Existential FOMO and the Internet

You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.

Cynicism about digital communication is what initially characterizes Paul O’Rourke, the existentially anguished dentist narrator at the heart of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again At A Decent Hour. The novel is partly existential, but at the same time extremely wry in the manner of its philosophizing. In it, Paul O’Rourke, a successful but socially-inept dentist undergoes a temporary crisis brought about by a patient impersonating him online. This is not, however, some kind of financial thriller or tech-mystery, but a work that uses the Internet and digital communication to frame a contemporary existential anxiety. Paul’s identity is stolen by someone claiming to be part of a religion he has never heard of, and the central strand wherein we learn about the Ulms and their relationship to the Jewish faith runs in tandem with Paul’s own particularly contemporary search for meaning and connection.

Ferris shows us the contradictory ethical position on Internet communication and smart phones which we see posited daily in Western society. That is, things that encourage personal digital communication (i.e. smart phones, “me machines” as they are referred to derogatorily by Paul) lessen our ability to be concerned with, or by, other people. Speaking hypothetically to a patient, Paul outlines the extreme position, where the meta-data about the event takes the place of the event itself:

[Y]ou’re no longer able to sit in the waiting room and not check your e-mail no matter how sick your kid is. I know, I have a waiting room, I see it happen all the time. Even in the emergency room, you’d be texting and e-mailing and tweeting about how your kid was in the emergency room and how worried you were.

This perspective chimes with the narrator’s general cynicism about all of developed society – it’s the easiest way he finds of chastising a developed social world that he can’t connect to; later while alone, he ironically toasts the “frittatas and sex tapes”, “personal brand maintenance” and “echo-chamber[s] and reflecting pool[s]” of the millennial generation. When he cuts off Internet access at his dental surgery, however, Ferris makes him appear a foolish philistine, and the novel is one that acknowledges the hypocrisy of its narrator. Paul’s position on digital communication is a form of fear which turns into social anxiety – that the Internet presents to me all the things that I could be doing, but am not:

liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever? Where does this idea of greater connection come from? I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected. It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected.

The irony comes in that although Paul is one of those disconnected, throughout the novel his internet use becomes more and more involved. He himself concedes he is a regular internet user and that this has happened mostly without his realizing:

It wouldn’t have caused me such grief if my repulsion and eventual capitulation to the emoticon had not mirrored my larger struggle with the Internet itself. I tried my best to fend off the Internet’s insidious seduction, until at last all I did – at chairside, on the F train, supine upon the slopes of Central Park – was gaze into my me-machine and lose myself on the Internet.

The problem comes when you have very little self to lose on the internet. Within Ferris’s novel is an assumption about the Internet as a tool to present the self, or an extension of the self, which developed in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Paul is constantly anxious that the people in his day-to-day life know that the person acting in his name online is not him, and some of the central conflicts come in discussions over iPads, the critiquing of tweets by his former lover Connie and coworker Betsy Convoy. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour shows the Internet of Web 2.o, where the concept of a digital world is one which corresponds exactly to everyday lived experience, where embodied self and internet self are seen by society as one and the same thing, in that one creates and informs the other.

Paul’s initial hostility to social media and digital communication can be connected to his fears about whether or not he is a person with a coherent and meaningful identity. At one point, Connie tells Paul that he should tell everyone who he really is, to be outraged about the fake-Paul online, but this serves to highlight that Paul himself is struggling with the idea of how to define himself, especially while alone. Even for an online identity to be a subversion, it has to be a subversion of a social face that you are clear about, or happy with. A form of hyper self-awareness is required. For Ferris’s protagonist, confrontation with the Internet actually becomes confrontation with himself. He lacks clarity about how to connect to others, as typified by the manner in which he falls in love, allowing himself to be defined by his relationship to another. The novel can be seen as Ferris’ working through the ways in which Paul “emailing with [him]self” – that is, engaging in a dialogue with the man who is impersonating him – is a method of reevaluating his place in the world.

