The digital problem of proximity and distance
Preliminary considerations on paraflows .9: Intimacy
From homo technicus to homo digitalis
It has always been a part of human strategy to make use of technological artefacts in order to overcome the restraints man is subjected to due to the shape, the features, and the operating range of the human body.
The enhancement and revaluation of the body through auxiliary means in a way marks the starting point of the evolution of the human species: early homo sapiens rose above the animalistic entanglement with nature by the handling of tools. In the course of evolution, man’s equipment has developed from found objects (like animal bones or stones worked up into hunting weapons) into complex functional systems; and through making and dealing with technology, man has developed his specific intellectual and imaginative power enabling him to condense simple observations and experiences into abstract concepts, practical considerations laying the foundation for his entire intellectual edifice and cultural order. The ability to conceive, refine and continually optimize tools, therefore correlates with the intellect that evolves from it. How simple or complex technology is – primitive bone or data center – is ultimately insignificant. Just as the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ suggests, the bone already contains the foundation for the data center.
Human evolution can be understood as a series of technological innovations in which simple tools were replaced by complex ones which left their marks on entire eras and even gave them their names, like the steam engine or the computer, for example. The currently available technology is the standard for the level of human development because it makes man independent from nature but at the same time creates a new relationship of dependence. Modern man depends on technology in much the same way that his ancestors were at the mercy of the whim of nature. A failure of basic technological services – for example through the destruction of its infrastructure as a result of natural or civil disaster – will lead to the temporary or permanent collapse of society as demonstrated in dystopian science fiction stories or by the infamous New York City blackout in 1977. This also gives us an impression of how thoroughly human life is intertwined with technology, and in a way that maybe becomes most obvious in the medical prosthesis (as a replacement for damaged or missing body parts). In this case an artefact becomes a part of the body. The boundaries between the two can no longer be clearly determined. Glasses, for example, are a part of the face of the person wearing it to extend their field of vision. Just like the hair colour or the size they become one of the characteristics of a person. It is only a small step from those glasses to contact lenses and on to a retina implant. Both merely refine the underlying idea along the lines of what is doable.
The inexorable advance of technological artefacts and principles in ever more and also more intimate areas of life may well trigger feelings of alienation – sometimes to the extent that people perceive it as a loss of ‘humanness’. This also has to do with the fact that technological progress is more often than not connected with the pressure to use it to exercise economic, bureaucratic, or military power. Yet these are not traits of technology but of the people who are using it. This alienation we encounter in technology is therefore in a way already the element of its humanization. To the technology destruction, rationalization, and profit maximization are just as alien as happiness and prosperity. The fact that technology takes on human traits where it threatens, oppresses, exploits, and dominates people, shows how thoroughly it is connected with those who command it. This is also the reason why technology itself is associated with something abstract, cold, and functional. But its coldness is merely an expression of the human coldness on which the order of capitalism is founded.
With every technological leap technology is getting closer to us to connect with more of our human expressions, not just those applications and devices that we deal with on a daily basis. Even our food is the result of technical production, interpersonal relationships are fundamentally determined by means of communication and transportation, and what we call our surrounding nature is technically designed and sometimes already altered to a critical extent, as we can see in the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’.
We can assume that even stone-age man already had a very intimate relationship with his tools. They were presumably kept within reach because their proximity would provide a feeling of being secure (from predators and thieves); for they were not just a means to an end but insignia of power. Just like his contemporary successor, stone-age man would draw his self-confidence and self-conception from the technology he was able to command. Archaeological findings prove that stone-age and bronze-age man sometimes even took his tools to his grave rather than passing them on. So, in addition to the pragmatic aspect we can already make out a psychological component manifesting itself in traces of design that can be found even on early tools. They were designed aesthetically and in a way which cannot entirely be attributed to their intended use. Their ‘design’ is the manifestation of psychological closeness which shows ritualistic, fetishistic, self-referential, hierarchical, and culture founding dimensions.
