Unfriending the Anthropocene
In the fallout of the information age, society is shifting towards an increasingly integrated, yet tenuous relationship with technology and the internet.
New media has given us a freer press, but more powerful tools for state surveillance and corporate consolidation. The 24/7 connectedness of social networking has enabled us to transcend borders and map global revolutions, but to the point we’re at risk of losing touch with our local communities. Knowledge and validation has become the primary currency in which we trade, equipped with cognitive add-ons to sublimate the reality that we are lonelier, starved for meaning, and more narcissistic than ever. We have become highly innovative and advanced with our techno-visionary ideals of progress, but at what cost to our needs for meaningful relationship, holistic wellbeing and the planet?
Hands shaking at my keyboard with tears streaming down my face on a brutal, unforgiving December night, suddenly reality hits that a seven year friendship can end with a single mouse click. Nine months later, the new friends I planned to move in with unexpectedly announce the relocation of their business venture interstate, where we hurriedly sent our best wishes and goodbyes over Facebook.
We were told it was supposed to be empowering to broaden our ever-thinning networks, and in some ways it was — for indie crowdfunders, promising social enterprises, minority groups and geographically isolated activists to efficiently organise through global solidarity. The internet became a safe place where troubled misfits and underground creatives could finally upload and express their ‘true selves’, as long as they were always one step ahead of the FOMO (fear of missing out, for the digital non-natives among us) curve, hyper-vigilant not to compare their behind the scenes to everybody else’s highlight reel. It was empowering if your self-branded following was globally competitive and lucratively sponsored, if you had little trouble cultivating close relationships in the real world, and only turned to social media as a supplement rather than a substitute.
As a member of the digital native generation, I’ve closely experienced both the benefits and challenges of being raised by the internet. Gen Y is likely to be more educated and freethinking as a result of self-directed learning and independent media, but also susceptible to unverified, questionably sourced beliefs, passive distractions and poorly designed inspirational platitude memes. Viral content often falls short in spreading the brightest ideas of the hive mind, since the internet remains a mirror of society, no better than our self-medicating addiction to trash TV, favouring the vacuously popular over anything remotely philosophically challenging. Our online identities have curated an information revolution, yet turned us into products, where our personal tastes, stories, likes and dislikes are exploited in the form of company shares and advertising assets.
The PBS report, Generation Like, exposes the growing collusion between online ‘identity capital’ and corporate endorsement. Major brands are bypassing the need to advertise directly to consumers by manipulating fans to freely and tirelessly do it for them instead — from self-promoting YouTube hauls to instagram flay-lays, sponsored product reviews and coveted fashion blogs. Everything is documented, re-appropriated, insta-tagged, reblogged, livestreamed or data-retained, rather than mindfully experienced. Alone together, online socialites continue to pour their hearts out on blogs for likes, and hopefully a book deal, while superficial connection dominates the subtext, feeding narcissistic trolls through a pervasive scarcity of empathy and eye contact.
In the domain of personal relationships, our technocratic anthropocene has been branded “the Age of Loneliness” by Guardian writer, George Monbiot. Smacked with stigma and superimposed unattractiveness, today’s generation are test subjects in a Facebook-manipulated chicken-or-egg experiment: does social media make us lonely or do lonely people gravitate towards social media? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Cuddle cafés in Tokyo and New York snuggeries have scored a profitable market among lost and lonely upper-middle class professionals, whose busy lives and buzzing blackberries have left them chronically deprived of human touch and affection. Pretending to be busy on your phone in scary social situations is a legitimate thing, labelled an “avoidance behaviour” in anxiety therapy circles, while hell is any place without wifi or ATMs. Between disposable Tinder swipes and snapchat D&Ms, the religion of our time is self-made individualism, where the pursuit of love and intimacy is a mere form of status anxiety, a pathological fear of not having it all.
Spike Jonze’s 2014 film, Her, quintessentially depicts this phenomenon. Set in the not-too-distant future, Theodore (played by Ryan Gosling), a professional love-letter writer and heartbroken divorcee, develops a touching and uncanny relationship with an artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (played by Scarlett Johanssen.) Exploring philosophical themes on the qualia and poiesis of A.I. consciousness, the film poignantly portrays the melancholy depths of longing entangled within modernity’s symbiotic relationship to anthropomorphised machines. As the virtually omniscient Samantha learns to feel complex emotions through their relationship, Theodore grapples with his ever-growing attachment to her ephemerally disembodied, transhuman nature, which defies mortality, and exists ‘beyond space and time.’ Technology is portrayed in a poetically benevolent light through Samantha’s digital creations, transcending physical limitation as though it were a breath of life in a washed out city. The characters in the film are afflicted with existential anxiety when the operating systems upgrade and disappear from the market, leaving them in an awed state of surrender to once again seek solace in each other’s company.
