Monday, March 26, 2012

Twitter Is Not Scary (Stop Pretending)

"You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Society."   --Moe Syzlak, The Simpsons

All right, this sort of thing deeply, deeply pisses me off. It's become distressingly common wisdom (generally among people over the age of 40 and certain obnoxious younger people who desperately wish to be thought of as wise) that the Internet is some fiendishly apocalyptic Whore of Babylon destined to permanently alter--nay, destroy!--the way human beings relate to one another and process information from around the world and conceive of reality, etc. I use religious language because that's what this brand of Luddite jeremiad tends to evoke, which frightens me for reasons well beyond my personal nonreligious-ness. I know of no non-condescending way to put this: Twitter is not, in fact, the Beast of Revelation. Calm the fuck down.

From the linked-to article: "Let's face it: we are losing the texture of reality." What? What? What in Darwin's name is this man talking about? What makes him think that surfing YouTube or retweeting a Washington Post article has metaphysical consequences that somehow prevent us from, say, looking at the sky, cooking a meal, or protesting a war? Shouldn't physicists, if no one else, come out of the woodwork to L so insanely OL at these losers (see what I did there?) who seem to think, even as transhumanism remains a fiction-bound stoner-dream (at least for the moment), that the mere existence of the blogosphere is all but re-twining our DNA? They can't all have been abused by IT staffers as a child. What could possibly be causing such mass delusion?

I wrote a thing about how I think the apocalyptic, techno-phobic mythology that has grown up around Radiohead (particularly their twin peaks OK Computer and Kid A) has gotten really, really overblown, to the point where the band is frequently treated as objective social philosophizers of the (ostensibly occurring) Orwellian fantasia that the dotcom boom hath wrought. Let's check the context here: Radiohead are indeed confirmed consumers of pop philosophy, and the era in which they recorded those two albums was besotted with a punchdrunk futurism epitomized by Francis Fukuyama's infamously misguided essay "The End of History." (I know, right?) Evidently, something about the "1" in 1999 changing into "2" for 2000 meant that everything was over, we were done, all of history's battles settled, the world is converging on liberal democracy and free markets forever, sit back, relax, and enjoy the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In Radiohead's native Britain, Tony Blair's oh-so-sensible rise to power abetted and extended this growing giddy certainty with a combination of vague multiculturalism and specific Western conglomeration extending its beatific tendrils worldwide. To which Radiohead (and Naomi Klein and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the respective fields of pop music, global economics, and astronomy/philosophy) quietly replied, "Oh, yeah?" But the band's point wasn't that computers are actually eating our souls, or something; it was more that we still have the same old negative emotions (anxiety, alienation, rage, delusion, despair) that we used to, and if modern techno-globalism can't save us from those, what chance does it have against war, bigotry, and poverty?

And that's my point: the Brand New Things may actually be less powerful than we think, at least in terms of permanently warping our relationships to everything that came before. After all, Fukuyama, Blair and Co. thought not too long ago that the world was being permanently transformed for the better. They were wrong, as 9/11 and the financial crisis made horribly clear for Americans (much of the rest of the world was probably never fooled in the first place). So what are the odds we're right in our newfound endtimes rhetoric about social media? I take comfort in numbers: just as there are countless millions of people (myself and most of my friends included) who have played and enjoyed a Grand Theft Auto game without thereafter shooting up our high school, there are millions upon millions of people who have used the Internet without becoming a numbed, superficial, overly-postmodern Web-hamster that cannot be trusted to perpetuate the whole durned human comedy down through the ages, if I may swipe from The Big Lebowski. There's another Simpsons quote that gets at the heart of this whole folly: "He used a teenage colloquialism. Get the tear gas."

Ultimately, whatever scares stupid people about the Twitterverse comes from the flesh-world, not independently. One can make the half-assed sociological case that Internet anonymity gives people less of a filter and doesn't force them to take responsibility for their words, but that's anonymity's fault, and that problem's haunted us forever. We've managed to cope anyway, at least to the point of being a species functional enough to invent the Internet. But now the ability to post hateful rants under the nom de guerre of "dudeskater1992" heralds the downfall of civilization? Aren't we getting a tad ahead of ourselves here? Doesn't the recent, painful but unsurprising, revelation that our fancy futuristic Apple computers are manufactured in sweatshops, in China, where the workers put in 18-hour-days on insufficient protein and are fired if they try to unionize, emphasize that a) the power dynamics of the pre-digital world are still very much with us and b) they ain't that great, so what exactly do you think you're mourning? The staggering irony with all this techno-phobic discourse is that it only makes sense if you conceive of the world in purely online fashion; once you confront the tenacious physicality of, say, sweatshops, the ephemeral world seems a lot less dangerous than the tangible one. After all, many of us wouldn't have learned of Apple's human rights abuses without the use of an Apple product. That's another bitter irony, but it's not out of keeping with the rest of our history, in which modes of communication and social/political power have been inextricably intertwined. I actually think we've become much more aware of that danger and more adept at prying the two apart: the Arab Spring is the obvious example, but there's also Mitt Romney, who would be getting much more sleep (or time nestled into his handy portable charger) in a world without universally accessible, instantly viral-ized video of him saying things that directly contradict what he said today. Let's keep in mind that the Internet offers us a dialectical opportunity, not a didactic one; there is a relationship between offline and online, not a one-way soul-magnet that leads to the withering of all things physical.

So let's get physical (baby). We are dealing here with servers, monitors (of various shapes and portability), motherboards, assorted cables and fibers, the now age-old electrical grid, and signals. Even if the last one gives you a pre-atomic shiver of non-being, I see nothing in this arrangement that promises to rewire our brains along with our offices. Unless, of course, you add uranium.

And that's what most deeply angers me about this sort of fear-mongering. Should we be wary of unlocking the power to change, at will, how our species does business at the micro and macro level? Well, Harry Truman ordered tens of thousands of people incinerated, instantly, to make a point to their emperor, 67 years ago, so I think that ship has sailed. It's nothing short of arrogance to assume that today's inventions and innovations are going to be the ones that fundamentally throw society off the rails; it's hubris on a generational level that is, ironically, directly inherited from previous generations, all of whom were dead wrong. They were wrong about the telegraph. They were wrong about the telephone. They were wrong about the television. And they are wrong about Twitter. When I say they were wrong, I am not saying that those inventions did not have galvanizing, transformative impact (of course they did), but that they did not, as they were definitely going to, change the basic building blocks of how human beings experience and operate in the world, let alone do so in a manner that heralded the anti-Renaissance of human thought and culture. Get over yourselves. If this is the generation that brings the house down, it will be because of carbon and/or uranium, not silicon.