My Own Personal Enlightenment: How the Internet is Remaking Us

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, August 27th 2011

One of the biggest stories of this week was the decision of Steve Jobs, Chief Executive of Apple, recently rated the world’s most valuable company, to stand down.

Apple has changed our planet. It has given us the ipad, iphone, itunes and so much more, importantly leading the way in integrating fashionable products with ingenious software.

We now live in an age redefined by Facebook, Twitter and the conversations and connections the Internet offers. There have been the supposed ‘Twitter’ revolutions in Iran and Egypt, social media used to great effect in Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign and nearer to home, by the SNP this year. Not forgetting the contested role of social media in the recent riots in England.

What does this ‘Brave New World’ offer? A new sense of the self, of empowerment, personalisation, creating new online identities and new communities whether geographical, identity or interest?

There is the allure of technological utopianism and liberation in all this. There is the language of the 1960s and 1980s mixed together. The Silicon Glen hippies and more recent advocates of hyper-consumerism have coalesced in the world of the Internet.

All of this is refining and remaking how we live our lives, how we speak, interact and think. Facebook and Twitter offer a world for some of full disclosure, of blurring and sometimes even abolishing the divisions between public and private, of a new form of liquid identity.

This is a world of constant background noise. To some there always seems to be a party going on in another room that you want to be invited too, while for others the motivation is to be visible, recognised and validated.

There is in this an equalisation of everyday life, of the compression of emotions, of the highs and lows, moments of elation and the everyday placed in a much narrower bandwidth. There are genuine conversations on Facebook and Twitter, but much is in the form of a one-way conversation, broadcasting tittle-tattle news and the behaviour of the peacock.

There are similarities between Facebook and Twitter, celebrity culture and reality TV. The latter gives participants a public profile, voice and even a ‘public’ and audience. It makes people feel in a mediated context that they are the creators of their own stories, and therefore ‘real’ and ‘authentic’.

This new world is filled with complexities. We often use technologies to create new barriers. The sociologist Ray Pahl found in his research into Blackberry users that people used their devices to keep acquaintenances at a distance so they could spend more time with real friends. This did not fit with Blackberry’s promotion of their user as the hyperconnected, workaholic professional who never stopped!

The spirit of our age, James Harkin points out in his thoughtful counterblast, “Cyburbia’, is one which offers the illusion of dispensing with hierarchies, boundaries and borders. This is the age of trangression and multiple identities. In part it is shaped by the language of the 1960s hippie dream of egalitarianism, of believing in the possibilities of each of us and an interconnected ‘global village’.

This conversation offers us the promise of chat, connection, validation, finding yourself, and the belief in infinite possibilities of expression. Yet in a world which never stops, there is little time for listening, pausing or changing the pace. And as we are presented with this alluring world of discovery, we are being told something very different and depowering.

Who is connected and not connected is central to the reality of the digital utopia. For example, we know that Broadband access and computer ownership in parts of Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, is very low and much lower than it should be allowing for the socio-economic mix of the city. And considering that much everyday human interaction such as shopping, paying bills and dealing with public bodies is online, this is another form of social exclusion for many.

The language of globalisation in politics, economics and media does not offer us the potential to dream, use our imagination, or be creatively disruptive. Instead, it is filled with a sense of foreboding, pessimism and even profound fatalism about our world and future.

In the West, we are told in no uncertain terms that we must all work longer, look after ourselves, make provision for our own pensions, and not expect government to give us the same guarantees and rights once thought of as hallmarks of a civilised society.

This seems to be an age where the old Enlightenment dreams of a better, more civilised world are now universally seen as bust. Instead, in their place we see innate human hopes contained and articulated in the hopes and values of technological liberation and expression.

This entails remaking the idea of the self, the notion of the individual and how we imagine society in ways we are only beginning to understand. A more fluid, porous self is being created which could be more permeable and therefore more controllable. This could be more Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ than George Orwell’s ‘1984’; the latter was a dystopia controlled by what we most feared, the former by our wants and innermost desires.

We live in an age where the mantras and buzzwords promise us infinite choice, expression and possibilities, but contain a number of profound paradoxes. The superabundance of choice is actually one of tyranny and people often feeling confused by the range of options. And then there is the conformity and groupthink of much of our Internet age, of seeing ourselves as sovereign individuals who can take control of our own lives with the reality being rather different.

In what is still the early days of the Internet we have to find a new balance between the public and private, and a recognition that we cannot create our own perfect, private, atomised utopias: sitting isolated in our homes like characters in a Ray Bradbury novel downloading every human need we can realistically imagine.

Human existence is shaped by the desire to dream, create, imagine, be difficult, unpredictable and daring. We have throughout human history created different futures and societies, worlds where we connect with others and come together collectively.

The world of ‘The Net Delusion’ as Evgeny Morozov calls it threatens to leave us isolated and separated in a world where we have hundreds and thousands of friends on line: a world where Stephen Fry boasts this week of having over 3,000,00 Twitter followers, but at other times, bemoans anyone criticising him.

The Internet has changed our world for the better, as has the likes of Steve Jobs as I write this on my Apple MacBook Pro. But lets not mistake that for the real world.