The Further Complication of Self and Desire In Online Landscapes

 
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BY ALLISON FONDER

 
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I would never let someone read through the notes on my cell phone. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. This space is in one way a place of no importance but also a window into who I am; somewhere reserved for perhaps my most uninhibited thoughts. Where else does this reside but face-to-face these days? And where else can you really be your stupid, faultless self? Having this space feels like a rarity to me so I find comfort in technological mediums saving room for these moments.
 
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They are sacred to me, these fleeting seconds of thought, and important to be documented. The way our impulses are recorded lays truth as to how our minds work I think. These are the thoughts I cannot get back unless there’s somewhere safe to put it down.
 
Many of us feel this way about our impetuous declarations, even government bodies. The previously mentioned space is a rare private one within the digital field, one where freeform is allowed and holds no consequence—but perhaps there’s always the anxiety that someone can unlock the key and readily access your mind within the capital-C cloud. This tension follows through to the public sphere, where we throw ourselves into an arena of potential disapproval, allocate and expose tiny portions of consciousness.
 
 
EDGE OF THE CLIFF
 
I can’t help but equate our mentalities regarding digital presence with themes in Greek mythology, ideas from these stories that manage to convey emotions transcending time. Like, it’s fascinating to me that Psyche was the goddess of the soul and the wife of Eros—of course, our egos and sense of self-worth are married to our yearning. The Internet is a new platform in history that incidentally reveals our human tendency to yearn. Given the fact that it is now one of our primary means to expression, it is also a space incessantly tangled with our individual desires. It is our best claim to fame, where we hope to be accepted. It is also a means to connect with those who may understand us most. Obviously it’s not as if this space has suddenly transformed us into hungry beings; we are familiar and one with this feeling. Our desire is more so linked to the drive to communicate and share, the technology is simply a means to an end. Just like poets or storytellers from centuries before, we pass down something of ourselves as a means to relate, yet today we are all contained within singular avatars in the online landscape; this electronic image of ourselves. We inevitably stand alone as one entity in this system (online human taxonomies more often seem to regress personalities and profiles back to the individual as opposed to couples or groups).
 

Psyche Borne by Zephyr
Psyche Borne by Zephyr

 
In Apuleius’ account of the marriage of Eros and Psyche, the girl is led to her otherwordly wedding in a funeral procession to the edge of a cliff, so death and marriage are “merged into a single rite of passage, a ‘transition to the unknown’” ; she is then blindly led up into the sky by Zephyrus the West Wind. In the contemporary sphere and well as the ancient, sharing of our selves always involves a trade-off: a force of mortification for the sake of finding joy. In many ways, our desire leads us to take ourselves to the edge of the cliff metaphorically, where we are in the open for others to do what they wish with our reflections. But our information in this age—which I kind of see as a secularization of the ‘soul’—is our property and it is our jobs to manage and protect it. This all serves as a reminder that even in a completely nebulous space with infinite possibility, it is difficult to escape that you are still just one part of a whole system. Left out in the open as individuals, we must differentiate. This is where ego comes into play.
 
This hardly escapable interplay between the exclusion from anonymity and superpower of omnipresence affects our being, but also always has. The online structure is simply a simulation of things living on the outside. the real. Poet Anne Carson discusses in Eros the Bittersweet the way in which technologies (in the case of the book, the ancient technology of writing and alphabetization) shift our perspectives of the self, ego, and eros:
 
“As an individual reads and writes he gradually learns to close or inhibit the input of his senses, to inhibit or control the responses of his body, so as to train energy and thought upon the written words. He resists the environment outside him by distinguishing and controlling the one inside him…. In making the effort, he becomes aware of the interior self as an entity separable from the environment and its input, controllable by his own mental action… Literate training encourages a heightened awareness of personal physical boundaries and a sense of those boundaries as the vessel of one’s self. To control the boundaries is to possess oneself.”
 
So we use online sharing tools allegorically to illuminate our personal perspectives, yet the language and medium make for inherent boundaries between the self and our audience. The line is drawn in the sand, or borders are formulated. This in turn also creates a slight “every man is an island” effect—we interact with others yet we stand alone. Actions can and will be calculated.
 
 
DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL / WEARING YOUR HEART ON YOUR FEED
 
Despite our position at the end of the plank, we strive to reabsorb into a collective body, connect, and even love. In our search for connection, we sometimes reveal our own behavioral truths.
 
I’ve heard there is statistical evidence that people who are having more sex tend to use more emojis. Snapchat also got rid of their “best friends” feature last year abruptly; many claiming this was because it violated a sense of privacy through inference, and essentially was showing your friend group exactly who was sleeping with who.
 
My point is, behaviors and feelings can be systematically generated into data given someone has corralled all of the appropriate information (albeit, inferred but presumably sharp data; like the DOW or astrology). Our most intuitive actions online are often our most telling—this is essentially the fuel nowadays for marketers and how they manage to navigate today’s complex consumer landscape. Our actions are not only economically translatable, but also statistically accurate. What we Google is obvious revealing, but what about the information that’s already available to whoever wants it? ‘Likes’ are in fact statistics, but also a window into human tendencies. Instagram likes may allude to who is intimate with whom. Location tags reveal where people frequent. Or more straightforwardly, photos can show what the hell people are up to in that present moment (but we must also consider how people can construct their own identities depending on their level of dedication and commitment to manipulation).
 
