The Internet and Disembodiment

From my article ‘Marriage Between Humans and Robots (Part 4): customized intimacy and social narcisism

In 1997, Douglas Groothuis warned that the internet’s ability to deny both the user’s body (by focusing only on the mind) and the user’s individual human identity (by facilitating anonymity) was creating a state of affairs in which social salvation was increasingly being conceived in “Gnostic” terms. Technology offers new ways to be freed from the constraints of real life, including the constraints built into the experience of being human. “The self seems especially protean and plastic” Groothuis observed, “when largely removed from the envelopments of real-life interaction with other human beings. It may feel more free.” But freeing our relationships from the constraints of embodiment comes at a cost: “There is a dimension of intimacy and accountability that comes from face-to-face, person-to-person encounter that is not available otherwise.”

When Groothuis wrote his book the majority of online interaction was still occurring through mechanisms such as websites, emails or clunky chat boards that you had to have the right software to operate. The social aspect was an important component within the overall matrix of online activity, but it wasn’t the whole picture. What has happened in the last three years is that the majority of online activity has now folded itself into the social aspect, to the point where Gary Vaynerchuk observed last year that “From now on, every platform should be treated as a social networking platform.” But not only is all of the internet folding itself into social platforms; as new hand-held devices have enabled the internet to become ubiquitous and seamlessly integrated into normal life, what we find is that ordinary life is becoming stamped with the imprint of our online habits. All social activity is starting to take on the set of assumptions and expectations appropriate to our digital addictions. In short, real life is becoming an adjunct of the cyber world.

In its most extreme form this can be seen in virtual worlds like “Second Life”, where users adopt the identity of an avatar and become residence in a simulated society that mirrors the real world. But even in less extreme forms, as our social lives continue to go digital we are finding the divide between intimacy and solitude is becoming blurred, orienting us to see the physical dimension of human contact as an unnecessary addition, rather than an essential part, to human encounters.

bigswitchcoverJust as physical goods like tickets, newspapers and greeting cards are increasingly shedding their materiality and being turned into pure information in “the cloud”, and just as physical places—banks, schools, libraries and stores—are becoming displaced by online venues offering the same services, so our social lives are also gradually shedding their physical integrity to become matters of pure information. This is why, in his 2008 book The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr could observe that “Second Life may be only a game, but its central conceit—that we can separate ourselves from our bodies and exist as avatars in a digitized landscape—is more than an amusement. It’s a metaphor for our future.” Carr backed up his concerns with a 2007 study conducted by the Annenberg School for Communication’s Center for the Digital Future which found that “nearly half of the people who have joined online communities ‘say they ‘feel as strongly’ about their virtual community as they do about their real-world communities.’”

the physical dimension of being human (i.e., our embodiment in time and space) plays an important role in our ability to empathize with other

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The problem, of course, is that without physical human presence there can be no true empathy. Various writers have observed that there has been a radical decline in empathy and social attentiveness that has directly corresponded with our social lives migrating to infrastructures that are machine-mediated. This should come as no surprise. In real-time interaction with other human beings, the physical dimension of being human (i.e., our embodiment in time and space) plays an important role in our ability to empathize with others, to attend sympathetically to another and to see things from other people’s perspectives. This type of true attentiveness is only something that can occur with embodied beings. After all, it is in the body that our face can say what words cannot. It is in the body that we smile. It is in the body that we cry. It is in the body that we blush. It is in the body that we offer a reassuring touch. But it is also in the body that we are confronted with each others’ vulnerability and fragility.

Teenagers texting on mobile phones in a home settingThe lure of online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body. Through our digital devices we can act and respond to others as if we are not bounded by space. We can dispense with the physical element and still have our social cravings satisfied online.

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