joe moon

We Are What We Choose

In this post on Cyborgology, PJ Rey convincingly speaks to the project of dismissing the concept of digital dualism. He argues that as technology becomes sufficiently advanced and ubiquitous, we begin to think of it as natural extensions of ourselves.

As such, is [sic] not hyperbolic to claim, for example, that Facebook is a piece of equipment that has become an extension of our very consciousness. As equipment, social media fundamentally alters who we are.

Rings true for me. But more than anything else it emphasizes the importance of thinking carefully about the ways in which we are extending ourselves.

Noam Chomsky provoked a great discussion in the last few weeks by offhandedly dismissing new media as “extremely rapid, very shallow communication.” Nathan Jurgenson responded in a piece in Salon, talking about the great benefits of new media, e.g. its utility in popular movements like the Arab Spring and “Occupy” protests, as well as the biases inherent in Chomsky’s somewhat crotchety dismissal.

Chomksy, of all people, ought to take note. When he defends his form of communicating (printed books and periodical essays) with claims that tweeting/texting lacks depth, he is implicitly suggesting that nonwhites and those in the Third World are inherently communicating less deeply than their white and first-world counterparts. He doesn’t seem to know enough about the reality of social media to examine his own assumptions.

But ultimately I agree most with this post by Mike Plugh.

Chomsky’s critiques, while they seem to have some overtones of morality, read in a particular way, aren’t all that far off the mark. The shallowness of social media forms, like Twitter, is both the strength and the weakness of their nature. As a medium, Twitter is largely superficial, shallow, and evanescent. One can only be so ‘deep’ in 140 characters or less, and so the superficiality of the messages prompt higher involvement by the audience to derive meaning (a largely positive characteristic), while at the same time leaving out important depth behind the communication.

Jurgenson rightly points out that, “To some degree (and we can debate how large this is) social media has enabled a mass manufacturing of dissent.” However, dissent is a contrary position, and a position fueled by dissatisfaction and emotion. Immediate communication of a type less-considered and nuanced is largely emotional in nature. Again, this is a strength when outrage and action are the prescription for intolerable circumstances, but do nothing little for producing solutions or the important enlightened perspectives that must accompany any change for it to be lasting and serve humanity most broadly. Dissent as a state of moral indignation is useful and important, but is also the same fuel that ignites the mob or the riot when lacking in substance or focus. Manufacturing consent, as Chomsky famously observed, is a process of propaganda which relies on appealing superficially to people’s gut emotions and less deeply considered convictions.

Both posts are entirely worth reading.

I take from this discussion that not only do different digital tools have different strengths and weaknesses for different activities, but they each encourage certain types of behavior. To quote myself:

[The] quality of the connections on Facebook is very poor. And this is because the signals are low bandwidth by design. Input fields for text updates are small and restrictive. Photos are easy to share but poorly presented, the system implemented not to share rich, expressive photos, but low-grade, mundane, documentarian ones: I was here; I did this; I was with these people. Ubiquitous interaction is reduced to comment fields that encourage short, ad hoc reactions, or—worse—to the elemental, further irreducible unary piece of information: the “like” (though I suppose the “poke” contains even less information). Facebook casts an extremely wide net into the waters of the collective mind-space of its users, but that net penetrates only into the shallowest of depths.

Twitter provides accessibility with a similar sacrifice of bandwidth. I’ve always felt like Twitter’s great innovation was not the arbitrary character limit, but the frictionless interface that collapses the separation between input and output. The system itself doesn’t judge how noteworthy your expression is, leaving that to the network at large in as close to a democratic way as is really conceivable. But the limitations, also similarly to Facebook’s, enforce a shallowness of sentiment, encourage pith over comprehensiveness, and discourage real discourse, or any sort of conversation at all.

And the web itself sometimes seems inimical to depth of thought.

That we are subsuming technologies into ourselves seems trivial compared to the point that what we are subsuming encourage us to think only in a certain way. If we examine carefully what we are becoming, I don’t think we’ll like what we find.

And some, like Nicholas Carr, have already, and they don’t like what they find at all. He, and, presumably, Chomsky, would advocate, then, a retreat back to the old media. Full-length books are what encourage the deep, sustained concentration necessary for truly worthwhile thought. I think “Digital Fasting” movements (restrictions of internet/screen time) also stem from a sentiment that these technologies are having a pernicious effect on us.

But a retreat to old media can’t be the correct answer. Not only because of the limits of physical media—like relegation to passive consumption and the lack of communal experience—but also because the old media have assumptions of their own built in that are just as pernicious. There is an authoritarian centralization of power inherent to the old publishing model, for example, as well as limited viable formats. Ideas of a certain size, too long for long-form, but too short for full-length books, simply had no way to exist in old media. They had to either be cut down or inflated to fill viable formats.

New media have no such restrictions. In fact, our new digital tools are the most versatile, plastic, and accessible that we’ve ever had. We should be honest and clear about what our tools are doing to us. But we should then focus our energy on creating the tools that we want, instead of trying to stop the inexorable tide of change.