Not long after digital books started becoming readily accessible on the internet, I began hearing that one of their advantages was that they enabled key sections of a book to be extracted from the larger context. Instead of having to read the whole book, a person can use search tools and navigational aids to jump straight into the best sections.
What really caught my attention, however, is when I began being told that eventually the context of a book, even a work of fiction, might pass into irrelevancy as an anachronistic relic of our literary past. Instead, sections of literary works might come to be organized according to new fluid contexts that emerge organically from algorithms based on user preferences. In an article on the post-literary mind, Mark Federman called this emerging model “the UCaPP world” (UCaPP stands for “ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate.”) Federman described this as
“a world of relationships and connections. It is a world of entangled, complex processes, not content. It is a world in which the greatest skill is that of making sense and discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux. It is a world in which truth, and therefore authority, is never static, never absolute, and not always true.”
It is only recently that technology has made possible this perpetual flux of textual connections. Prior to the digital revolution, all content in a book was tied (literally, and often with string) to the book’s context. Moreover, as Nicholas Carr showed in The Shallows, the very act of silently reading a book strengthens the mental muscles involved in creating neurological schemas and narrative contexts in which to situate new information and understand the world. If, as Federman suggests, static contexts for texts are becoming a vestige of a bygone age, then we should expect the post-literary mind to be one in which context—any type of context—plays an increasingly limited role.
Perhaps this future is already upon us. In November 2005, Amazon announced that it had been in discussion with publishers about technologies that would encourage customers to purchase sections of a book (e.g., a page or a single chapter) without having to buy the entire text. Commenting on why this might be a good idea, customization expert Frank Piller observed that “often the first and last chapter are giving you 80% of the information you want to know.” Amazon has also been experimenting with introducing a new system in which authors are compensated according to specific pages that keep readers attention and therefore generate the most sales.
Along similar lines, the Common Core educational reforms introduced by President Obama encourage this tendency of disengaging sections of literary works from their larger context. In my Salvo article on Common Core, I quoted Terrence Moore who found that within the Common Core initiatives, “When students do read some of the great works of literature, they tend to be excerpts rather than complete works…”
It isn’t only in the book industry that content is being unbundling from context. In the music industry it is now routine to buy a specific track without the entire album or to listen to a single movement of a symphony or concerto outside the context of the entire work. The same process is also occurring in the higher education industry where the experience of taking a class is becoming unbundled from the larger university context, a context that has traditionally included mentorship and valuable peer interaction.
Journalism was unbundled long ago when newspapers went digital and reporters started being trained to orient their writing towards search engines and page views instead of crafting their stories in a way that might only make sense in the context of the newspaper as a whole. (See the 2007 Wall Street Journal article, ‘Google This: U.K. Papers Vie to Buy Search Terms.’)
Along similar lines, I’ve been told that one of the advantages to the convergence of the television with the computer is the ease at which it will hasten the fragmentation of context, as people can begin to be provided with the best scenes from their favorite movies without needing to wade through the entire film. As attention spans continue to atrophy, it is being forecasted that people will increasingly prefer to get to the essence of what they enjoy about a particular movie without the larger narrative context of the story as a whole. The Fandango “MOVIECLIPS channel” on Youtube already provides what they describe as “the best moments, scenes, and famous lines from all of your favorite films.”
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with unbundling content from context. However, we would do well to consider the human implications of these developments. The way we think about ourselves has often been mediated through our approach to art in general and texts in particular. This behooves us to consider the anthropological implications of navigating a world of emergent meanings that are continually in flux.
Consider that a person is a kind of text. A person, like a good story, cannot be understood independent of his or her context, which is always a complex fabric of experiences, relations and (most importantly) embeddedness in time and place. Understanding people, like texts, require attentive surrender to this context.
Given the important role that context plays in understanding people, I’m ashamed to say that for many years one of the things that actually attracted me to social media (and especially Facebook) was how it enabled me to detach aspects of myself from the larger context of my life, and to exhibit slices of myself to the world. Social media became a way to isolate simple experiences and thoughts from the complicated context in which those experiences and thoughts had their genesis, and to exhibit these to the world as being me.
I know I was not alone, as many people have described receiving a kind of false therapy from being able to isolate particular aspects of themselves from the larger story in which those aspects were organically situated—a larger story often full of complexity, ambiguity, vulnerability, confusion and pain. Moreover, social media like Facebook can be intoxicating for their facility of enabling the individual to construct emergent meanings among contexts that are continually in flux and which can thereby be adapted and manipulated. By exhibiting a pseudo-context to the public, we can escape from the given-ness of real-life contexts and thus fulfil the postmodern impulse of self-creation. In place of a given context that may include shame, grief, embarrassment, and loneliness, the virtual world liberates us to construct identities made up of only those slices of our context that we choose to publicize. Through social media we can customize the context of our life while interacting with others through the snippets they provide, all the while bypassing the larger contexts in which such content has its proper meaning.