With an increasing technological penetration of society and of the individual, this ratio has not changed but intensified decisively. Today, technology basically sculptures all areas of our being and therefore humans and technology are closer than they ever were. Technology expands into ever more intimate areas of our lives – and not just as prostheses, implants, and so called ‘sex toys’ – because it becomes better and better at adapting to human needs and smoothly integrates itself into the most differentiated expressions of live, as an artificial hip joint or the pacemaker into the blueprint of the human organism. As such, modern man lives his life in an ‘enhanced’ mode in which the transitions between him and his tools are blurred. And in a sense, homo digitalis constitutes version 2.0 of homo technicus.
Homo digitalis as cyborg
The principle of digital technology is not to overcome the analogue but its compression into one and the same handy device on the basis of a universal binary code. In the smallest of spaces it ties up all the possibilities we are provided with by our technical tools: recording studio, DVD player, and photo equipment are all part of a modern laptop’s standard software, saving us time, money, room, and organisational effort.
His extensive and life-convenient amalgamation with computers and the internet turns homo digitalis into a hybrid being at the intersection of human and technology: a cyborg carrying his basic technological equipment almost incessantly very close to the body. Yet he still doesn’t have the interfaces between the body and his technical applications implemented as a standard feature as imagined in cyborg utopias or dystopias. But the ongoing compression of computing power into small, handheld devices suitable for everyday use makes digital technology our constant companion even without breaking through the surface of the human body. With the smart phone we can dial into the net almost anywhere (provided there is internet access) and acquire very specific information, for example local maps which are tailored to our personal needs. They give others – not always to our advantage – information about our whereabouts and where we have been at a certain point in time. They embed us in a meta-structure of information that we become part of to the extent that we get involved with the latest appliance updates and remain connected.
The digital intensification around users and devices is fortified by making digital device settings variable in many ways. This gives us the impression that our device is something very personal, downright individual. We recognise ‘our’ ring tone among many others and we have access to our most private content everywhere, so we no longer depend – like we used to in times of battery powered portable radios – on other people’s playlists. Small screens and headphones offer an opportunity for private retreat. No matter where we are, we always carry our digital homes with us. The traditional functions of privacy can be created in a train compartment as well as in a waiting room.
Therefore, the private is, in a sense, the digital, namely to the extent that users tend to outsource more and more traits of their personalities onto their devices. The implementation of the computer as the main medium had its origin in massive desktop computers which assigned the digital with a fixed and, above all, exclusive place in our sphere of life (say a desk). But ever since the introduction of the laptop it became mobile. With the smart phone, we can now log into the digital world at the pub and even during a short ride on public transport. It has therefore – quasi invisible – imposed itself on the analogue world. The handier the device, the shorter the intervals in which we use it; and if we don’t switch it off deliberately (to temporarily enjoy the luxury of not being available) we are constantly participating in a culture that incessantly sends and receives, thus generating huge clusters of data.
So, our actual cyborgization turns out to be far less spectacular than it was imagined by science fiction where cyborgs were usually post-human visions of horror or omnipotence following the rules of sensation-seeking: beings strewn with interfaces and techno-artefacts, gruesome or omnipotent man-machines in whose shapes human and artificial parts are inseparably intertwined. The science-fiction cyborg was not only physically incorporated into digital information-networks, it was usually manipulated by those who controlled it; which turned it into a post-human in a bad sense, acting externally controlled and thus losing everything of its own, everything rendering it human. As a techno-person, the cyborg used to be a continuation of the robot with different means. With both figures, the underlying production-paradigm became intrinsic: humanoid (in the case of the Fordistic robot) or aligned with man to a hybrid being (as the cyborg of the control society).
Still, the cyborg is not a genuine leap forward in development of the digital age even if digital interface technology is providing new forms of prosthesis and improving old ones, making them cheaper and more precise. Yet it marks in no way a fundamental breach in the history of technology. What distinguishes it from older technology is merely its potential to enhance the interaction between man and technology, involving man so directly in its processes that, in the context of contemporary information work, the impression of a cyborg existence becomes the more evident the more custom-fit our entanglements with technological structures are.
