Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: social media

Nostalgia and Melancholy

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 12, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/nostalgia-and-melancholy

 

More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.

I have been reading yet another book about the internet and social media. This one was a little different, quirky and fragmentary, perhaps because the author is a philosopher and a poet. Maël Renouard has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, of which he is a graduate. The book is called Fragments Of An Infinite Memory: My Life With The Internet

Among other things, M Renouard served as a speechwriter for François Fillon when he was prime minister. Spell-check suggests “felon” as the correct spelling, which is quite apt as in 2020, Fillon was convicted of fraud and misuse of funds, and sentenced to five years in prison (three of them suspended). Only this week, Fillon’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was sentenced to three years for corruption.

This fairly short book is divided into eleven chapters, in which the author offers vignettes which show how sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people organise their lives and store their memories. Smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have to be sent to a lab for processing costing money and time and also inhibited one in what one chose to photograph. The internet allows people who have the inclination to display their genitals to the world to do so from the comfort of their own home rather than going to a cold park in a dirty old raincoat.

Self-Exhibition

The internet is a repository for knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self but you can choose your self. Some people have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. Renouard describes how even dead people can continue to live on social media.

Renouard writes, “Social networks have already created the experience of a new moral landscape, in which self-exhibition has become the norm and therefore cannot be blamed in itself. This change of atmosphere is so universal that we aren’t necessarily aware of it, or else we very quickly forget it. Judgment has not been abolished, but it rests on other nuances.”

Nostalgia

Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain),  and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Sometimes nostalgia is thought of as a good thing, at other times a bad thing. For centuries nostalgia was considered a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal medical condition. In 1985, the psychotherapist Roderick Peters concluded that nostalgia “persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances”.  The modern view is that nostalgia can be a positive emotion that many people experience often, improving mood, increasing social connectedness, enhancing positive self-regard, and providing existential meaning. Nostalgia has also been associated with learning and memory consolidation. On the other hand, too much wallowing in the past, can lead to a chronic disposition or personality trait of “nostalgia proneness.” It is one thing to respect one’s own past and to delight in sharing fond memories, but it is not healthy to strongly desire to be in the past (it cannot happen) and to despise the present.

The psychologist Kyrstine Batcho writes. “To the extent that old photos make us feel good, nostalgic reminders of our past can increase our attachment to our devices.” Amy Bucher, a design expert and author of Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change writes, “Leveraging personal memories fulfils both parts of the equation for tech companies. People have an investment in seeing their memories now, but that feeling of longing can drive them to continue to interact with Apple or Facebook so that they refresh the supply of memories.”  

Melancholy

Renouard discovers a great deal of nostalgia on the internet, nostalgia that has morphed into melancholy. In one of the vignettes in the book, he ploughs through a number of music postings on YouTube and compiles a series of comments from viewers. This amounts to a bizarre and quite depressing collage of extreme misery, worthy of illustration by Gustave Doré or Henry Fuseli.

“When , in the dead of night we go searching on YouTube for the music of ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, we find that we have joined a community of lonely individuals leaving the trace of an intense, ambiguous feeling, born of a reunion with time past that can take place only because these moments have been utterly lost…The internet shows that recollection has charted the path of technology -infinite distancing and preservation – and melancholy is the future of emotion.”

Stammering Greatness

“Funes the Memorious” is a story, by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, of one Ireneo Funes, who, after falling off his horse and receiving a bad head injury, acquired the amazing talent—or curse—of remembering absolutely everything.  Funes is incapable of real understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal “a certain stammering greatness”. Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him”. There is a term for this condition: “hyperthymestic syndrome”.

Renouard writes: “With the internet—which fulfills to a supreme degree the externalization of memory first initiated by writing—we might get the feeling that we have simultaneously become capable of forgetting nothing and incapable of remembering anything at all.”

Exhaustion

Kyrstine Batcho warns: “The more we rely upon our devices to store, organise, and retrieve greater portions of our lives, the more likely it is that the devices become extensions of ourselves. Many people are already very stressed if they are separated from their tech. We feel as if we need to have our device near us at all times.”

I will let Renouard have the last word. “A day will therefore arrive when everything has been said, when it will no longer be possible to say anything that hasn’t already been said. Then, by virtue of the correspondence between deeds and words, no event will be able to take place that hasn’t already occurred as well. The world will have exhausted its stock of events. It will end and begin again.”

Alien Worlds and Nebulous Publics

 

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.”

What Have We Done?

This article was published in Ceylon Today on December 3 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/where-are-we-what-have-we-done

Where are we? Why are we?  What are we doing here and why are we doing it? What on earth have we done!

