Paranoid Android

Andrew E. Hall fights to reconnect.


A disconnected generation hung up on the virtual world. How do we keep it real?
Virtual reality is the first step in a grand adventure into the landscape of the imagination.
– Frank Biocca et al in Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality

Really?

And there I was thinking we’d taken the first step, and several thereafter, quite some time ago.
In one careless sentence Frank and friends have wiped out philosophical, scientific, literary, musical and artistic endeavour (and more) spanning the millennia that preceded the invention of the computer (also carried out, funnily enough, without the assistance of computers). They have also made a statement that many would accept at face value because of the sheer ubiquity of our preoccupation with technology.

Cleopatra will be kicking herself for compiling and maintaining one of the most important knowledge repositories in recorded history – the library in Alexandria.
Ludwig von Beethoven will be tremendously disappointed to find out that his sonatas and symphonies are not part of a “grand adventure into the landscape of the imagination”.

Galileo Galilei will think himself a twit for the time he spent being tortured by the Inquisition for his observations of our solar system.

Picasso will just be pissed.

Filmmakers will sob into their sorbets at Cannes.

Such is the hegemony of the idea of “virtual reality”, and the technologies that attempt to facilitate it in people’s lives these days that there has been a quantum shift in the way we relate to each other. And for better or worse, in the way we think.

Just when we thought we might have begun to understand the nature of reality – which is difficult enough (try talking to a traditional shaman; a sufferer of psychotic episodes; a priest; a priest talking to an atheist!) – it goes all “virtual” on us. Adding new, and no doubt interesting, dimensions to our collective ignorance. To our fundamental inability to deal with what is in front of our faces.

Henry Miller said: “Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.”

Yet into the chaos steps a form of order with which we can “interact” and manipulate to our hearts’ content – safe in the knowledge that if everything goes pear-shaped we can simply hit the reset button.

Virtual reality encourages us to create avatars of ourselves – endowed with powers we can never hope to attain in our “real” lives. But in some cases those avatars become incorporated into the holistic “me” in some sort of schizophrenic schism of the sensual world that is defined –

for most of us – by our five senses (perhaps six, if you’re mobilised in metaphysical realms), not by the pixelated prerogatives of proprietorial popinjays.

Our infatuation with “information” technology (IT) and its little sister, social networking, has messed with meanings in the languages we speak.

Our sense of place is virtual space.

The notion of “being on holiday” is an interesting one. I read a newspaper article recently that went into considerable detail about how to prepare for a holiday whilst ensuring that you were able to be “connected” to the rest of the world while you were “away”. Apparently, according to the author of this piece, one shouldn’t trust resort or accommodation websites when they advertise Wi-Fi access to guests. Why would anyone fib about this? But, no, it is de rigueur to call (with a phone) ahead to interrogate the staff of your intended destination about the availability of an internet connection.

Why wouldn’t they fib on the phone as well?

Once you can rest assured that connectivity is yours for the asking you can then proceed to your destination – poste-haste would be best, just in case you miss something on the way (and I’m not talking about beautiful panoramas or interesting encounters with actual people here). The kids can be distracted by burying themselves inside tablet-mounted gaming apps, so the opportunity for familial communication, sing-alongs, even the odd game of “I Spy”, so memorable in my childhood, is exchanged for silences broken only by digitised bursts of gunfire or things that go “boing”.

And unsolicited ululations of: “Killed another one Amy …”

“That’s nice dear,” says mommy.

I was sitting in a pub on Bali once (not so long ago) when a couple with whom I am acquainted rocked into the place from their home country. Having arrived at their intended destination – which happened to be the richly cultural town of Ubud – for less than an hour, and after the usual niceties of re-acquaintance (no time flat), the wife had her netbook whipped out and was looking up ticket prices for a trip to Vietnam … the following year.

“Hey look, darl, we can get to Ho Chi Minh for five hundred return; no, no, wait a minute; if we go on the sixth we can get it for four-eighty-nine … waddya reckon?”

“Book ’em love … I’m off to my yoga class.”

Unfairly, it was me who had the existential “where the hell am I” moment. I could have been anywhere. But I thought about asking her to book one for me too because I quite like Vietnam and four-eighty-nine sounded like a pretty good deal.

I have similar cravings for an iPhone but am resisting stoutly.

I resisted joining any social networking site as well – swearing never to indulge in what I believed to be time wasting nonsense.

I lied.

Research is research after all, so I am now on Facebook and have, wait a sec … 20 friends (not bad for 10 or so days where my own rules preclude me from “friending” another); one just added as I was checking. I have no idea who she is. But we’re friends now.

Will we still be friends if I shut down my membership of the club that has 800-plus million members? Will my friends even notice that I’ve disappeared? Will they just get some other friends to play with?

I don’t know. I don’t even know how to disentangle the web I’ve created – being technologically inferior to most five-year-olds.

