The Artist's Lens: What It Means to See the World With an Eye Toward a Facebook Update

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Writers and artists have always been self-conscious consumers and filterers of experience, saving it and using it for artistic purposes later on.

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Our online experience (and this is particularly true for specific ones, such as gaming or digital photography) seems to proceed in four stages. The first is tentative exploration, testing the waters; the second is wholehearted immersion; the third is a determination to maintain boundaries; the fourth is recalibration of the relationship between what happens online and what happens IRL -- as we still like to put it. This has been happening to millions of people for around twenty years now, and what's most remarkable is how little progress we have made in understanding ourselves.

Nathan Jurgenson's recent essay in The New Inquiry shows how this recalibration happens -- and, perhaps more important, how we hide its real nature from ourselves:

But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say "IRL" to mean offline: Facebook is real life.

Jurgenson discusses Sherry Turkle's April essay for the New York Times in which she laments the displacement of material experience from our consciousness in favor of the digital, and he argues that the very material experiences she celebrates took on greater and fuller meaning by having an online destination:

When Turkle was walking Cape Cod, she breathed in the air, felt the breeze, and watched the waves with Facebook in mind. The appreciation of this moment of so-called disconnection was, in part, a product of online connection. The stroll ultimately was understood as and came to be fodder for her op-ed, just as our own time spent not looking at Facebook becomes the status updates and photos we will post later.

I'm not sure Jurgenson's reading is correct: maybe Turkle was not thinking about translating her experience into online terms but rather simply planned to write about it -- in this sense writers and artists have always been self-conscious consumers and filterers of experience, saving it and using it for artistic purposes later on. Perhaps Facebook and Twitter and Instagram incline more and more of us to respond to our experiences as only artists once did -- perhaps in that sense the optimistic view that all of us are becoming creators is really true. Though whether that's a good thing or not, whether the moment tends to get lost in the anticipation of its digital representation -- that bears thinking about, as Nick Carr and Michael Sacasas have thought about it in response to Jurgenson's essay.

But surely Jurgenson is right to say that "The current obsession with the analog, the vintage, and the retro has everything to do with this fetishization of the offline. The rise of the mp3 has been coupled with a resurgence in vinyl. ... Digital photos are cast with the soft glow, paper borders, and scratches of Instagram's faux-vintage filters." It's this kind of behavior that I call recalibration: it's a matter of finding more and better ways to relate what we do online to what we do, or might do, or used to do, offline.

What I particularly want to note here, though, is that we have been engaging in this recalibration since the beginning of online life. We are now twenty years away from the experiences that Julian Dibbell wrote about in his landmark Village Voice essay of 1993, "A Rape in Cyberspace", and it's not clear that we are substantially better now than we were than at sorting through the issues that arise when we manifest some part of ourselves digitally. Near the end of that essay, meditating on the psychic damage that one person typing on a keyboard -- presenting a virtual identity to a virtual community -- could do to other persons, Dibbell writes:

And it's precisely this logic that provides the real magic in a place like LambdaMOO -- not the fictive trappings of voodoo and shapeshifting and wizardry, but the conflation of speech and act that's inevitable in any computer-mediated world, be it Lambda or the increasingly wired world at large. This is dangerous magic, to be sure, a potential threat -- if misconstrued or misapplied -- to our always precarious freedoms of expression, and as someone who lives by his words I do not take the threat lightly. And yet, on the other hand, I can no longer convince myself that our wishful insulation of language from the realm of action has ever been anything but a valuable kludge, a philosophically damaged stopgap against oppression that would just have to do till something truer and more elegant came along. 

Our ongoing, fumbling, inconsistent attempts to figure out how Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram relate to all the stuff we do offline suggest that we're still employing the same kludges, still stopping the gap with what comes to hand, still waiting for the "truer and more elegant" solution to come along.

But that's what all of life is like, isn't it? We've never settled on, for instance, what sort of language is appropriate in public places: we're still negotiating that, and doing so so kludgily that what some people find appalling others find perfectly normal. And insofar as we feel that we've sorted out behavior with our friends we find that we can't apply those lessons when we travel to another state or even just attend a business convention. Social norms never just settle, which means that our fidgety, uncertain, shifting recalibrations of the space between online and offline prove one point beyond doubt: Facebook really is real life.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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