The main context that gives our life meaning is our materiality: the physical, living, breathing body. But with the body comes a certain discomfort. To be enfleshed is to be vulnerable. It is with the body that we smile but it is also with the body that we cry. It is with the body that we can exert strength, but it is also in the body that we experience weakness, fragility, vulnerability, and mortality. The 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. To be embodied is to be contextualized, and to be contextualized is to be limited. In our technocratic age, the limitation of our embodiment represents a kind of fall that technology promises to redeem us from.
As far back as 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 physical. “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 Groothuis warned that freeing 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.”
In its most extreme form this rebellion against materiality 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 becoming blurred, orienting us to see the physical dimension of human contact as an unnecessary addition, rather than an essential part, to human encounters. Consider that just 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 this concern up 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.’”
As new hand-held devices have enabled our online communities 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 the digital technologies that now mediate so much of our interaction with one another. At the heart of these assumptions is the emerging idea that materiality itself is an obstacle from which we require deliverance. Indeed, among mainstream innovators at Silicon Valley, the appeal of new technologies is precisely their ability to unbundle the content of being human from the context of the human body. As Nicholas Carr explained in his essay ‘The World Wide Cage’,
“In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets – he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ – announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’…
“‘Computing is not about computers any more,’ wrote Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his bestseller Being Digital (1995). ‘It is about living.’ By the turn of the century, Silicon Valley was selling more than gadgets and software: it was selling an ideology. The creed was set in the tradition of US techno-utopianism, but with a digital twist. The Valley-ites were fierce materialists – what couldn’t be measured had no meaning – yet they loathed materiality. In their view, the problems of the world, from inefficiency and inequality to morbidity and mortality, emanated from the world’s physicality, from its embodiment in torpid, inflexible, decaying stuff. The panacea was virtuality – the reinvention and redemption of society in computer code. They would build us a new Eden not from atoms but from bits….
“Our craving for regeneration through virtuality is the latest expression of what Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977) described as ‘the American impatience with reality, the taste for activities whose instrumentality is a machine’. What we’ve always found hard to abide is that the world follows a script we didn’t write. We look to technology not only to manipulate nature but to possess it, to package it as a product that can be consumed by pressing a light switch or a gas pedal or a shutter button. We yearn to reprogram existence, and with the computer we have the best means yet.”
Oliver Goldsmith has a moving poem called ‘The Deserted Village’ that describes the shell of a community following rural depopulation. He contrasted the empty village to the rich tapestry of connectivity that had previously existed there. When everyone was crowded together in cities to work the factories, they were closer geographically, with multiple families often huddled together in the same house; yet in all the crowding came isolation. Is something similar happening now as our virtual worlds connect us only to scatter and isolate us? In all our machine-mediated connectivity, people are lonely because we are losing the ability to attend. Like workers crowded together in the slums, we are close together while also being alone. The machine-world offers a sense of connection even while being strangely isolating. It is isolating to the degree that people are invited to know us in slices, yet only those slices of our content that we choose to mediate to the world.
To truly know a person, one must approach the person in all the multi-dimensionality that make up the context of the person’s life. How different people are from machines! For a machine, the whole is only as good as the constituent parts. Consequently, parts or processes which are not strictly necessary to the machine are expunged in the interest of preserving the system’s efficiency. That is why the destiny of computers is to become smaller and smaller. But people are not like that. A person is more like a story, where the parts achieve their meaning only in relation to the whole. A person’s story does not get smaller and smaller like a computer – reduced to ones and zeros – but larger, more complex and more embellished.
If persons are very unlike machines, they are very much like texts. It doesn’t make sense to assess which sections of a story are strictly necessary and then expunge the rest. In this sense stories are utterly inefficient, and gloriously unpragmatic. In The Wind in the Willows, you can’t fully appreciate the scene where the four friends recapture Toad Hall unless you’ve first journeyed with them in the earlier portions of the narrative. Persons are plagued by the same inefficiency as texts: you cannot fully appreciate people without being attentive to their story in all its detail, immersing yourself in it, even becoming part of the story yourself.
When we try to unbundle persons from their contexts and approach them in slices, the results are dehumanizing. Consider how so many of our society’s sexual disorders hinge on the impulse to approach people in slices, unbundled from their larger contexts. For example, pornography offers a chance to look without touching, while casual sex offers the chance to touch without knowing/loving, while cohabitation offers the chance to love without committing and without becoming fully immersed in the context of the other person’s story. To take a slice of a person’s content, and treat it as a commodity to meet my needs without being attentive to the person’s full context, is essentially to treat persons like machines. It is to splinter our lives and relationships into a type of radical particularism in which everything becomes fragmented into disconnected slices.
