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What we talk about when we talk about (online) worry

July 24, 2012

I recently read a post that Richard Harper wrote earlier this year that works through discomfort with Facebook in terms of time.  Harper argues that for users in his research with Eryn Whitworth, there’s “something about the experience of Facebook affects their sense of the past, the future, of how the temporal arrangements of their doings normally are.”  This reminded me of a 2007 post by William Merrin that applies Caillois’ work on mimesis as an inability to distinguish oneself from one’s surroundings to social media interactions.  Mimesis for Caillois enabled thinking about evolution, reshaping bodies and behaviors in terms of disambiguation (or not) from one’s species-based peer group. Merrin adapted this to behavior and interactions online, writing, “In social networking this mimetic process takes several forms, from the voluntary incorporation of the self into the environment, to the forced conformity to the profile templates and the choice of applications that, more often than not, follows and mimics those that ones’ ‘friends’ have added and recommended. What this produces is a resemblant self: a self that resembles not its originator but instead all the other virtual selves. What one constructs has a far close morphological relationship with all other profiles than it does with the being outside who constructs it.”

The posts are linked in trying to locate the exhaustion produced by exposure to social media (Merrin: “The exhaustion one feels after a period of time online is not physical strain but something more: an exhaustion with one’s interests and with one’s interest in life itself. If you look at profile after profile, list after list and application after application, your own self begins to renounce its spirit.” Harper: “This present is feeble, without rich temporal colour: no subtle looking back at the present, looking at the past from the future, looking at the present from the past. And because of this, Facebook somehow tyrannizes its users. Facebook freaks people out: ‘it’s too like now’.”). Drawing on theories of affect and philosophies of time and space is (I think) a much more interesting way of talking about information overload than, say, technical management of resources.  But I’m also interested in a shift of pathology that can be mapped onto these descriptions of online communication. 

One way of positioning these two posts is in terms of space and time (I’m sort of obsessed with this division right now, for the simple reason that it’s how I’m conceptually making sense of the dissertation I’m attempting to write this summer).  Merrin’s post is about the online spaces that get produced through use of social media, resulting in a mimesis not only in terms of profiles and pages, but also, he argues, in a distance between online and offline selves.  Merrin talks about metaphors of psycasthenia and schizophrenia, noting the utility for these neuroses for theorists from Caillois to Baudrillard.  Harper’s post discusses shifting paradigms for thinking of time in terms of linear intentionality versus a layered fluidity as far as making sense of human action.  Although Harper is less explicit in terms of pathology, the emphasis on time, nowness and attention reminded me of a Jonathan Lethem quote from The Ecstasy of Influence: “I’m not terribly interested in whether real, brain-chemically-defined Asperger’s is over- or underdiagnosed, or whether it exists at all except as a metaphor. I’m interested in how vital the description feels lately. Is there any chance the Aspergerian retreat from affective risk, in favor of the role of alienated scientist-observer, might be an increasingly ‘popular’ coping stance in a world where corporations, machines, and products flourish within their own ungovernable systems?”

I think there’s a utility in tracking social explanation for behavior in terms of pathology in that it associates discomfort with a given technology with a facet of human behavior.  It’s interesting to me that these posts track discomfort with social media by oscillating between space and time precisely because it coincides with a Caillois leveraging of schizophrenia and disambiguation, and Lethem pointing to disorders of attention. What can we read into shifting metaphors of describing technologies as they affect people biologically, psychologically? It’s to be expected that as technologies evolve, so do the pathologies that we map onto those technologies as manifestations of our concerns about contingent pscyho-social consequences for their use. Sometimes, worries about how technological change is affecting human interaction are posited in terms of turning us into machines, abstracting things like human communication or compassion.  What I like about tracing metaphors of pathology is that it retains an insistence on thinking of people as people (Caillois’ implicit comparisons between people and cannibalistic slugs aside), but shifts the construction of people-ness.  (As an aside, I’m reminded of a recent New York Times article on study drugs as pinpointing worries of technology, pressure, adulthood, bodies and work.  It’s not that we’re worried about kids working too hard, per se, it’s that we’re worried that they’re coping by turning to pharmaceutical drugs.)  If there is a shift in thinking about online life from space to time, what does this say about the functions and roles and utilities of these technologies in terms of what it means to be human? To our social worlds, online and off? To encounter and use (and misuse) technologies in everyday life? To how we think about possibilities for designing and using emergent technologies? 

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