Alphabet Thoughts ꞮꞮ
“Leaving beyond the ages of stone and silver, of iron and gold, the human for its part is tending to become plastic. The advent of the plastic human and its corollary, the digital subject, goes flush against a number of convictions that until recently were held to be immutable truths.” -Achille Mbembe1
Plastic is all around us. Plastic is typically disposable, low cost, low weight2, and easily adaptable for new situations. Roughly the same could be said for Mbembe’s digital subject. In digital space there is a sense that one can connect and disconnect at will. All interactions become disposable3, as one gains absolute autonomy over their internet landscape. Groups can be joined and left, usernames can be created, edited, and deleted. One can brand and rebrand as frequently as desired, and can wear any color of mask.
This digital plasticity obscures the fact that the internet and human lives are becoming increasingly entangled4. The internet of things is all around us, as our refrigerators, thermostats, and doorbells become wi-fi compatible. Online actions of years past can at any moment be dredged to the surface, resulting in undeniably tangible consequences. Companies fish for personal information, storing it in ever more complex databases, for the sake of crafting individualized reports on consumer habits. Because so much of this information is traded and sold all over, there are inevitably security flaws. As a result, “private information” can easily become leaked, making credit fraud, identify theft, social engineering, and simple harassment ever more easy.
Because of our increasingly digital social sphere, the notion of privacy is itself under siege. Alexas and Echos stand guard on our kitchen tables, listening to our every conversation (surely we can trust that they aren’t recording us, right?). Snapchat and twitter means we can always stay connected with our friends and peers, reframing any historical notion of physical distance5.
Technology (including the internet) is truly what we make it to be. I suspect a modernist blind faith in our technological capabilities would be foolish. At the same time, I believe a luddite style blind faith rejection of our technological capacity would be similarly thoughtless. I believe we must chart a third path, one that seeks to create a sustainable and emancipatory technological development.
I cannot speculate much on where we are headed in a long-term sense, but wherever our societal destination, we are heading somewhere fast.
Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019.
As Kundera describes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, lightness is akin to freedom, and also to meaninglessness.
While some digital connections can be of great meaning, depth, and duration, one has to keep in mind the way that the term “friend” is cheapened via its usage on social media sites.
The anime Serial Experiments Lain delves into the connection between the internet and the outer world, using the context of religiosity. It is startlingly ahead of its time in regards to its predictions of internet culture and consequences. It inspires some of my thoughts on this subject.
This is just the most recent step in the era of mass mobility and globalization. It began with ocean-faring ships, then developed into plane travel. Journeys that would take a lifetime (if they were even achievable) suddenly became journeys of months, then weeks, then days, then hours. Thus the world shrinks.