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Aim of Human Endeavour in 2015 is to Avoid Other Humans.

April 15th, 2015


Social media? You’ve got to be kidding. Are we all one big happy human family? (Setting aside ISIS and the Tea Party). The emptiness of the craze strikes me again.

I’ve just been to the local library to collect a book I ordered. Now this library is something – very fancy, modern, loads of space, big picture windows, students all along one wall, grandparents introducing their children’s children to picture books in the centre, and, if you are very lucky, a staff member here or there who may or may not answer your question.

It struck me how bloodless and person-avoiding was the whole procedure. I had ordered the book via the library’s website, that was fine. Previously you would walk up to the staff desk, mention the name of the book, and the librarian would find it, stamp it out and hand it over to you – maybe even with a smile.

At the glamorous new library, the staff desk featured a large paper sign: “This desk is not manned. Please go to the 4th floor.” At the fourth floor desk a tall young man had his head down, concentrating so hard on what he was doing that it hurt to look. You certainly wouldn’t disturb him. Wandering around, I noticed some lovely blond wood shelves with a clutter of books, all bearing a small handwritten name tag. The man at the desk was gazing fixedly at his screen, another staff member was looking furiously at her screen, and it seemed OK to take the book and proceed with it to the the electronic check-out terminal.

Ah well. All very simple and easy. Personal-interaction free. Just like online shopping, Massive Online Open Courses, LinkedIn. And I should have earned my lesson from this library’s staff in the past, when I innocently inquired if they kept a list of clients wishing to read all the titles on the Booker Prize short list (which some places do). “What?!” sneered the librarian, before turning to roll his eyes and exchange smirks with the colleague sitting beside him. “No, we’ve never done that!”

Imagine going to a library and showing an interest in literature.

Anyway, this is just one example of the de-personalisation of our great digital landscape.

People might be forever on Facebook and Twitter, snapping everything that moves, or doesn’t, so they can send the world its picture on Instagram or Snapchat.

But all of this amounts to representations of self, not real interaction. It’s virtual – an adjective that has made the journey from connotations of shallowness to trendiness to, now, an indispensable quality.

Sit down and talk to someone? Hard, because you have to listen in real time, and maybe watch what you say. Whereas “watching what you say” on digital platforms refers to admiring your own banalities or infelicities – and for some people, much worse.

One of the many analysts of the internet from Korea, Hyejin Song, had some interesting things to say about the importance of the flatness of digital images, in a 2012 paper. She argued that the one-dimensionality of so many posted images had implications for the information conveyed, and absorbed.

Or, from the old master himself, Marshall McLuhan, himself riffing on William Blake: “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, thereafter our tools shape us.”

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