Essay Published in March 2015 Hap Edition: To Say What I Feel
The “digital conversation” is boring, excessive, and continuous, vibrating between the technological and the biological, the ethical and the religious, the dangerous and the progressive, for all too long. Its questions are no longer reserved for the scientific or theological spheres but instead can be overheard in loud places, on the bus, over a beer: “Would you have sex with a robot?” “What will we do when computers can (and will) do everything for us?” “Would artificial wombs solve the gender divide or just proliferate the gender binary in different ways?” “Does this have something to do with Marx?” “Foucault?” These questions gloss over what hashappened in favor of what could or, when ethics are called upon, what should. The science fictive will be deemed anticipatory of the science fact. The questioner will feel the ever-satisfying expansion of the thoughtful mind. Eyes will roll.
What has been affected by mass digitization—what is measurable, apparent, and obvious—is less interesting because it is less savory and less philosophical: human modes of communication have been irrevocably made subject to (and subject of) instruments of digitization. The common denominator is no longer the human but the device. And to attempt human-to-human connection digitally is, inarguably, to circumvent traditional modes of communication in toto, to alienate the self from the object of one’s correspondence, to burr a tunnel through what had been an insurmountable peak of understanding, and to find that complete understanding was impossible to begin with. The mortal human will always be at fault in this system of communication because, unlike machines, we must still render meaning from the endless onslaught of digital data. We must.
The cannons of art and literature are such because they were (once) weighed by their objective potency; what we esteemed civilizationally, to a point, esteemed civilization. This is where mass digitization and its impact on subjective experience can be found wanting: the digital esteems nothing save for everything. The oft-cited banality of internet content and, more specifically, of postmodern art, might be viewed instead as a mirroring of hyper digitization’s reproductive process and its utter failure as a symbolic device en masse. Runoff from an overabundance of data generates a new kind of content that is free from contextual bind: the plasticized house plant, the gradiated sphere, the relic that is the Heaven’s Gate homepage. This untethered call for contextualization inspires our interests less because of its actual content and more because we’ve been told we should crave order, that we should indict meaning. Our attempts to synthesize this displaced data feel something akin to pareidolia; we know we are looking at the moon but a rabbit appears just the same. How then do we gauge our rendering of reality?
In the digital age, an admittedly vague era, we do not know how to feel because we do not know what it all means. Instead of relying on ideological apparatuses or social cues to parse one’s relationship to the world, a context must be whittled and refined from within the self: a being in constant flux and, thus, (seemingly) unreliable. The human condition has taken an unmistakably hermitic turn and, while this can indicate loneliness, it can also suggest a refocus to the microcosmic, to the devices of meaning-making at their most basic and sensory level. Order (as we know it) has never been a requirement, only a suggestion. Meaning, too, has unexplored, unrecognized channels. We cannot resist the digital order in full nor can we sell ourselves to it completely. Rather, what is required now is a reformatting of what connection can be, of what we will give credence to and what will be left to its own excesses, and of how we define and support our own, and each other’s, subjective realities.
You know the one