Alien Worlds and Nebulous Publics

by Michael Patrick O'Leary


Onward and outward. When I was eight years old, I had a set of gadgets inspired by the Dan Dare strip in the Eagle comic. I remember being disappointed that, despite what the buttons on the dials said, I could not communicate with Mars or have a chat with the Mekon. When I graduated to 45 rpm singles, I used to let the stylus run on at the end of the song and imagine I could hear the Coasters or the Drifters chatting in the studio.

My first “computer’ was an Amstrad PCW word processor purchased in 1993. This gadget made Alan Sugar a power in the land. He founded his company in 1968 and went on to be chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. Trump equivalent on the UK version of The Apprentice, a baron and the 95th richest person in the UK. Amstrads were very popular in the UK because they were very cheap. They were very clunky and not compatible with any other gadget. I had an atavistic longing for a computer to perform some kind of magic, linking me to alien worlds. The Amstrad was never going to do that for me, and I swapped it for a proper PC. This had very little memory power, but I could extend outwards a little bit through obsessive purchasing of CD Roms. Eventually, this proved frustrating and it was not until 1999 that I managed to connect with the internet. I could see great potential in this but was frustrated by the crippling slowness and expense of dial-up connections. Only connect.

Everything is so much more efficient in 2021 but am I happy? Is the outwardness I craved such a good thing?  Jacob Silverman is not happy. Silverman writes: “Our experiences become not about our own fulfillment, the fulfillment of those we’re with, or even about sharing; rather, they become about ego, demonstrating status, seeming cool or smart or well-informed. Perhaps there’s an inevitable hollowing out of interiority, of the quietness of your thoughts, as reading becomes directed outward, from a period of private contemplation to a strategic act meant to satisfy some nebulous public.”

Jacob Silverman

Silverman writes: “The smartphone is the Swiss Army knife of social-media culture. It’s also the ultimate site of social retreat.” Silverman is a frequent contributor to Slate, the Atlantic and other publications and in his first book, Terms of Service, he looks in depth at digital culture. We have all seen what he describes, dinner parties where no one is talking to or even looking at their companions because they are locked in a pod looking at their screens. No-one can live in the now. The digital behemoths are profiting from this, but they could not do so without our compliance. “They condition us to always expect something else, some outside message that is more important than whatever we might be doing then. When the phone lights up, it must be dealt with immediately, if only to banish the alert from the screen.”

Trade in the currency of attention

Linda Stone writes: Continuous partial attention “is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.”

Yes, We Can, and We Will

Silverman writes: “…our whole world, and all of our sensations and thoughts within it, will be transcribed. Not because it is right or good, but because we can, and because this information, they promise, will be useful. In this temple, anything is worth sacrificing on the altars of efficiency and productivity.” It is difficult to understand how this will be useful to me as an individual. It has proved to have little benefit to homeland security. It makes a lot of money for Facebook and Google through data mining, but it is of little benefit to me.

Some people seem to be suffering from some kind of mental illness on social media. They devote a lot of time and energy, almost a career’s worth, to “crafting permanent online identities that allow us to see and be seen.” This has a tendency to undermine the real identity of minnows such as myself who are tempted to strut about upon an ephemeral stage posing in a fake character. “I share, therefore I am—more interesting, more sociable, more desirable, more myself” than myself.

Nathan Jurgenson describes social-media users as developing “a ‘Facebook Eye’: our brains always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and ‘likes.’” Christopher Lasch noted as long ago as 1991 that ordinary people now face “an escalating cycle of self-consciousness—a sense of the self as a performer under the constant scrutiny of friends and strangers.”

“Memoir has become the genre of first resort for many writers” says Silverman. That’s OK with me. I have always wanted to be a writer and I used to assume that it would be short stories and novels, or, at one time, TV plays when there were such things. These days, I find it much more satisfying writing non-fiction and this will often be about myself. No-one else might be interested but they would not be interested in a novel in which I laboured to construct a plot.

Lunch Mob

I once had a FB friend whom I will call Bloggs (to protect the guilty). Not a single Bloggs meal went unpublicized. I found this amusing, but I thought it a little creepier when he started saying some nasty things about his teenage son on FB. I gently chided him about this and mildly suggested that he might be giving disproportionate importance to Facebook in his life. He unfriended me and blocked me and set his many followers and admirers to hound me.

Silverman notes the “general online tendency toward disinhibition”. Social media allow the ability to speak freely without fear of consequence. “The social web is suffused with an incessant enthusiasm, constant liking, and a culture of mutual admiration in part because those are the possibilities offered to us.” For me, X’s lunch mob became a lynch mob. “These networks, particularly Facebook, have a banality problem. The cultural premium now placed on recording and broadcasting one’s life and accomplishments means that Facebook timelines are suffused with what seem to be insignificant, trite postings about meals, workouts, non-accomplishments, the weather, recent purchases, funny ads, the milestones of people three degrees removed from you.” Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil when describing the Eichmann trial. “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.” Now we have the evil of banality.

Privacy is Yesterday’s Capitalism

By the 1960s, the rise of a propertied middle class meant that privacy suited capitalism. Money could be made out of building walls to give people private space. Tim Wu: “…what we’re learning is that the symbiosis between capitalism and privacy was maybe just a phase, a four-hundred-year fad. For capitalism is an adaptive creature, a perfect chameleon; it has no disabling convictions but seeks only profit. If privacy pays, great, but if totalizing control pays more, then so be it.”

In her monumental book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that something transformational happened in the early twenty-first century in the relationship between capitalism, privacy, and human autonomy. A new form of power has been forged which does not depend on coercion or terror. We have chosen to give up our freedom by buying voluntarily into “ownership of the means of behavioral modification.”

What to Do?

I suspect that for all his wise words, Jacob Silverman might be more enslaved to social media than I am. I had to be forced screaming to use a smart phone and an iPad. I have no intention of ever using Twitter or WhatsApp. I don’t have a clue how Instagram is supposed to work. I had a little bit of a Facebook addiction at one time but controlled that by drastically culling my friends list and only connecting at set times. I try to avoid fights and curb my sarcasm and pedantry. This is what Silverman advises: “Leave your phone at home. Go for a walk with your friend or your lover. Go into the woods . . . Swim in a pond where nobody can see you. Try to actually enjoy privacy sometimes. Get away from the Internet and have a life that’s independent of that kind of shit.”