement in which people of color and whites are linked once again. Perhaps this was the source of the deep familiarity.
Yes, certainly, his campaign has brought back memories. But it somehow didn’t get to another level of familiarity. And then it hit me. Obama is Mr. Spock and his campaign the Star Ship Enterprise, that is, if you allow for the vicarious presence of millions of fans aboard the ship. Consider Spock and Obama: cool, logical, trustworthy, a great deal of presence of mind, etc. Further, Leonard Nimoy, the actor who plays Spock, is Jewish. Obama went to Harvard Law and taught at the University of Chicago Law School, which makes him an honorary Jew. (Being Jewish, I can say this.) And what have we heard about Obama’s blood pressure, 90/60; not that of an ordinary mortal, just like Spock. But don’t consider character traits, or arguments, gaze on their images.
We must broaden our horizons. It is not merely the similarity to Spock. Star Trek ran during a war that most of us could do little to stop. Here we are, once again. (And there is a Texan in the White House, again. Don’t get me wrong. I lived in Texas. I am fond of Texans. I married one. But let’s just keep them out of the White House for the Next Generation.) Star Trek was a fantasy refuge, before the Internet. But Star Trek was going to be canceled by NBC. What saved it? According to William Shatner, Captain Kirk, in Chapter Three of his book, Up Till Now (don’t ask how I know this), a letter writing campaign was launched to save the show. Here is what Shatner tells us about the campaign.
“As a result of this campaign, NBC received, trumpets blare here, more than 1,000,000 letters urging the network not to cancel the show….[It was not cancelled] Perhaps more important the people who wrote the letters suddenly had an emotional attachment to a television program unlike any viewers ever before. They had actually influenced a network’s programming decision. They had ownership. Star Trek really had become their show. This marked the beginning of the most unusual relationship between viewers and a TV series in history.” [emphasis added]
Okay, you will accuse me of trivializing one of the most important recent movements in American politics. But Obama the community organizer would understand the connection. Star Trek was a collective experience mediated by a visual medium. It also expressed utopian ideals at a time when young people felt impotent about changing the course of a war and the world. (Star Trek began before the full impact of demonstrations against the war became apparent.) Obama and his people have harnessed the Internet to allow people to feel that they are not mere bystanders but full participants. They have provided a sense of “ownership” (although I am not crazy about the term). Most importantly, and here the analogy begins to break down, Obama and his team are providing not only a fantasy utopian moment, but the possibility of actually changing things. Live Long and Prosper.
P.S. Leonard Nimoy is an Obama supporter.
To say that Americans have had a love affair with technology is the most humdrum of cliches. The idea that new technologies will not only make life easier for us, but will help bring us together as a people, is not new theme in American folklore. Long before there was the Web, or the radio, or even a developed telephone network, American philosophers and social critics dreamed of how new technologies might transform us, make us into a community in all of our diversity. In 1892, as a relatively young man, George Herbert Mead, a pragmatic philosopher in the American grain, wrote a letter to his wife’s parents. It’s worth quoting.
But it seems to me clearer every day that the telegraph and locomotive are the great spiritualizers of society because they bind man and man so close together that the interest of the individual must be more completely the interest of all day by day. And America in pushing this spiritualizing of nature is doing more than all in bringing the day when every man will be my neighbor and all life shall be saturated with the divine life (emphasis added). (See, Gary A. Cook, George Herbert Mead, The Making of a Social Pragmatist, p. 31)
This relatively youthful Mead thought that the locomotive and the telegraph would bring us closer together. And so they did in their own ways. Now the Internet appears to be doing so in a qualitatively different fashion. But before moving on to discuss the Internet’s place in the current election, it’s worth reminding ourselves about the dark side of our commitment to technology. For example, we have recently been promised nearly bloodless wars in which burnished flying machines, decked out with starship instrumentation, will seek out and destroy our enemies. The Iraq nightmare began with the promise that high tech would produce “Shock and Awe,” and a quick end to war.
But in this election, the prospect of utilizing technology to make Americans feel as if they are part of a national political community, is no longer merely a fantasy of the early devotees of Apple computers. Although it has been said many times and in many ways, and in ways that were suspect, it does seem that the Internet has finally come of age. No doubt Obama would not be where he is today without his campaign’s creative use of Internet technologies and software. (See, Joshua Green’s piece, “The Amazing Money Machine” <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/obama-finance> and Marc Ambinder’s “His Space” in The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/ambinder-obama
Yet technology by itself is blind. Obama’s experience as a community organizer has let him frame how the technology could be used. He and his people have pioneered paths for merging the virtual and the real worlds, for moving from on-line communities to real world communities and back. What happens on the Web doesn’t just stay on the Web. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama is part of an older American tradition, one that supported the development of technology without worshiping it. And one that spoke a great deal about community and social responsibility. Mead was part of this camp. And so was his good friend John Dewey. They were called progressives in the early 20th century. They were on the non-Marxist Left. (Yes, we once had a vital non-Marxist Left.) Sometimes we forget that this tradition preceded New Deal Liberalism.
What is happening is not just about Obama and his campaign. It is about words: their profusion, polyphony, and heartfeltness. People are writing to each other, again and again. And not just to friends (or one’s wife’s parents), but to strangers. Have Americans ever written so much in such a short space of time? Do all the words in all of the (paper) letters that Americans have written since the Declaration of Independence equal 1/10 of the words on the Web in the last five years? (No doubt, someone, somewhere, has made a calculation.) Commentaries abound from people who never had a voice in the mainstream media. They talk, argue, commiserate, plan, plot, comment, organize, and vent. Yes, a lot of junk, some hate, but also speaking and listening. Will this conversation resolve economic inequalities and racial divides? Of course not. As a matter of fact, we will have to work to make sure that new technologies don’t increase class divisions or centralize power in unimagined ways. Yet, all in all, we are engaged in an impressive conversation. It may not be the New England Town Hall, but for a country of 300 million, it’s an interesting way to help promote political communities and community.