The most significant moments of this reevaluation are those when Paul is alone in his apartment, attempting to understand the existential anxiety that overtakes him. He feels loneliness keenly, due to the suicide of his father when he was still a young boy, and this event frames Paul’s nihilism:

The night was now as dark as it could get, and from thinking of how dark the night was and of my forfeited options, I proceeded to think of how alike this one night might be to my last night on earth, when all options, and not just one night’s options, expired. Every night was a night of limitless possibility expired, of a life forfeited, of a foreclosed opportunity to expand, explore, risk, hope, and live.

Sublime images  of destruction follow this fear – flooding, storms, wars, everything “sweet and surprising [going] dark against the vast backdrop of the universe”. With this, Paul gets out of bed and checks his email, where there is “still no answer” from whoever is impersonating him online. He also calls Connie, who doesn’t answer, and in this moment the “me-machine” becomes an engine of paranoia, where Paul “has to conclude that at the moment she might have been calling or sending me a text, not only was she doing neither, in all likelihood she wasn’t even thinking about me.”

At the moment where things are as dark as they can get, and where Paul feels most alone (he imagines all the other insomniacs finally asleep) he searches for assurance that another human being is thinking about him. The digital communication Paul loathes and fears is used by Ferris as a way of emphasizing his alienation at the same time as it is a conduit for “limitless possibility”. There is an inherent tension in his relationship to this kind of communication; the desperate need for the connection but the desire not to find rejection. This is the same character who religiously watches tapes of the Red Sox on VCR, where there is only a one way conduit – where possibilities are fixed, where nothing is missed. There is just a controlled nostalgia, one that is individualized, without dialogue, or the need to connect to another, or with the concurrent fear of missing a connection. At a later point, the same desperation for connection is seen in a similarly dark and lonely moment, but he doesn’t only hope for Connie, but for anyone to have connected:

I felt so forgotten, so passed over, so left behind, so lost out. I was sure not only that everything worth doing had already been done while I was asleep but also that, now that I was awake, there was no longer anything worth doing. The solution at desperate moments like this was always to find something to do, and I mean anything, as quickly as possibly. My first instinct was to reach for my me-machine. It put me in instant touch, it gave me instant purpose. Maybe Connie had called or texted or emailed, or Mercer, or… but no. No one had called or emailed or texted.

Paul still reaches for his device, but it is the possibility for connection that he is searching for. He is disconnected, and becoming “more disconnected” through the possibilities that he can never fulfill. In this sense, his confrontation with the Internet can be constructed as one around his own desires, something which can never be fulfilled.

The novel does partly resolve, with a shift in Paul’s perspective on what it is to live a meaningful life. The end of the novel is framed by discussions on the Ulm wikipedia page and e-mails from a newly married Connie. The Internet becomes an unspoken part of Paul’s new outlook, where limitless possibility exist as a path to follow – to just “do it all” – rather than a reason to shun connection. Ferris’s novel tells us to get on with living in every form available, to remain aware that fear of being alone in a society on the Internet is a kind of existential FOMO – if someone else is doing it, why should I do any of it at all?
Bibliography:
Ferris, J. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Viking, London, 2014

Krapp’s Last Facebook Memories

Are we okay with Facebook Memories now? I came across a way of thinking about them while reading Alex Goody’s excellent Technology, Literature and Culture. She reads Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape using ideas around cyborgs and the technologized body, influenced by Donna Haraway. She discusses the role that the tapes play in Krapp’s attempt to coherently understand himself. Krapp, the sole actor, is a man of 69 who listens to tapes of himself speaking, giving accounts, from the previous years of his life. The entire play is a form of monologue, shared between the physical Krapp on stage and the various disembodied technologized versions of him we hear through the tapes. Discussing the effect of this dramatic device on notions of identity in Beckett’s text, Goody writes:

what it seems to offer is the possibility of transcending the mutability of the physical self by fixing a material embodiment of the self which can be infinitely retrieved. The machine seems to offer Krapp the chance of extending himself through technology […] the same memories, preoccupations, hopes and anxieties endlessly repeating themselves.