Lessons learnt?

Going on Facebook really clogs up your email account; if I spent any time at all cross-referencing my friends with their friends I wouldn’t have enough time to clean my teeth; try to avoid mounting pictures of yourself on your “wall” after a serious drinking session; sometimes people post things that are interesting, with the same frequency that I get the urge not to smoke cigarettes; I have neither found a new wife, nor sold my house – which were objectives I set in the rather short period between joining that and writing this.

Some of my friends – the sort I can actually experience in corporeal 3D – say I was needlessly optimistic in setting such goals from the get-go.

But I’ll have to go online to get a wider opinion base.

“(O)ur self-portraits are democratic and digital; they are crafted from pixels rather than paints. On social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, our modern self-portraits feature background music, carefully manipulated photographs, stream-of-consciousness musings, and lists of our hobbies and friends. They are interactive, inviting viewers not merely to look at, but also to respond to, the life portrayed online. We create them to find friendship, love, and that ambiguous modern thing called connection. Like painters constantly retouching their work, we alter, update, and tweak our online self-portraits; but as digital objects they are far more ephemeral than oil on canvas. Vital statistics, glimpses of bare flesh, lists of favorite bands and favorite poems all clamor for our attention—and it is the timeless human desire for attention that emerges as the dominant theme of these vast virtual galleries.

Although social networking sites are in their infancy, we are seeing their impact culturally: in language (where to friend is now a verb), in politics (where it is de rigueur for presidential aspirants to catalogue their virtues on MySpace), and on college campuses (where not using

Facebook can be a social handicap). But we are only beginning to come to grips with the consequences of our use of these sites: for friendship, and for our notions of privacy, authenticity, community, and identity. As with any new technological advance, we must consider what type of behavior online social networking encourages. Does this technology, with its constant demands to collect (friends and status), and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermine our ability to attain what it promises—a surer sense of who we are and where we belong?

The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.”
– From Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism by Christine Rosen.

As we speak there is much media chatter about Facebook’s initial public offering – a staggering 50 billion dollar public offering on a company that is generally valued at between 90 and 100 billion dollars. This valuation has nothing to do with the sharing and caring that goes on; it has everything to do with the fact that we who have signed up on the so-called social network are resources in a vast data mining operation with which Facebook makes its money – by enabling advertisers to target their products with great precision. In similar fashion to Google but without most of the security/privacy settings that Google offers.

Founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg puts a slightly different spin on what his creation is “really” all about, as reported in a recent New York Times article: “Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” he wrote in a letter to potential investors that was part of Facebook’s filing. “It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.”

Mr. Zuckerberg went on to compare his invention to the printing press and television: “Facebook aspires to build the services that give people the power to share and help them once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.” And there is this: “We don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”

Over to you to decide on where the reality, virtual or otherwise, lays on that one.

The following excerpt from an article written in late January by Rob Waugh in the Daily Mail might help clarify things for you: “Facebook’s Timeline – a new look for people’s Profile pages which exposes their entire history on the site – will become mandatory for all users.

The ‘new look’ has been voluntary up until now.

From now, users will simply be notified that they are being ‘updated’ via an announcement at the top of their home page, which users click on to activate Timeline.

As with voluntary switches to Timeline, those who are ‘updated’ will have just seven days to select which photos, posts and life events they want to advertise to the world.”

In other words, once you have been “notified” you have seven days to clean up your Facebook act before your history becomes cocked and locked for the prying eyes of marketing predators.

Again, Zuckerberg sees it his way: “We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.”

But if our “sharing” becomes mandatory is it not reasonable to conclude that Facebook in and of itself becomes not part of a select few, but a totalitarian control mechanism for our personal information? Given, of course, that we choose to “share” in the first place.

Regardless of what I think about things like Facebook and its cousin, Twitter, the fact is that they have inveigled their way into our lives so thoroughly that we hardly notice how slavish our “social” networking behaviours have become. How many times have you found yourself in a truly social situation (i.e. amongst non-virtual people) and experienced a deafening silence as the majority of your “companions” ignore those present in favour of talking to their “friends” via their smart phone and android devices?

A term has been coined for these rude and irritating folk … “Phonies”.

Another worrisome aspect of these virtual entities, for me at least, is the influence they have on more orthodox media – those that supposedly parade under the banner of “journalism”. There is nary – and this is scary – a news outlet that does not “interact” with its viewers, listeners, readers via Facebook and Twitter. The news cycle and news gathering is being driven more and more by those who are not trained in journalistic practices of accuracy, balance, ethical reportage, and truth-seeking.

Not to mention the massive amount of free advertising the news media give to these ultimately commercial organisations. A very clever trick indeed!

Yes, I do understand that I am guilty of the same thing by the very fact of writing this. Shame on me.