The digital world got much closer to contemporary man than any other groundbreaking and epoch-making technology of the past. This is not just related to its versatility and the introduction of the personal computer which embeds our everyday lives directly in the digital world. The digital world enables us to create interfaces and to build a network of systems which have so far been categorically and essentially separated. It is newly integrative as well as transgressive with regard to our cultural and technological history.
Unlike in the dystopian visions of the future that were circulating mainly in the counter-culture sphere during the 1970s, computerization has not at all lead to the destruction of what is specifically human – communication and interpersonal relationships, sensual experiences and self-determination – or even managed to overwrite it with cold, programmed routines. The opposite is true: digital networks can be understood as an extension for all of these characteristics, and they have little in common with the communicational impoverishment and standardization that technophobic ideologies imputed to them. We can maintain long-distance relationships through e-mail or social networks in a way that would not have been possible 30 years ago. Via video Skype we are close to people who are on another continent. And this closeness differs in quality from the costly international calls which have existed before the age of the internet not only because we can see and be seen by the other person on the line. With phone calls, a dense, temporarily limited interaction was necessary. With Skype, we can spend an entire evening with the other person almost as if we were in the same apartment. In a lot of digital long-distance relationship (whatever its nature) a mode has been established in which the Skype connection remains open even when everybody is occupied with different activities. The other person is there and remains responsive and yet is less annoying than when we would be stuck in the same room together.
Rather than limiting our ability to communicate and to express ourselves, the digital world has developed its own highly differentiated culture of conversation. It includes a certain etiquette and specific means of expression that correspond with the medium (and its limitations), ‘emoticons’ for example, providing e-mail and forum communication with a dimension of intuitiveness, compensating for the deficiency of not having the entire repertoire of human expressions (vocal modulation, facial expression, gestures, etc.) at our disposal. The principle of so called ‘netiquette’ invites us to reflect time and again on how we want to communicate online and design the anonymity which characterizes online and net forum communication, enabling behaviours like online trolling. Just as with any close relationship, the relationships enabled by the net therefore need moderation and a set of rules.
Net based communication (in all its variety, YouTube-comments fall into this category as well as blogging and tweeting) has significantly extended the radius within which we can correspond. It puts us in touch with people we would probably never meet in the analogue world. This creates a new intensity of togetherness but also new forms of dissociation which then – dialectically inverted – render intimate exchange and uninhibited self-expression possible exactly because we are not forced to appear as the real selves that we supposedly are here. Protected by a nick persona hiding our ‘true identity’ we can talk about things we prefer to conceal in direct (eye) contact with each other. Virtual ‘desubjectification’ creates new forms of subjectivity and of self-awareness. Our digital representation allows us to explore ‘alien’ sectors of the world (even if it’s just heterosexual guys checking out gay culture forums to which they would hardly gain access offline). In a certain way, it has long blended with the subjects that create it. It cannot always be distinguished easily from reality which it not just reflects and depicts but at the same time also creates and modifies.
The specific modes of network communication allow us to create bespoke avatars with which we navigate through the net and meet other avatars. With these avatars, we can easily, and without risking any consequences, switch genders and roles; we can shed our old biography and be what we want to be – at least for the moment. We can thus make wishes and imaginations come true that were out of our reach so far. This constitutes the emancipatory potential which points far beyond the options that online-role plays, chat forums and ‘second-life’ worlds have to offer.
Where we get to choose as whom and with whose voice we want to talk, we can be intimate with ourselves beyond the boundaries of our habitual identity and unlock parts in and of us which have no room in the form in which we exist in the analogue world that is determined by culture, habit, and role expectancy. In the net, however, we can hide from ourselves in the communications we have and keep re-inventing ourselves – for as long as we want to and as often as we want to. In a certain way, our identity itself has become a piece of information that can be digitally modified and reproduced.