It’s this notion of infinite retrieval which made me think of Facebook Memories. It occurs to me that, in the future, we might receive a notification which is a memory of a memory – something we reshared last year will become something to remember in the next. This raises questions about how this archival revenant, a daily visit from the goon squad, influences our understanding of subjectivity – and might even alter what we think of as a memory. Is the effect of an archive of the self in fact to emphasize in an everyday mechanism that we can’t think of ourselves as a continuous subject? It points at the patchwork lives and narratives which you’ve chronicled thus far without any kind of lens or bias – because it was you who put it there before. Looking at a memory on Facebook instantly recreates a kind of physical echo, because you’re there, looking at Facebook. Goody articulates for us:

Technology which allows us to archive physical versions of ourselves, which can be reactivated at any future point, forces us to ask questions about the materiality or not of our consciousness and the status of our identity in time and space.

So how should we ask these questions, and what kind of answer might we get near? For Krapp, at least, Goody sees these technologized selves as serving to highlight the difficulty of grasping one’s own identity, or put another way, of the impossibility of gaining a perspective on the present self:

[Krapp’s selves] multiply in the technological prostheses that outlive him. The tragedy of the play is that these selves are fundamentally non-coincident so that, even as technological subject, the individual can never be present to himself.

Facebook memories provides a version of this concept, I think. In one respect, it’s a twee social media gimmick, an archive which is designed to package nostalgia, to the extent that you can do your own form of digital  curation-cum-repression (“Didn’t like that ‘memory’? We can make it go away for you.”) But perhaps it’s more effectively seen as a version of Krapp’s tapes, an observing of a technological self. It can remind us to ask questions about how we understand ourselves from year to year, not in a the form of some plastic nostalgia, but by reminding us that we’re not really one fixed person, but part of a number of different non-coincident narratives. The bigger tragedy is a life – the previous stuff that someone who was a bit like us was part of – forgotten, repressed, not remembered even by the self. Rather examine, reconsider and remake the disembodied, technological selves into another narrative, accepting both the loss and the gain of viewing the past.

 

References:

Goody, A. Technology, Literature and Culture. (Cambridge: Polity) 2011

“An Opening Into Something”: New Media Connection in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

“Without a sense of how weird the present is — how potentially weird the present is — it became impossible for me to judge how much weirder I should try to make an imagined future.” – William Gibson

I’ve just finished William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003). Anyone who isn’t familiar with his work is probably more aware of his influence than they think. Without Gibson, for example, The Matrix probably wouldn’t exist, having taken its cue from his seminal science-fiction novel Neuromancer (1984), where we first find the concept of cyberspace articulated.

I’m interested in Gibson for two reasons. Firstly, because of how his recent writing provides a unique perspective on twenty-first century genre. With Pattern Recognition, which is the first in the Blue Ant trilogy, we see an established sci-fi author alter the boundary between serious literary fiction and science fiction. Furthermore, Gibson’s line above acknowledges what has been a strand in literary criticism on the contemporary, that the now is too interesting in and of itself – he’s a significant commentator on how we understand the contemporary. The second is that, having only read Neuromancer earlier this summer (and becoming a complete evangelist for it in the process, telling all and sundry that this was a work of sci-fi that is still extremely powerful in the present day), I was keen to see how Gibson’s style has developed up until this point.

Pattern Recognition makes free use of new media interaction. Gibson understands the proliferation of this kind of communication as significant to human experience. These forms of signification, the descriptions of screen-time, connection and online communities are central to the messages if the novel, and arguably the most important and essential relationships we see are almost wholly conditioned by technological interaction.

The protagonist is Cayce, who works as a kind of finder for a form of postmodern ad agency, identifying “cool” when she sees it, understanding which logos and designs will work simply by a form of intuition. It is an ability which works the other way too, with brands she finds disturbing causing an extreme phobic response. She becomes embroiled in a hunt for the maker of the Footage, an internet film phenomenon. The Footage is a modular avant-garde event, sections of film released sporadically and anonymously, one which has garnered a cult following online. Cayce is part of F:F:F, Fetish:Footage:Forum, a site dedicated to intricate and impassioned discussion of the origin, style and possible purpose of the Footage.