When our humanity is split into slices, the body becomes the most dispensable slice. This struck me when I was doing journalism for a UK company and I was hired to report on the epidemic of “sexting.” What struck me was that teenage magazines were heralded “sexting” as a way to navigate around difficult aspects of being a physical human being while preserving a shell of sexual intimacy. Sexting enables a girl to experience the excitement of giving her body to a man without ever having to do business with him as an embodied person, without having to approach him in all her vulnerability, fragility, and humanness. Though it may seem odd, for many women, this is precisely the appeal of sexting. Sexting is thus seen as liberating sex from the problem that has dogged it from the beginning, namely having to deal with real material people. An article in Sans Magazine was exuberant about sexting’s potential to free sexual relationships from the constraints that come with physical presence: “No longer do we actually have to commit to a single task of actually physically undressing, warming up our partner and then engaging in the carnal act of intercourse…. Plus, we don’t ever have to actually see the person.” Notice that the subtext of these types of statements is that our humanness – even our embodiment in time and space – represents a type of “fall” that technology can redeem us from.
On the broader level, so much of our present sexual confusions arise from trying to liberate ourselves from the story that goes with our gender and to disengage certain aspects of our content (say our mind, soul, or invisible sense of who we are) from the physical fixities that give context to our life (i.e. our biology and physical experiences). When no story is acknowledged as necessarily accompanying my body, I become free to write the text however I like, to be whatever I choose, and to find meaning in contexts that are continually in flux.
On Thursday I went for a walk with my children and some of their friends around the pond near my office. As we walked, I was impressed by how many other people were there ranging from young to very old. Yet there was something strangely odd about everyone else. As they walked around the pond, they seemed oblivious to what was going on around them. They were looking at the same nature we were appreciating, but they were doing it through their electronic devices.
I asked someone what was going on and he explained that they were playing Pokémon Go. I only found out about Pokémon Go a few weeks ago after it had already taken over the world. The hugely popular reality-enhancement game enables users to find and capture virtual creatures that have been placed in real-world locations and are visible only for those with smart-phones and Andriod devices.
As I continued with the children around the pond, we saw some baby ducks and gave them some bread to eat. We found some wild apples and picked them. We even saw a muskrat swim across the pond to his underwater home.
When we finally began making our way back to the car, I was confronted again by the Pokémon community. I say “community” because the crowd of people playing the game was clearly made up of multiple groups of friends and families who shared certain common goals. Yet everyone who was participating in this “social” activity seemed to be isolated, like a collection of multiple islands, literally “alone together.”
Commentators have talked about the potential for Pokémon Go to get people back to nature, to move us off our couches into the outdoors. What is often overlooked is that the Pokémon-induced “turn to nature” is possible only to the extent nature has first been turned into a commodity. In a bizarre twist, the Pokémon craze has seen the world of the real become the commercialized context for the unreal.
In the poetical vision encapsulated by G.K. Chesterton’s writings, we are invited to re-imagining the world in ways that offer a fresh appreciation for the ordinary. Similarly, the best poems are those that infuse ordinary things – daffodils nightingales and even mundane household chores – with wonder and romance. The true poet gives us new eyes to appreciate the glory that was there all along. Pokémon, on the other hand, offers us the ultimate anti-poetry: instead of offering a fresh appreciation for the ordinary, it offers us a respite from the real. Instead of sending us back to the material world with fresh appreciation and enhanced vision, Pokémon Go sends us into nature in order to escape from it. As such, it is the fitting culmination (thus far) of the Silicon Valley meta-narrative in which the physical world is seen as an obstacle to be overcome.
Reality-enhancement apps, now in their infancy, give us the god-like power of being able to populate the world with an almost unlimited array of creatures from our own imaginations. This ability to customize reality, and thus to have a respite from the demands of reality, offers what innovators of the digital age have long sought, regeneration through virtuality.
Such were my thoughts as the children and I wound our way along the edge of the pond and back to the apple tree where we had agreed to meet some other friends. Suddenly, my reverie was interrupted by a stranger’s voice.
“Did you see the Wartortle over there?” A middle-aged stranger in glasses approached me.
“A what?” I replied.
“The Wartortle. I saw one over there by the pond,” the man said, taking it for granted that I would know what he was referring to.
“Uh…is that something in Pokémon?” I inquired tentatively. “I don’t play Pokémon, so I didn’t see it.”
The moment I said “I didn’t see it” I suddenly felt left out. I felt like I was an outsider, isolated by myself in the real world, unable to attain to the hidden knowledge made possible by these magical devices.
Then it hit me that the Pokémon community were really the ones who were missing out. Viewing the park through the lens of their augmented reality, they were unable to see, or at least to appreciate, the wonders that were right there in front of them. The real world is where you see baby ducks, pick apples, and watch muskrats swim across the pond. This messy, confusing, ambiguous and unpredictable world of matter is also the only place where we can love. The physical world is the place where we can touch one another. The physical world is the place where we can be human, with all its pain, beauty, imperfection, wonder, and salvation.