30 August, 2014

Democratic Activity of the Early 21st Century

Typing text to fill the box which becomes the body of this post, I am implicit in the very topic I intend to critique. Difficulty arises on the one hand but on the other, this is the most natural and easy action. It's demanded of most of us each day - either on a full keyboard or shrunk down to our palm-sized displays we've adapted for any occasion. A mistake in our typing? Delete and vanish goes the record. No carbon copies, no ink cartridges or correction tape. We need not even print these texts on paper. The text field is where we "write" in this century's public domain, but it might not truly be where we speak and listen to one another.

I remember the first time I used a computer to access, at that time, our emerging Internet. It was 4th grade, 1995. After learning the QWERTY order, going through a few short typing lessons and exercises, we were ready to log on to the World Wide Web in our new, subsidized Macintosh computer lab. After visiting Yahoo! and putting a few search items in, we were given free range to visit a website of our choice. On account of gift subscriptions to National Geographic and Nintendo Power that both advertised their websites only these two came to mind. I chose the latter, and along with the classmates in my row, each of our computer screens soon had an image of the controller for the newly announced home gaming console - the Nintendo 64.

 The first image I ever printed from a web source

It was so alien, so cool and automatically the #1 item on all of our Christmas lists for next year. 

The Internet became something to me, something that I could use for my own satisfaction, as more and more households in America purchased their PCs. I recall attending a sleepover a couple years later which consisted of drinking liters of Coca-Cola well into the night and playing Nintendo's Goldeneye 007 for the N64 - the multiplayers' game-of-choice. During breaks (sugar crashes), we'd switch from TV to computer screen and enter into that other shoot 'em up game - the chat room. Before instant messaging, you'd join these nebulous digital spaces with one of two juvenile goals: try to entertain a dialogic fantasy with some unknown user identified as your gender of choice, or gradually get into venomous trash-talking with an anonymous opponent. Either way, your blood was pumping again. Now 20 years later, observations indicate that this use and abuse are all we really know "here."

If the Internet has any history to speak of, it isn't archived away but alive in the shared experiences of virtual stages of engagement by a public wherein they encounter each other but not grasp one another. I'm not ruling out all possibilities of communication - there is evidence that there can be mutual understanding across the fiber-optics. Goodreads is one small stage of 30 million users with a focused frame of concern. It could be argued that authors and readers have never been in closer contact with each other. Priding itself on its sense of a well-read (and behaved) community, there is even allowance for "Goodreads librarians" to aid in the editing and managing of book entries as Wikipedia's volunteers. But does a more localized and concentrated "activity" make for a more evolved and less brutish experience? Their top 50 reviews of all-time in the world can be viewed here, and the standards by which the staff of Goodreads measures the acceptability of such reviews can be looked over here. Compare and contrast, reader, and try to stand the commentary and meme heavy pages.

In our physical world, we speak somewhere. In the ring, the forum, the bull pit, the coffee shop, there is sonic reference, spatial characteristics, multiple sensory impressions, etc. Dialogue is also an aspect of the visceral. You can reach out and touch the arm of your interlocutor - in fact this might make all the difference. This has bearing on our delivery, degree of intensity, quality of dialogue and numerous more subtle factors we are hardly aware of influencing us. Who of us has not encountered the difficulty of rendering the inflection particular to sarcasm for a small joke and been completely misread? Verbal bashing often ensues.

Miranda July's most recent short film/advertisement for both an app & clothing line turns the virtual distance that can be a misreading on its head: technology is instead a medium for the conveyance of intimacy at any time, as the messenger can be both a sender and the nearby stranger willing to deliver. There and not there: It is a most strange and fantastic conceit with bearing on what we believe our Internet activity to be and do for us.

In this world "here" we speak both everywhere and nowhere. The humanist-rhetoric myself and my generation have amazingly borne ourselves through has always been in favor of humans having technological experiences, having them be pleasurable, and turning our critical eye elsewhere. We look to message boards, comments sections or walls as placeholders for democratic opportunity and rather await the next moment's announcement from the favored champion of the Futurists' god of speed. Convenience bridges continents and cultures, but also addles us with banners and superfluity. And evermore, that same frothy anger that we witnessed in the chat rooms of our youth is ever slogged against the shores of all this democratic "activity", piling up and obstructing our vision of anything else but ourselves.

My workstation desktop, framed with an ancient reminder

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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening