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The Demons Aren’t In The Machine

At university I took an intensive class on the work of Sigmund Freud by a professor who had worked training psychoanalysts. The reading list immersed us in Freud’s writings from the letters to Fliess, the early work with Breuer, all of the case studies and well into The Interpretation of Dreams and beyond. We would take anonymous dream reports from clinic patients and attempt to interpret them without context, using the tools we’d acquired. It was surprising how often we got quite close to the crux of the psychological issue.

Since that time I’ve always felt uncomfortable in casual social situations where someone wants to tell me about this strange dream they had last night. Of course, it’s always intended in an “isn’t this weird, dreams are inexplicable” kind-of-way. I’m always careful to keep my gaze on the surface of the words, while ignoring the demons screeching and flying out of the depths of the metaphors. Two distinct realities seem to occupy the same space along different dimensions.

I was reminded of this eruption of id among the everyday while reading Adam Gopnik’s assessment of the recent spate of books on the inevitability of the Network and the end of the book in a recent New Yorker magazine. The essay is called, The Information, How the Internet gets inside us. Gopnik seems to expose something completely invisible to the technorati. To those who see the Network as an entirely rational space of organized and accessible information, the demons flying round the room occupy a withdrawn dimension.

Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something. What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there: you click once and you can read about the Kennedy autopsy or the Nazi salute or hog-tied Swedish flight attendants. But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interaction with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own.

When we talk about the Network having a bottom-up structure, generally we’re referring to the process of folksonomy as opposed to a top-down taxonomy. Or perhaps we refer to finally having the participation levels and processing power to harness an infinite number of typing monkeys to efficiently produce the works of Shakespeare at a tidy profit. However, there’s another sense in which the Network is bottom up. As Clay Shirky sometimes says, everything is published and we edit later. The bottom encompasses all of our baseness.

In Freudian terms, we publish the id and then attempt to re-establish order by adding the ego and super-ego. When Freud describes the id, he talks about contrary impulses existing side by side without canceling each other out, about a life-force without any sense of negation, a striving to bring about the satisfaction of instinctual needs only subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.

Gopnik ties this bottom-up publishing of everything into the familiar pattern of the flaming comment:

Thus the limitless malice of Internet commenting: it’s not newly unleashed anger but what we all think in the first order, and have always in the past socially restrained if only thanks to the look on the listener’s face—the monstrous music that runs through our minds is now played out loud.

Marshall McLuhan talked about how the medium of television bypassed personal and societal censors and poured directly into the nerves.

TV goes right into the human nervous system, it goes right into the midriff. The image pours right off that tube into the nerves. It’s an inner trip, the TV viewer is stoned. It’s addictive.

Television enabled images from all over the world, in high volumes, to be moved from the outside to the inside. The Network makes the reverse movement possible. In his essay, Gopnik makes an insightful observation about the unsocial nature of our contemporary social networks:

A social network is crucially different from a social circle, since the function of a social circle is to curb our appetites and of a network to extend them. Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet … has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.

The social graph extends the inputs and outputs of the nervous system while bypassing the social functions that provide a level of reflection—we’ll edit later. Gopnik points out that the problem with the constant interruptions, change of focus and multitasking while we multitask isn’t one of a rational mind having to focus among a panoply of options, but rather that of a glutton alone in his room, limited to only one mouth and faced with a smorgasbord of immense proportions. In our solitude we all are individually transformed into Brecht’s Baal or Shakespeare’s Falstaff. A Network fueled by a raging pleasure principle confronts the reality of the seven deadly sins with an emphasis on gluttony.

The shattering of attention into tiny shards is the metaphor that has caught our fancy. It’s this symptom that must be the source of our pain. As our attention is shattered, so is our identity and our capacity to focus. Gopnik puts this observation into historical perspective:

The odd thing is that this complaint… is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

Of course, anyone who can walk into a library and find a book, select some toothpaste from a display in a large drugstore or find a couple of stories they’d like to read in the Sunday New York Times can probably deal with all these tiny shards of attention that we’re confronted with on the Network. Perhaps the pain has more to do with the demons we wrestle with as we jack in to the Network. And while it seems like the demons are released from the Network the moment we flick the connection on— it turns out the demons aren’t in the machine at all.

Published in culture desire network social graph tribes


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