Wednesday, May 4, 2011

False Connectedness

I've been ruminating on MP's comment to my post "Being Alone and Being Lonely" for the last few weeks, and I think he is completely right, he commented:

"I think there's also a direct correlation between loneliness and our current obsession with various forms of social media. We are desperately seeking out more people to talk seriously with, yet the medium of our search is intentionally depth-less, which in turn creates further relationships based upon a two dimensional level of complexity. The more we seek out companions, the farther away they become."

When is the last time anyone one of us had a serious conversation about serious matters via Facebook, Twitter, or text message? Typically, there is direct correlation between the seriousness of the conversation and the amount of embodiment we feel entitled to or desire. For example, no one wants to be dumped via text message or a phone call. We appreciate the gesture of being together before splitting up. We desire that embodiment, we want the other person present for whatever reason: to sob before or malign, either way, we want the other to witness the affects of her actions.

We desire this embodiment because it is becoming increasingly rare to actually sit down with a friend and have serious conversations. It's so much more efficient to send a quick text and get back to whatever we're doing. Communication is now so quick and sloppy that I feel like texting "you," instead "u" makes my texts appear too formal. "You," a three letter word, has become a high -cultural relic, like top hats and boutonnieres in the hyper-reality we live in; and likewise, the practice of texting "you" is a fading social courtesy, like opening a door for a woman or arriving to an appointment ten minutes early. "U" is a symptom of the disembodied-ness of our communications and ultimately our human connections. We are not only alienating ourselves from each other's presences, but from our own language as well.

Pre-telecommunication era correspondence meant sending a messenger pigeon, a letter, or a telegram. The handwritten letter had and still has a certain romantic quality to it, especially if written in cursive (another dying skill). Irrespective of its content or neatness, the letter itself represents an investment of time and thought on behalf of the sender. The letter represents the sender in a physical way, as container or body. The recipient can hold it close and soak it with tears, or crumble and toss it into the fire. The letter has been elevated to a work of art along with the accoutrement used to embellish it. In a very real way, a letter is a place-holder for the sender, as an artifact that simultaneously functions as both message and messenger.

The text message, the Facebook status update, the tweet, all these tell us about how a person wants us to think they are doing. The social media outlets MP commented on function as masks. The avatar, the profile, both of these operate in world of conceptual reality. Within the conceptual reality the profile moves among other profiles: it checks into a restaurant, it makes new friends, and it gets in and out of relationships. Like a real life enactment of the Sims, only now we've placed ourselves into the game. The profile operates as a simulacrum, an image divorced from real life. This free-floating image (the profile) is hostile to any trace of a referent, as French thinker Jean Baudrillard writes in his four step image process:

1. It [the image] is the reflection of a basic reality.

2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.

3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.

4. It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

So much of our social lives are mediated through disembodied avenues. There's the online dating scene, Facebook groups and events to RSVP, and my personal favorite, the mad rush of every profile to befriend every other profile. I have a Facebook friend with over 1,000 friends. I do not feel special being one of those 1,000. I put an arbitrary cap on my digital friends at twenty five. About every six months I go through and clean out the profiles who don't interact with my profile, an act which has lead to real disappointments. One of my friends was pissed at me for not knowing about his birthday party even though he posted it on Facebook. I told him to his face, "I play dominoes (42) with you every Thursday so why the hell didn't you tell me two months ago?" A sad sign of postmodernity is my real friends feeling devalued because our relationship isn't digital. That's what happens when the image masks the absence of reality, namely, when my friend feels more comfortable communicating with me (and his other 400 "friends") on Facebook instead of inviting to his party in person.

It is so much easier to say things digitally than personally. No one wants to be rejected via text message, conversely, no one wants to reject a person face to face. It's easier to send that disembodied text message, or to change a relationship status. The less investment we put into the rejection the less impacted we feel, the less serious the relationship really was. We can escape it with our emotions and pride unscathed. Unfortunately, text messages and status updates do not aid in bringing about closure. Likewise, they are non-instructive, the text message doesn't give quality feedback. The human voice, or better still, the human face shows us the truth of statement or sentiment; the text message is the breeding ground for misinterpretation. Hell, I have to put a happy face or an exclamation point somewhere in every text message I send to make sure my recipient doesn't take my message the wrong way.

Like MP said in his comment, "the more we seek out companions, the farther away they become." The main danger of all this superficiality is that it masks the very human need for companionship. It's easier to sit at a computer and be socially lonely than risk going out in public where real flesh and blood people can talk to us or ignore us in person. It's easier to text five words that are to the point than to actually chat with someone. And it's aggravating when an intimate conversation is interrupted by a text message or a game of Scrabble. The danger of digital connectedness is that it makes us believe we are authentically connected each other; an illusion that is slowly eroding our ability to do so.

South Park episode about Facebook domination!
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Baudrillard quote accessed online here

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