A Collection of Short Essays on Mediated Media
Part One: Migration into e-Society: Webschaft Wanderlust
Born with a little UNIX body its first words were "go-go-pher" and "tel-n-net". It was the early 1990's and a baby 'Internet' had arrived through a mutual consent to establish a public network between government departments and universities.
As a history student, I remember the thrill of accessing the University of Toronto's Robarts Library collection from a 12'" green phosphor terminal connected by the University of Waterloo's LAN ambilicus to the Internet. Even though the connection was an hour away by petrol propulsion, and not qwarkish light speed of charged electrons, it was a thrill. That was in 1992 and the whole convoluted password-riddled episode that let me tunnel from one library to another felt like an espionage mission. I left my library cubicle looking over my shoulder wondering if I had trespassed or done something wrong. If I would be discovered for defying the laws of library ethics, thermodynamics, or something.
That was most peoples reaction to handling the baby Internet then -- we caressed it gently for fear of breaking something, and it responded to our touch. It gurgled back in strange hypnotic tones and invisible embraces.
With the development of HTTP muscles soon afterwards, hypertexting and "hot linking" became a reality -- first between words to documents embedded on remote content pages and eventually to images, sounds, and video. The Internet stepped out of the cradle into larger circles. It began to walk and talk, inform, please, and entertain us. We christened it "Web" and it continued to grow synapses and links transversing a new "cyber space" as it ambitiously became a seamless and borderless network.
It was a gifted and wealthy child. It seemed to give us back more than what we put into it. Everything was new and exciting. We felt a sense of trajectory alongside our new companion, towards a new promised land, an e-world that was no more than a 'blip' on the horizon.
As it continued to grow, Web's family multiplied exponentially as the circle of experience became more peopled, more common, and more mainstream ordinary. The academic backbone and its idyllic foundational principle of the free exchange of information, like body and soul, was still there but a larger hungrier and more omnivorous force had started to propagate and push things around.
It discovered it had legs, huge legs with Goliathan strides, and an appetite to match. And we began to feel somewhat small, like tiny parasites in a symbiotic relationship within a giant.
Where people were, business and profit scenarios grew. Where people gathered news and entertainment flourished. People began to share and communicate until they built Web itself into a place; a town square, a street, a back alley, a confessional, a church, a bank, a shopping mall, a bedroom, and a brothel. The Web became a black hole and swallowed up the horizon. We had arrived at our destination.
Web has become the imprint of life -- useful, beautiful or banal, good or bad, exposing our heroic virtues and our concupiscent nature. Our modern world and its struggling cultural identity was grafted onto the giant's body and it all became "IT", instantly accessible through the electrons that coursed through its veins. Click-jump, click-jump, went its cavernous heart beating a million times per second as our fingers pressed down on little mousey-buttons at end terminals of its dendritic network. Our interactions were Web's life support, keeping it alive and ever growing. In return it tickled our minds, our senses, our pocket book, and our spiritual sense of self definition.
I can't help but liken this relationship to the 'preposterous-ness' one associates with a Dr. Seuss story such as, A Fish Out of Water. What was the moral of that children's story?
With the abstraction and dehumanization often present in modern life, especially urban life, and the lack of personable small town communities, what Ferdinand Tönnies-types call Gemeinschaft, many found a home (and a reliance or addiction) in the perceived proximity and thrill of immediacy and the promise of intimacy in this new computer mediated relationship. 'Web' had become company for the lonely hearted.
As it matured, Web's UNIX skeletal structure as a public network never changed. Only we and our expectations changed and so too our patterns of use which wove a new cloth for our endearing giant -- a growing garment of perceptions. We clothed Web with the fashion of perceived privacy and thereby we also covered ourselves with a rationale for our licentious public behaviour.
People increasingly began to share and exchange themselves, their culture, with others, which is the very definition of media. An exchange of persons which can potentially build authentic community was a good thing. But what was Seussian fishy about many people's relation to Web was how they went beyond the proportion of reality -- of the difference in nature between them and it. They exchanged their private sacred selves with others in a public square as if they were immediately and really present, personal, and alone, with each other. The fashion of virtual privacy had become enough to exposes ourselves. Have we fed Web too much?
At first anonymity was the veil that allowed people to become uninhibited. But as proximity breeds likeness, in time we convinced ourselves we could recapture Eden, where there was no need for law (law came as a consequence to sin Romans 5:12-19), we could be naked on the web and not be ashamed. We had fallen in love with Web's finest attribute as the great Mirror Machine. We loved our delusion or new lawlessness and we convinced ourselves with ever-shifting fuzzy logic that the exposed public network offered us some fuzzy security. Not convinced? Please read this article about Google's information harvesting and individual profiling through Gmail and all its manifestations.
The odd story of abuse, exploitation of youth, pyramid scams, the government's keyword vacuum, profiling of web-citizens, and access to private records and banking, did little to disuade us from our projections and wishful thinking. We turned a blind eye to Web's rebellious teen years. It was empowering us to building our own man-made virtual garden, an e-Eden. A paradise where we could have our Gemeinsschaft (hometown intimacy) and our Gesellshaft (city cave life anonymity) and live in them both. We've created a new e-society for ourselves, half human and half machine -- a Webschaft, where anonymous intimacy was now possible. Look no further than SecondLife.com for a prime example of machine generated culture -- Webschaft!
And now millions "need" this Mirror Machine, like Narcisuss needed his watery reflection. But for Narcisuss this was a divine punishment -- he fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, not realizing it was merely an image, and he wasted away to death, not being able to leave the beauty of his own reflection. I had to double check that on Wikipedia -- how ironic!
How many people now prefer a Webschaft wanderlust to real life; to ever wandering naked (as in voluntarily de-privatized persons beyond proportion of context) through the dendritic links of a virtual world? The Facebook statistics tell the tale... 57% of people talk more online than in real life.
And in this exposed state, those of us who have given too much of ourselves to Web, I wonder if we are not especially vulnerable, personally and culturally, to dislocation from daily human life and manipulation by those technocrats who still have power to pull the giant's Cicso synapses -- with a whirl, whizz, and whomp, a titter and a tomp. Oh yes, I forgot. There are no SYSOPS (that spells "system operators") who maintain the network. Most of us don't belive they exist.
It has been commented that this is the first generation that fails to comprehend the very basics of the technology that supports their daily existence. I must concur. When's the last time you replaced the heat sink paste on your over heating CPU, adjusted the VSYNC gain on your plasma television, taken apart you phone or your car's fuel injection? Put in a dormer on your house? Trimmed an overgrown tree with a chainsaw? Cleaned a fish? Grew a potato?
Its only a black box to me -- just keep singing that to the melody of Billy Joel's hit, She's Only a Woman To Me, while you keep surfing about wanderlusting.
"From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere." -- Dr. Seuss