For the digital processing of information it basically doesn’t matter which information gets processed: pictures are processed and archived the same way as sounds or medical records. The digital code of ones and zeros in a way constitutes a universal language in which the most diverse sectors of the world can be displayed, processed, and put into relation to each other. This universality would eventually have to be called its specific factor enabling it to dissolve boundaries and to connect - and at the same time create - new forms of intimacy. But it is not just universal regarding its form, it is above all universal with regard to content: it is inherently neither hierarchical nor judgmental, two characteristics which have shaped human culture for a long time. It simply has no top and no bottom. In the binary system everything is equally close to or far away from each other. Some of this equality is passed on through the use of digital technology to the subjects that constitute themselves in it – even if only as the insight that the differences made in analogue culture are not primordial but a consequence of the media and the tools it utilizes.
Before the personal computer and its contemporary derivatives, no medium has ever offered the same extent of possibilities to share data with strangers in such an intense manner. By digitalizing many of the functions of our everyday lives in order to be able to process them on computers and on the web, we have also created the possibility to let others participate in them. We can swap data records and archives (of movies, music, or artistic drafts) fast and simple with others by already managing them online (in the cloud), sending them through the net, or allow others to copy them on a USB stick or an external hard drive. What used to be our own private property – designating a fixed border of our personalities – can once again flow freely in the digital sphere. This opens up new forms of collectivity and a community which are not structured around property or stratified in class hierarchies. The digital is currently its most coherent cultural embodiment.
The digital society therefore offers an enticing opportunity to surpass the subject form of the middle-class and to create new, more liquid forms of subjectivity in free association.
The old bourgeois subjectivity used to reference to processes of private individuation that would call for an enclosed and lockable room: the privately owned home and the self-determined life-style it allowed for. As a place for subjective constitution and reproduction it seemingly remained a sphere in opposition to the economic exploitation which determined the workday-life of the subjects. Only in so called ‘privacy’ the separate world could arise from which the others were either categorically banned or they were explicitly included though invitation for example. It took ideological form in the middle-class apartment and their hetero-normative relationship forms – family and marriage. However, when we make privacy a function of our digital networks, different, e.g. less isolated and non-exclusive life forms as propagated by the ‘post privacy’ movement, can finally emerge. After all, the private is political also insofar that in the private sphere we change into the subjects of social separation and attribution that the bourgeois society demands.
The digital proximity of power
Of course we can in no way assume that social relationship conditions that are different from the ones we remain subject to even in a digital 2.0 version of capitalist economy will emerge from a technologically implemented reorganization of our living environment alone – just by itself as a side-effect. To undialectically charge technological innovation with an expectation of salvation would be disastrous for technology and the ways in which we use it are themselves enmeshed in the economic conditions; just like everything else. Where people meet each other digitally they still do it as master and servant for as long as they resort to the analogue conditions of digital means to replicate and to renew themselves through them. A certain level of scepticism about grandiose net world utopias is therefore definitely advisable: digitalization may undermine existing power structures but, then again, these are capable of learning and adapting. Digitalization is not a free-floating or non-hierarchical space. Digital space operates with the same power relations as the real world that surrounds it. This is of course not a specific problem of digital emancipation. Digital culture shares its aporias with all the other projects that aim at changing, or at least reforming, the existing conditions to make them more ‘humane’.
In this respect, the digital lifestyle even exhibits a special element of danger: the data tracks we produce on the web can be read and evaluated by others. With the increasing shift of more and more areas of our lives into the digital sphere, that which we would after all not want to share with just anyone, let alone the state and the market, becomes recordable and workable. At the moment, a clandestine structure would most likely be realizable by renouncing digital media use. On top of that, it is by no means the state only that is interested in our data. Commercial players may just as well be tempted to profit from spying out our online behaviour. And digital technology creates a whole new set of means to extend the stalking attempts of the economy right into our intimate retreats. And our data are giving away more about us than we like to believe!
So, where the old private sphere would at least still provide a retreat from a public governed entirely by economical and ideological interests – where one could, for example, act out on a deviant sexuality and a certain amount of non-conformity – we are now confronted with a new pressure to conform due to the transparency of our digital lives to exactly the same extent that it leads us to cross boundaries and to make new experiences. But when we do we always leave an imprint that can be assessed easily. By means of our IP address, what we do on the web can distinctly be traced back to us (or at least our realm of responsibility). Therefore, digital freedom comes with a couple of strings attached that eventually restrain us again. To wipe out the data trail we produce on the web (or to avoid leaving one in the first place) requires expert knowledge that is not part of the common users’ know-how. Just like most people driving a car would not be able to exchange a fan belt, digital subjects usually master the technology that they entrust themselves to only on the (user) surface.
The conscient configuration of the inevitable
Digital culture has made it its mission to consciously configure the relationship between post-Fordist subject and device while also considering aspects and claims aside from mere process-optimization for the purpose of profit-maximization and frictionless utilization-cycles. Because the subject that constitutes itself through handling devices (and that also maintains relationships mainly through these) rightly suspects that the technology it is subject to in work and leisure is basically trying to condition and to coach it with regard to its mode of optimal utilization. Therefore, the new digital world is admittedly not the cold inhumanity of a super-bureaucracy rooted in a perfidious computer network (that the dystopias of the 1970s and 80s envisioned). But it enables the constant capitalistic valorization of people which has been perfected with every new generation of technology yet. This is not genuinely a problem of technology but that of the essence and the value-adding core of the bourgeois society which still provides the socio-economical frame for the way in which we handle devices.
Well, we will first of all become cyborgs (in an Arnold Schwarzenegger-sense) where we undisputedly let it happen that the viral ideology of efficiency gets fed into the data records of our personalities through our digital interfaces.
Digital conditioning is successful mainly because of the possibility – as described above – to translate very diverse functions, needs, and sectors of everyday life into the same technological structure and bring them together in one device through digital technology: we therefore spend our work time in front of the same device that we also use for leisure activities which helps on the integration of the one into the other – and of work into our entire awake time. The universality of the computer cancels the splitting-up of our lives into phases of productivity and (constituting and regenerating it) reproductivity – which is characteristic of the Fordist work reality; not to just overcome the productivity paradigm itself but to also incorporate the areas of our lives in it that were previously exempt from utilization.
This tendency is reflected in the progressive integration of unconnected single devices into one universal device, especially in the field of recreation: these days, tv, radio, telephone, and stereo system are all bundled up in compact laptops that we can bring on a train, on an airplane, or to the café and which therefore smoothly fulfil our need to be spatially unconfined. But this need not just solely equates to the want for freedom – although the two have merged beyond recognition – but also paraphrases the economic conjuration of ‘flexibility’. That we have long digitally integrated all our books, LPs, photo albums, DVDs, etc. so we can move them without a problem enables us to follow the fluctuating places of our utilization ever faster and more willingly.
Because under the current circumstances laptops and smart phones mainly reflect the need to be mobile instead of stationary, the continuous compression of our lives (and of the space we need for its utensils) contains an element of freedom and of dissolution of boundaries which then at the same time executes a pressure which is not just that of our peer group (who would find it quirky to surround oneself with too many analogue artefacts for which digital surrogates are already available and to be tied to a specific place in such a way). It is the pressure for optimal utilization that appears in the guise of this freedom. The two are neither merely the same nor can they be separated without a residue.
The dependence of independence
The abeyance of freedom on the web corresponds to the precarious intimacy of the digital under whose sign what used to be separate and apart gets merged just like our lives merge with our devices. The independence it promises is at the same time a dependency – one of the many paradoxes of the capitalist commodity form that we are confronted with even where it (or the software running on it) is licensed under Creative Commons.
A part of this dependency is that we – in our comprehensible desire for independence – translate many aspects of our lives into one and the same universal form that we also use for work. Like this, even our erotic fantasies can be integrated into our working environment – at least in the form of always abundantly available online porn which enables us to switch smoothly from working on a digital project to our most intimate desires or to even have the two run simultaneously side by side.
