Saturday, 21 March 2015

Narrow Bandwidth: Life Inside the Walled Garden


When You're Busy Making Other Plans...

More than any other city that I've lived in, the people in Berlin seem to spend much of their spare time watching online news, reading articles, searching for videos on YouTube, posting blogs, uploading pictures, listening to mixes on Soundcloud. 

These twenty, thirty and forty-somethings seem to have great social skills; a sense of humour; an eagerness to chat about world events and street smarts.  To me, that is what sets them apart from the earlier generations of computer nerds, who were stereotyped as chubby, inert gamers that never left their darkened basements

Yet the people I meet in Berlin also seem to have a greater sense of apathy than the techno nerds of yesteryear ever did.  

‘Well... what can I do?’ they are wont to whinge whenever someone (usually me) tries to channel their complaints about the world's injustices - unfair pay or climate change, say - into some sort of real life action


I find this question ironic.  It's ironic because the modern online world has such sophisticated platforms, existing only for achieving social change, yet the people who use the internet the most seem to be the least inclined to act on what they believe in

How can that be?  After all, hackers can trace their roots back to the earliest, most primitive version of the internet, and anti-globalisation activists were among the earliest adopters of the web as a tool of direct actions, organizing events like the anti-WTO protests online.  Neither group had access to sites like Change.org or Fakebook to help them achieve their goals.  It wasn't technology so much as willpower that helped them to find a way.  
 
Yet some sort of new, unspoken consensus seems to have emerged among, well, nearly everybody online, that taking action is just plain foolish or impossible.  That we are all utterly incapable of doing anything that makes a real difference, anyway. Yet everyday, people are changing the world beyond recognition Climate change is one screaming example of this.  Even in the fact of its reality, though, many people are struggling to come to terms with it.  Their belief in their own impotence is so much stronger than the hard evidence that they are making things worse, and therefore can make things better as well
 
There seems to be a secondary consensus that, in order for change to matter, it has to be massive, decisive and final.  In reality though, change never happens like that. A person who expects climate change to end, or employers to suddenly start paying more fairly, just because they did one big spectacular thing right, is setting unrealistically high expectations for themselves. 
There's no need to go extra large and take Herculean action to change the world.  Small changes do make a huge difference everyday, actually - it's just an unfortunate fact that they are mostly unconscious, negative changes instead of conscious, positive ones.   You, me, the beggar on the train, the head of the IMF... we all add up to the bigger picture that we share and live in, and usually without even realizing that we're doing it.  Usually we're too preoccupied by our thoughts about the changes that we wish we could make, to reflect on the unwanted changes that we actually are making.  

The disposable coffee cup that we drink and then toss as we're rushing to a big interview.  The flight that we take to attend a career-changing conference.  The tuna that we eat for our health. The Made In China product that we buy to save money for something 'more important'.  These are all negative changes that people make every day, all in the name of pursuing something 'better' that hasn't even happened yet and maybe never will. Thus does the snowball of unethical behaviour keep growing bigger as it rolls down the hill, gathering momentum from millions upon millions of bad snap decisions people made because they were too busy worrying about the long-term, potentially good ones.  If 'life is what happens when you're busy making other plans' then this modern world - a world of landfills, extreme weather and food shortages - is what all of us have made while we were busy making other plans.  And we're still 'busy' making them, and it.        
 
Many people would tell you for certain that their hands are tied when it comes to making the world a better place. In reality, simply not doing the things that make it a worse place would be more than enough. 
Yet apathy stops them from even trying.  The sad fact is that what many people call 'doing nothing' usually means 'doing something really bad, without realizing it'.  Very rarely does inaction turn out to be a neutral act in a world like ours, where the worst kind of people hold a monopoly on the cheapest, most ubiquitous products.  

A One-Dimensional Domain.

Apathy has typically been the preserve of the defeated, the aging, the under-educated and the ignored... Somehow today, it is the preserve of the young, the well-off, the well-educated and widely-televised.  How come?  Even the activists that I meet these days seem to be motivated by bloody-minded stubbornness, rather than any sense that they are making a change for the better. How is that?

Perhaps it's no coincidence that apathy is growing almost as quickly as our ability to connect to the world via smartphones and laptops and tablets is.   Maybe, just maybe, the apathy that people feel about changing the world has something to do with the medium through which they receive the most information about the world.  

A huge proportion of the  news reports, studies, photos, statistics and sound bites that people get all come through the same basic channel of little portable screens held in their handsCould it be that there's something inherently disempowering about using them?  Marshall Mcluhan, author of The Medium is the Message, would probably say so. 

"Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users. As A. J. Liebling remarked in his book The Press, a man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there. For each of the media is also a powerful weapon with which to clobber other media and other groups."
 
The groups that are being clobbered with the online media are three dimensional onesOnline, people can read about an endless variety of radical new ideas, events and news.  They can memorize endless facts about new and different styles of music, dress, speech, writing, and ideologies.  But they cannot realize what they've learned.  Long ago, the internet was a giant corkboard for posting meetups and events on but these days, websites are increasingly signposts that point toward other websites and social media platforms, in an endless one-dimensional loop.  They don't point us towards anything outside of the internet, anymoreThe internet can provide us with an alternative to almost anything... except itself.