Fighting with Phantoms

A reader wrote to the Guardian’s agony aunt Mariella Frostrup: “Everyone seems to be frazzled and ready to fight. I feel it myself. I have three teenage daughters and all they seem to do is sit on their phones and flounce around the house dropping dirty underwear as they go. If I ask them to get off their phones, they treat me like I’m violating their human rights. 

They also complain about being exhausted all the time when all they have to do is attend school and maintain their social lives.” Mariella responded: “The internet helps by offering a multitude of ways to be antagonistic and aggressive without having to leave the kitchen table… All of us seething, surfing and fabricating into the small hours, conjuring fantasy worlds as we edit our existence. I’m not taking any moral high ground. I can only boast occasional glimmers of self-awareness, as I scroll enviously though strangers’ holiday snaps while my husband gently snores”.

I have found many people to fight with on social media. There is a certain je ne sais quoi when the adrenaline starts pumping but it is not a good way to live, to be fighting with strangers with funny names on the ether. Take a look at the comments threads on Colombo Telegraph and get a vision of what hell might be like. Phantasms with no real names or genders or working parts or life histories biting one’s ankles into eternity.

Frazzled by Fantasy

It is even worse when real-life friends get caught up in the trollism and become fictional characters of the blogosphere.

One can even have a look at what the real-life neighbours are posting on Facebook and see the delusions they are embracing. Some people have long lists of “friends” but when one looks closely at them one wonders how these elderly men got to know these gorgeous young women in Latin America or Thailand.  I once played an interesting game -reporting fake Facebook accounts. You will all have seen them. Attractive ‘young women’ in provocative poses which fall short of nudity (FB does not like nudity). They have bizarre names (Tina Tix Tracey, Michala Motyl, Jessy Trejo) and improbable CVs. Many of them have persuaded sad old gits to ‘friend’ them and the sad old gits tell the ‘girls’ how beautiful they are. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Social media has taken the concept of an imaginary girl friend to another level.

In reality, the accounts are probably set up by pockmarked hairy ugly men with halitosis and armpit odour who are looking for ways to mine data from said old gits so they can rob them. I am a sad old git, but I don’t fall for this when they contact me. I report them.  Sometimes, FB responds to my reports by saying that I have identified a fake account and they have removed it. 

FB suggestions 

FB kept suggesting that I make a friend of ‘Owen Lynda Skye’.  I am afraid that I cannot reveal in a family newspaper what carnal delights ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ offered me. It was rather gynaecological. ‘Her’ English was not perfect, but it was easy enough to get the crude gist. I reported this several times and was told the account had been removed but it kept cropping up. It was obviously a fake account designed to get foolish old men like mygoodself excited enough to give away their personal details so that a scammer can take advantage. 

Authenticity

When I reported ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ again, I got a lengthy standard response which did not address the issues but came to this conclusion: “We’ve looked over the profile you reported, and it doesn’t go against any of our specific Community Standards”. I looked at the community standards and read this: “We want to make sure the content people are seeing on Facebook is authentic. We believe that authenticity creates a better environment for sharing, and that’s why we don’t want people using Facebook to misrepresent who they are or what they’re doing”.

They do not explain why they object to innocent pictures of naked women but are OK with obvious pornography.

No Going Back

Social media can be very helpful. In times of lockdown people are able to keep in touch with friends and family. I left the country of my birth in 1998, but I am able to keep in touch with people I have known from the age of five. 

The downside is that the perceptions, the very synapses of a generation have been disrupted. Can we ever go back? Perhaps Joe Biden can reverse the deleterious effects of the orangeutan who has been laying waste to the orangery of the White House for four years. Can anything reverse the inexorable rise of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon?

Have the brains of humans been irreparably altered for the worst by these new giants? 

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman was an American author and media theorist who eschewed technology, including personal computers. Postman is best known for twenty books about technology and education, including Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argued that by expressing ideas through visual imagery, television reduces politics, news, history, and other serious topics to entertainment. He worried that culture would decline if the people became an audience and their public business a “vaudeville act.” I have not watched TV on a regular basis since 1997.

I watch it occasionally on visits to the UK and am appalled by its banality and condescension.   Postman argued that television was destroying the “serious and rational public conversation” that was sustained for centuries by the printing press. Postman wrote: “When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.” Since Postman — who died in 2003 — wrote those words, technology has rendered the world altogether different. How quickly it became unimaginable to think of being without a smartphone. Postman wrote technology’s “capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does to us and for us”. 

When I sit in a restaurant and see a total absence of eye-contact, when I sit in a family home and see every single person tapping away on a smartphone I despair. Will we ever be able to return from this loss of affect?

Padraig Colman

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