The hell with it; if I’m going to fess up to Facebook, I’m also going to admit that I – in a prolonged moment of consumer envy – bought myself a tablet device (the most popular one) … that I love very much and really, really recommend, so go out and get one. Mortgage your granny’s house if you must. Everyone needs one of these things. They’re great! They do stuff!

Of course, if a younger person looked at my “apps” (sounds so hip doesn’t it?) s/he would immediately write me off as somewhat boring (guilty) and overly concerned with offerings by the world’s printed media, and music from a bygone era.

My response would be: “Watch it short-arse, I’m bigger than you … and, in case you didn’t pick up on it, I’ve got Larry the Talking Bird on there as well!”

The young can be so unkind.

I am beginning to have serious doubts about myself (I’m not alone, I’m sure) as I approach this sentence because I have never had any kind of attachment to any device. Laptops and desktops have always been merely handy tools of the trade. Over the years I have tried to surf the internet for fun but have run out of ideas on what to look for almost immediately. I have never played a video game since dad brought “Pong” home one day all those years ago. Things are different now baby! My tablet has an app called Zite – which creates a tailored online magazine according to my areas of interest. Brilliant … except for the politics section which is America-centric and reminds me every day that no legislation has been passed to commit Republican legislators to lunatic asylums … or to try them for the treason of nearly bringing their nation to its debt-ridden knees …

“… no, Newt, or Mitt, or whoever you are, it wasn’t Obama who racked up the debt, it was your mate George. So get back in your delusional boxes – better yet, introduce yourselves to the inner workings of the Large Hadron Collider and have a quantum day.”

Otherwise, though, Zite is a wee ripper.

Larry the Talking Bird is excellent, of course.

E-books!

Since the advent of airline baggage restrictions that encourage us to take ever-decreasing sets of underwear abroad, sticking a book or three in your bag has become a financial drag. Ta-da! I’ve got 500 books on my tablet.

And I feel like a complete sell-out. A louse.

I love books – real books that you can hold, that you can smell, that you can laugh and cry over, that you can pass on in the knowledge that a great gift has passed from your self to another. That grand adventures into the landscape of the imagination have changed hands and entered lives.

Adele Horin writes about her affair with a tablet device in Australia’s National Times: “It’s easy to turn the Kindle on. But I have found the Kindle doesn’t turn me on. The thrill is gone: the thrill of anticipation as I toy with a printed book, turn the first page to read the author’s dedication or bits of poetry; the list of his/her other books, the reprints from reviews; and then the flip to the back page to ponder the author’s photo, and skim the acknowledgments.

All these preliminaries, a kind of foreplay to the act of reading itself, just aren’t the same with a Kindle.”

They’re not the same with my tablet either, no matter how much trouble the makers have gone through to make the virtual page-turn seem like the real thing.

With slumped shoulders and bowed head I have to agree with Adele when she says: “In my campaign to convert the world into book-lovers, I shall continue to buy books for people who don’t read much. This next book for me, though – the one I’ll take to the beach shack for my week’s traditional summer read-in – must be my last.

I want to feel the thrill one last time. But sense has won out over sensibility.”

Video might have killed the radio star but IT and our unrelenting drive towards larger and larger things being packaged into smaller and smaller things has led to the virtual extinction of music on vinyl and will, probably, lead to the extinction of the printing press as surely as we have witnessed the demise of film processing and the Kodak company.

RIP. I, for one, shall miss you all.

Apart from the obvious utilitarian benefits of an ever-growing range of tablet devices, and what were once referred to as telephones, a whole new industry that manufactures add-on products has sprung up.

There are covers and cases; clip-on lenses for smart phone cameras; but I think my favourite is a thing called Comfe Hands which is hyped thus:

“The Comfe Hands was created specifically for people who have a tendency to use their (tablets) for hours and hours. It features a pair of ergonomically designed grips that easily slip around the edges of the tablet. The surface has been specially engineered to keep the device from slipping out of the hands of its user. The material responds well to physical touch and will provide comfort to the user. The product also doubles as an incline stand for those who want to set the (tablet) down on a surface.”

Handy.

A friend said to me the other day: “You can take my car, you can take my business, you can take my wife … but don’t take my (tablet name deleted).”

I thought about the offer on his wife for a moment …

Albert Einstein said: “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

I agree.

But there is a danger in illusional friendship – it can quickly become delusional.

Our reverential devotion to our devices has displaced to a degree our existential capacities to congregate and commune … to talk together without resorting to electronic props and paraphernalia. Our commitment to connectivity is mirrored in our discursive disconnect.

The most important word in the phrase that leads this piece is “imagination”. Our connection to our lives and loves, to our desires, devotions and directional decision-making resides there.

As Emily Dickinson wrote: “The Possible’s slow fuse is lit by the Imagination.”

If we surrender our imaginations to the machinations of the virtual spaces created and re-created by the imagineers who inhabit the electronic highways and byways of IT corporations, it is we who become the androids, not the devices we collect and covet.

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