The obvious exception to this rule is the commercial side of the internet, sites like Amazon, Wanadoo and Ebay that have flooded the internet with ways to buy clothes, foods, books, etc. We can buy stuff to make what we've learned online seem more real to our senses but, even then, it's a completely passive interactionBuying stuff doesn't give us any way of altering the finished product, except perhaps by becoming a manufacturer ourselves. Little wonder that startups, popups and craft markets are the most popular offline social meeting points, these days.  

In the past, media was less consumption oriented, with public broadcasts and free events being covered as well as commercial ones.  It was also literally more hands-on.  A person could only access such a kaleidoscopic range of new information by accessing an equally kaleidoscopic range of media: radio, television, books, fanzines, newspapers.  They were all things that you could touch, crumple, write on, call up and complain to.  Even gigs, raves and festivals played a role in disseminating information, through people that one could meet and speak to, get instant feedback from.

Also in the past, information was embodied in an array of physical shapes that encouraged people to react to it in a very physical, personalized way and today, it's more disembodied than its ever been.  Information has slipped beyond our bodies' reach, even as we digest it with our eyes and absorb it into our brains.  This has turned us into passive receivers, rather than active participants.  

It seems like it's expected that people will only interact with new information in an internal, intangible way these days. That we will think about it and maybe push some buttons, and that's all, folks. The whole world of information only exists on an intangible plane, now... but it's a plane that we can't physically reach no matter how fast we walk or run.  No wonder people feel so helpless to change it. 

The effects of this ethereal medium on society are already becoming noticeable.  Members of Generation X, the last pre-internet generation, are fond of complaining about how glassy eyed and unresponsive members of Generation Y are.  How Generation Y people supposedly fail to exhibit any sense of urgency when they're at work or school.  I don't know how true that is, but the younger people that I've met do seem less conscious of the fact that the real world can also be an effective medium for their ideas.   

Given how many ideas are now only found online, floating in a disembodied ether, their distant attitude is kind of understandable.  But maybe over time, future generations will start coming to the conclusion that the real world is incompatible with information altogether.  That reality is just so much slower, more cumbersome, and just plain gets in the way of the pure informational exchanges. Maybe reality will start to fall between the cracks. In a way, it already has: how much does anyone know about their real neighbours and streets, as compared to their virtual friends and online 'hangouts'

The thing is, you can't smell, taste and touch the online world, and disused senses are usually depressed, frustrated ones.  People are naturally designed so that their thoughts flow into words and feelings flow into action, via their bodies, without interruption.  But the authorities are always putting more and more barriers to stop that from happening: crowding people into packed urban centers, restricting protests and urban sports, rewarding conformist 'safe' behaviour while making spontaneous action seem like a dangerous choice

That may be why so many people feel that the internet is a freer space, with greater possibilities than the real world.  It's a space where they are unburdened by any sense of being physically hemmed in, at all.    

All of this gives new meaning to the rhetorical, defeatist question that most apathetic people seem to ask: "What do you think I can do about it?" 

Maybe what they really mean is, "What do you think I'm allowed to do about it?" And maybe the internet is their answer to that.

But what is so liberating about the internet is also what makes it a prison.   In a way, people who spend too much time online are acting like a bullied kid who stays indoors all day to avoid a bully.  By doing this, she is turning herself into what the bully wants her to be - what he'll allow her to be - instead of who she really is.  

Online, minds are free but bodies are physically paralyzedThere isn't even a sheet of newsprint to clench in one's fist when one reads an infuriating news item.  One can’t even turn to the person next to them and say, ‘You won’t believe what I just saw’ because that other person will be glued to their own screen, their own private information flow, designed to circumvent all external connections to reality... even to the voices of friends, family and partners.

Faint New World?

The physical world is quickly becoming a mere afterthought or antidote to the information-dense internet.  An alien, super-tactile landscape of funky streetfood, neon fashions and blaring soundbites that only exists to drown out the thoughts in our overtaxed brains.  This seems like evidence that very few people are using the material world as a venue for information-sharing, anymore.  Why bother when they can do it all online?

Yet, to engage with other people online, we are expected to detach our ideas and feelings from ourselves, post them somewhere and leave them sitting there, in suspended animation, for hours, days, weeks or months before they get a response. Getting nothing back at all is considered an acceptable outcome to having an idea or an opinion, these days.  Unlike a real-life social gathering, where people react to you just for being there, no one can guarantee that they'll get a response even to the best-thought-out insight that they have, onlineIntelligence has been demoted to an ignore-able theory.  Meanwhile, in the real world dumb, brute force has been elevated to levels of influence that it has never held before - or, not in such well-educated societies, in such well-connected times it hasn't

Perhaps that's why it's becoming more common for people to say that nothing that they 'do' matters these days.  The two spheres of body and mind have been so fully disconnected that never shall the twain meet.  All of the things that people these days feel really define them and that really matter to them, are happening outside of the world of 'matter' and 'things'.  Identities have become so detached from everyday material reality that doing something matters less than merely intending to do it does. 


Maybe it's because people cannot actually see the limitations of the internet - whose confines they live in all day long - that they have started to confuse those limitations with their own personal limitations.      

"Leonard Doob, in his report Communication in Africa, tells of one African who took great pains to listen each evening to the BBC news, even though he could understand nothing of it. Just to be in the presence of those sounds at 7 P.M. each day was important for him. His attitude to speech was like ours to melody— the resonant intonation was meaning enough."*

For all of its sound and fury, the only song that the internet seems to be singing to us is the lulling drone of inaction.  If we really want to change the world now, we have to change the tune, as well as the media that transmits it.



*From The Medium is The Message by Marshall Mcluhan  

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