The info workers of the digital culture need to be aware that their lifestyle as pioneers with regard to the post-Fordist transformation of work life (that can also be exploited for propaganda) – as glamorous as it occasionally may be – is a field for experimentation for extended access of the valorisation paradigm to the entire human existence.
This means that we need to figure out how close we want to be to our devices and when the demand for permanent availability, readiness and market addressability becomes an intrusion that we want to reject.
The closeness in which we live with our devices is not a calamity but a relationship that needs to be negotiated and shaped like any other relationship. We therefore have to ask ourselves: how do we want to live in the intimacy that we share with our devices and how can we live well with it without letting the devices (and the foreign interests they convey) dominate us.
Rather than focussing only on the difficulties they bring with their eternal flood of work and economic invocation (like ‘networking’, ‘increased flexibility’, ‘self-determination’), we could just as well use them against their intention as work devices. How we can make that happen and what we need for that – what kind of practice, net-culture, technology, terminology and what kind of relationship to the devices and through the devices to each other – those are the questions that paraflows .9 wants to look into.
Just as our lives are intertwined with the digital culture space, these are the terms in which we conduct our emancipation from Fordist disciplining. How can we separate the part of it that is merely post-Fordist usurpation from the things we want out of them and we hope to enforce with their help? Where can we use our devices against the interest of those who propagate them as means of production with an integrated reproductive function and to whom digital freedom is merely the freedom to get entangled even deeper with our own valorisation.
What potentials for freedom has digital work to offer based on the close relationship and the potential for integration that their means of production imply? What kinds of closeness – to ourselves, to others, and to the digital – do they contain and what closeness do they render impossible? How much of our marrow should we reveal to them and to others (by using them)? What possibilities does the net provide for us to hide and what are its real dangers (beside the traditional alarmism that follows each and every technological upheaval)? And: how do we – as a digital culture – want to handle them since they are inevitably part of the new liberties as their backside?
How do the devices have to be constituted in order to maintain the relationship we have with them and by using them in accordance to our wishes and needs – and not according to those of the market and administration? How can our relationship to the devices fulfil old utopias like that of non-privileged access to culture and technology, but also that of ‘luxury’ and ‘elegance’ which would then of course need to be more than just catchy buzz words of their marketing strategies?
Can we even apprehend the intimacy that we, as a digital culture, already share with our devices today as a model for society’s relationship to their devices? Or is our culture merely a niche in which people with the necessary background knowledge can live (the good life) because they have recourse to strategies to fend off the implicit dangers of digitalization.
What constitutes the erotic of the devices that we perceive without being able to put our finger on what it is exactly that it is composed of – beyond the empty phrase ‘user friendly’, cosmetic knick-knack, or cyber sex fantasies? How – through which sensual, aesthetic, or interactional quality – do they get us to work with them and to let them have more and more power over our lives, to trust them and – that too – to believe in them? Where do they seduce us to surrender to our desire and where to only operate them in the way in which others expect us to? How are we supposed to confront the danger in all this: that due to the seductive power of the devices we could develop a desire that emanates from a third-party interest or establishes their interests in ourselves?
What does our closeness to the devices say about ourselves, our desires, dreams, and fears, about our relationship behaviour and the ideological significance of relationships in a control society?
In how far and when do our devices serve a purpose that is called ‘self-experience’ in the respective literature – and what does this mean in the first place, for ourselves and for our technology?
What specific new or in the analogical world long forgotten formulas of emotionality are enabled by the net and the computer? In what ways can analogue forms of getting to know each other and being close to each other be digitally simulated, implemented, extended, and improved?
What subversive forms of closeness and approach are possible on the web and how do we have to regulate it as digital art and culture?
And. What are the needs and wishes we articulate by personalizing our devices, by naming them or giving them particularly empathetic traits (and HAL voices)?
What can we learn from our relationship to the devices about ourselves and what about the world in which this relationship is located? To put it differently: what do we want from the devices and what do they want from us?
Frank Apunkt Schneider/Günther Friesinger