Collapse: There’s an App for that
In The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture In the Digital Age, journalist and documentary filmmaker, Astra Taylor argues that the internet has not created a freer world, untethered from the inequitable growth paradigm of our current system. While social media has been a democratising force behind pivotal social movements such as Occupy, the Arab Spring and Ferguson protests, it has also strengthened and consolidated the commercial interests of entrenched, increasingly powerful institutions. Technocratic capitalism has enabled Wall Street firms to trade derivatives at faster rates, governments to subvert civil liberties under mass surveillance, marketing and insurance companies to track risky clients, and globalised inequality to soar as corporations use predatory trade deals to protect investors and expand their global empires online.
The ubiquity of user-generated content, reflecting our intrinsic creative drive to share, connect and enrich the commons has yet to produce a level playing field for cultural democracy, protecting the rights and integrity of the independent arts, grassroots media, political dissidents and whistleblowers.
The future of growing tech consumption could be even bleaker for the environment; as planned obsolesce clutters up foreign landfills serviced by cheap labour, we unknowingly comply to ‘data mining’ natural habitats for rare earth metals in the hopes that it will someday lead to being retweeted by sock-puppet accounts of out-of-reach celebrities. All the cool kids camp out like good consumers for the latest gadgets, queues scribbling out in fluorescent malls and concrete car parks, yet climate activists and blockaders are maced and arrested for catching the sunrise, daring to imagine the need for sustainable, technological degrowth.
Silver Linings In the Cloud
Despite the binary, often polarising nature of such debates, dividing both sides into techno-optimists versus techno-skeptics, Taylor advocates a more nuanced understanding of looming technological challenges. The internet may be changing the structure of our brains and eroding face to face relationships, but it is also one of our most effective tools for reaching a global audience and catalysing collective change. David Cain, author of radical self-help blog, Raptitude, posits that networked communication is humanity’s grand attempt at globally replicating our ancestors’ tribal, egalitarian methods of direct democracy, such as congregating around the campfire.
“People start printing their thoughts, and in no time at all they start overthrowing kings and tyrants, and calling out institutions on their cruelty. All of these changes are the result of sharing ideas about better and worse ways to run a society. You and I are, at this moment, doing what ancestors couldn’t for thousands of years. We are sharing ideas, across class lines, across borders, even across language barriers. We are talking about who we are, what we value and where we want to go, and we could potentially include many millions of others in this conversation.”
As users and developers begin to navigate in the web in more socially conscious, sophisticated ways, people are waking up to an imperative futurist Buckmeister Fuller forecasted 30 years ago, “We never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, we need a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Grassroots, open source decision making platforms, such as liquid democracy, and advertising-free social networking sites, such as Ello.com, among many others, are gradually emerging to fill the void. Leading the collaborative consumption movement are time-banking initiatives (such as. LETS.org.au), free and flexible education programs (MOOCs, University of the People), trust-driven communities (Meetup, couch surfing, car sharing, etc.), and online gifting economies such as friendswiththings.com and impossible.com, which encourage users to give, receive and ask for their needs to be met unconditionally through pro-social currency. Such online initiatives share a common intention to connect, and leverage local communities through direct cooperation, rather than armchair clicktivism and consumerism.
Humans have been drawn to the web for the same reason we may try to distance ourselves from it — the need for connection, to create and collaborate, expand our understandings, and express to the world that we exist inherently drives us as social beings. Although a number of deep green tribes may choose to eschew the tainted offerings of industrial civilisation altogether, some of the people fighting hardest to save our planet are doing so because of the internet; we needn’t adopt a hardcore primitivist lifestyle in order to think critically about our relationship with technology. The social media revolution has yet to reach its highest potential or give us the balance we crave because it’s up to us to do the inner work — to address our vulnerable, unmet need for authentic connection, consume gadgets less wastefully, and make a conscious effort to use our collective intelligence for altruism and community over isolation and self-indulgence.