Gibson’s thriller plot is essentially a holding pattern for Cayce’s interactions with the community, and with her own struggles to maintain a grip on her jet-lagged soul. Her constant travel across the globe means that she is constantly out-of-sync with the cities in which she resides. Her moments of connection – the screens, the community – provide some level of personal security:

It is a way now, approximately, of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar cafe that exists somehow outside of natural geography and beyond time zones.

The community is expertly drawn by Gibson (there have a developed vocabulary for delineating which hermeneutic gang various users are in – “Kubrick’s Garage” or “Spielberg’s Closet?”). For Cayce, the community around the Footage, and the Footage itself, provide a connection which she otherwise lacks. When asked if it’s just that she’s reading too much into it, she confirms that there is something ineffable, either in the footage itself, or in the process, which keeps her returning:

I’ve wanted to believe it, simply in order to let the thing go. But then I go back and look at it again, and there’s that sense of … I don’t know. Of an opening into something. Universe? Narrative?

Cayce constantly struggles to comprehend the narrative she is part of, or the universe that has allowed her father to go missing. F:F:F provides a form of imaginative understanding that helps to augment her personal understanding. This kind of interaction is not a complete comfort and saviour, but it does provide the displaced person with a temporary sense of connection, and thus control.

Cayce makes reference to metaphors of the soul because of her disjunction from time zones and the constantly weirder events that take place in them. The constant is her internet connection, her ability to read correspondence those few figures in her life which help to ground her one form of fixed and controllable identity. Her personal proximity with Parkaboy – an influential user on the F:F:F site – increases throughout the novel, even while geographical proximity becomes so distant and multifarious as not to matter. Cayce acknowledges the shift in proximity, the movement of F:F:F into her reality, as something physical – a negating of the metaphor of screen world:

She looks at the phone and wonders who Parkaboy is […] But now, in some way she can’t quite grasp, the universe of F:F:F is everting. Manifesting physically in the world.

The very structure of the novel acknowledges that new media connections serve multiple essential purposes, but that one of its main functions is to do with the texture of loneliness. Cayce is utterly lonely throughout the novel, and the increasing recurrence of e-mail communication provides a foundation, the potential of close human connection, which might bring her soul back in check, cope finally with the loss of her father. Later in the novel, when her sense of displacement is most acute, she keeps searching for the right connection through those familiar portals:

Checking her mail.
Timing out, empty.
Sleep no longer an issue […]
Showers.
Does not think.

Most of the varying narrative strands are in fact concluded through e-mail correspondence, as though confirming that these are narratives Cayce now, part-resolved, can comfortably sees herself as legible element of. In this sense, the ethical question at the centre of the novel is around how to maintain connections that will keep us in existence. For Gibson, comprehending and gaining some control over the narratives which make up our existence, and maintaining the identities which allow us to understand and control our lives, is an act that is supplemented by new media connection.  He understands that new technologies become a part of us, because they constantly redefine what it means to be present, or consistently alive:

We seldom legislate new technologies into being. They emerge, and we plunge with them into whatever vortices of change they generate. We legislate after the fact, in a perpetual game of catch-up, as best we can, while our new technologies redefine us – as surely and perhaps as terribly as we’ve been redefined by broadcast television.

If Pattern Recognition could be called a novel that chronicles one form of plunge into the vortices of change, then it readily accepts and describes the redefinition that comes with it. New media, technologically-conditioned-communication, is another way of trying to play the game of catch-up with the soul, of working out ways of being less alone.

 

References:

Gibson, W. Pattern Recognition (2003)

Wired Interview with William Gibson

‘God’s Little Toys’ – William Gibson on Art, the Remix and Technology

On William Gibson’s Neuromancer