It is a strange landscape to consider; even more strange to realize how many people readily give up their coordinates at any given time for a moment of attention. And again, it is troubling that our emotions could so easily and accurately be generated into consumable data. But we can’t fool ourselves, and perhaps more importantly, we can’t help ourselves.
 
A strong sense of catharsis often results from our habit of relying on these tools. It is normal to carry both a sense of relief, shame and pride (an emotional complication otherwise known in ancient Greek culture as aidos) with the things we share of ourselves to the general public. Also the fact that this, sharing, can be done with such immediacy and frequency- how does this affect our individual mentalities? Does it evolve us to be more impulsive or more deliberate?
 
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Aidos’s pride and shame


 
Our landscapes and the way we interpret them, the way we interpret ourselves, is influenced in our parallel worlds by this corresponding pride and shame; for one, selfies can both express our confidence and desire for acceptance. We want to share our victories but we inadvertently and simultaneously can also reaffirm our uncertainties.
 
 
ICE PLEASURE
 
Another thing I think about is how this mentality, this separation from the effect of our actions due to their existence in a rendered landscape, affects our relationships. I can’t help but recall in this moment an experience of mine sitting close to someone discussing how time can be strangely perceived in the moment between contemplating kissing someone and actually doing it, which (perhaps not so subtly) led to that. But what made the moment rich was not when our lips touched but the spaces between those moments. A sort of tension built in this instance, a discernible aura of want only suppressed ironically by touch. The height of desire was somehow further extinguished the closer we got. This feels to me like a telling prophecy, an analogy for the modern romantic predicament while also falling under ancient order. This is a revision of thousand years old tantra. Just as the West re-appropriated, processed, and commodified Tantra into an outlet for “healthy pleasure and liberated openness“, or a way to ritualize sex as opposed to its true emphasis on sensualizing ritual (see also “California tantra”, Sting boasts about 5 hour long sex), we have repackaged relationships in virtual times with an opportunistic new freedom, where distance means independence and love can be ordered and received by anyone at any moment. Our current cultural experience is encompassed by the eros that has always lived in every desirable moment, but also the inherent separation that comes from our highly individualized present. It is intimacy in a strangely incubated and distinguished age.
 
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This also brings me to the topic of text message processing bubbles … Eros visualized, eros modern day. The reality of the anxiety this technological slight provides is beautiful in its beastliness. Anne Carson discusses how language has made our ability to calculate possible, which also further distances us from body awareness. Quite the contrary to a society where written language does not exist: “Self-control is minimally stressed in an oral milieu where most of the data important for survival and understanding are channeled into the individual through the open conduits of his senses”. Which is why the visualization of this phone feature is interesting…the blinking dots emulate the words rolling over your tongue as you formulate them, and yet it’s also a signifier of the time passing and the thought given to generating the message. A paradoxical relationship is demonstrated between present (impulse) and past (formulation).
 
In the case of watching these bubbles flicker, the tension of the moment in waiting is much higher than in the end result (a response). With the help of a subtle technological tool, you almost say more from the less that is said. We are in this way somewhat omniscient, but at times neuroses can be confused with prophesying. Due to this, we are prone to navigating our social landscape via assumptions and illusion; nothing new here, just smarter tech.
 
 
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If the recipient of a bubble is aware of the sender’s ghostly presence, and then the sender falls silent- this pain is real. It hurts. It hurts just like distance does, but the awareness of their presence rubs salt in the wound. It’s like one of those movies about ghosts where people know their spirit is there but they can’t reach them. It’s Patrick Swayze giving you the finger. You lose control in these situations where silence becomes a form of communication (and it’s worthy pointing out how much a part of our culture this truly is).
 
But no one involved in this wins. In this time, it is much easier than ever before to misconstrue and blur our stories or truths while also falling victim to absolutely no sense of privacy. No wonder we’re so paranoid!
 
 
OPTIMISM IN A NEW AGE
 
“Cultural sharing is ancient. That the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet makes cross-platform, global dissemination seem like a consequence of tech is a convenient amnesia.”—Doreen St Felix
 
Networks: as frightening as they can be, as much as we’d like to hide away from them at times, they also make us more aware of metaphysical entanglements than we have ever been before; the silent connections between individuals who cross one another on the street (although I’ve even heard recently about a dating app that tells you when someone else on the street also has that app, pretty much replacing an internal radar by directly letting you know someone is interested. Our need to perceive others’ behaviors and to adapt for survival in that instance becomes obsolete). Yet many often choose the numbing feeling of something distant and cerebral; intangible, still, and safe. We keep our distance and stand behind the screen. Being safe by staying virtual compromises previous notions of reality, and therefore changes reality and our perception of it.
 
But we also shouldn’t forget that human tendency transcends the time it currently resides in. Networks are still a mirror to the events that live outside of digital vibration but still inside the idea of currents: the energy on a dance floor, sexual vibrations, or the flow and rhythm of communication and intercourse.