Digital Dialogue: The Implications of Our Increasingly Digitized Society
I don’t own a wrist watch. I don’t even own an alarm clock. I don’t recall exactly when or where it was, but at some point, I lost these things— or rather, shed them. I don’t read the newspaper, nor follow major television news outlets. I don’t write letters (seriously, did anyone ever write letters?). I haven’t used a landline in five years, and until very recently, my only audio experience has taken place via p2p sharing networks like Napster, Limewire, Bittorrent, etc. What does all of this mean?
As a child of the 90’s, I grew up immersed in digital technology. Indeed, it seems to me that my entire generation was born into what folks are now calling the “Information Age.” Consider that for a moment, a whole generation growing up in a culture dependent upon the convenience of digital technologies. It appears that America has entered a new stage of what Dinerstein refers to as “techo-progress,” that is, machine worship (22).
And why wouldn’t we worship these new technologies? They’ve improved our lives immensely! If I want to learn about something, just Google it. Need help finding [just about anything]? There’s an app for that. Make no mistake, this article
is no polemic on digital technology and media. No rational person would deny the convenience and ease of living that modern technology has afforded humankind. My question, however, is whether we, as a society, may be losing something with the (rapid) rise of these technologies, something distinctively human. Are we trading away a part of ourselves for the sake of these conveniences? With this in mind, the nature of my inquiry will not be calling for a total rewind necessarily, but merely a pause to consider these issues of technology and modernity.
It’s my contention that we are living in a fast-forward culture; that is, a society with a tendency to adopt and consume new technologies without ever really considering the implications of those technologies. I don’t believe I’m alone in this assumption; self-described “Neo-Luddite,” Kirkpatrick Sale, spoke in 2001, “all you have to lose are your boxes, the boxes on your desks, in your offices, in your laps. For they are all, as we now know, Pandora’s boxes” (Jones 32-3). For the past three decades, this culture has been driven [ and dominated ] by a singular force, the internet. The internet has forged new industries, new modes of communication, commerce, and exchange. It appears to me to be the most significant event in human history since the Industrial Revolution. And as society is seduced by the internet and digital media, the fast-forward metaphor becomes increasingly manifest within our culture.
One example that immediately comes to mind has been the phenomenal success of social networking websites such as Facebook. Facebook was the [debatable] brainchild of Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg, who designed “the Facebook,” as it was originally known, as a database of Harvard student and faculty profiles. Within a few short years however, that model had quickly ballooned into a global social and media giant, with more than 500 million active users worldwide according to Facebook’s website. Facebook’s mission statement reads: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Uniting people, bringing us together, right? But consider one of the more recent additions to Facebook, the “Places” option, which allows users to “check in” at different destinations, and notify their friends (and the whole world too) where they are at any given moment. Am I the only one who sees the terrible dangers here? George Orwell must be rolling over in his grave. There is something perverse and voyeuristic about it all- this societal fascination with where everyone is every second of the day. And it’s this mentality that has bred creations like Twitter, and the “status update.” And yet, the world has adopted these new medias with mouth-foaming enthusiasm, even as Zuckerberg himself privately boasts, “I don’t know why. They “trust” me. Dumb [expletives]” (Hudson).
Again, I don’t mean to pick on Facebook or Twitter or anyone else. There’s some really cool things about Facebook that I like. And besides, Facebook isn’t the only one at fault; after all, they just try to meet the demands of its users. The real problem seems to stem from within ourselves. We don’t seem to really know what’s good for us, “It is never quite true to say that in modern societies, when a social need has been demonstrated, its appropriate technology will be found” (Williams 42). Our culture seems to misunderstand what it is exactly that sits on their desks, their laps, their corner tables at the coffee shop.They observe a screen and a keyboard, they notice the concomitant results of keystrokes and mouseclicks and assume that they’re operating on a one-way conduit. But it’s not. Modern encounters with technology almost exclusively occur through a type of interface, a meeting point of [inter]action between human and machine. What our devices really embody is a portal of exchange- in both directions. And through this exchange, as we shape our technology, so too does our technology shape us.
So how is it shaping us exactly? I have already posited that contemporary internet media seems to be fostering a voyeuristic culture. But though we seem to be removing all privacy barriers in our society, we are hardly developing any genuine connections among peers. The concept of the chatroom, the instant message, the tweet, the friend request- these things are redefining communication, and not necessarily for the better. Elizabeth Bernstein, of the Wall Street Journal, laments, “One of the big problems is how we converse. Typing still leaves something to be desired as a communication tool; it lacks the nuances that can be expressed by body language and voice inflection.” Mark Poster, in his essay “The Good, the Bad, and the Virtual,” had this to say, “In such communication, the interface of the computer removes all traces of the embodied person: her voice, appearance, and gestures. The receiver of the message perceives only what is typed on the screen, and this is received from a user name that is often fictional” (Poster 532). These problems become explicit when considering the emoticon (it’s interesting that my word processor no longer throws a glaring red spellcheck indicator under that word). We developed those little smiley faces for a reason- to compensate for those idiosyncrasies of language that text failed to make intelligible. As we move from the old analog modes of communication toward this new digispeak, these subtleties seem to be slipping through the cracks. Moreover, our valuation of face time (No, not the new FaceTime on the iPhone 4) conversations also seems to be diminishing. Our very understanding of what it means to communicate has been redefined by digital social media.
The digital media landscape is also redefining our conceptions of social relationships. For example, there are no more than a half dozen people in my life that I talk to on a daily basis, and four of those are family members. The other two represent the only people on this earth that I would call “friends.” Yet, according to my Facebook profile, I have 294 friends- which is a rather modest number when compared to many of my Facebook peers. Facebook has also come to represent a sort of ritualized brand on romantic relationships; I am speaking of course about the infamous “Relationship Status.” Apparently, a relationship only becomes legitimate once it is recognized on the social network. I’ll share a little story on this point. I recently met up with an old friend one night and we went out for drinks. We were catching up, discussing what we’d been up to, when I mentioned that I’d recently started dating someone. My friend immediately asked, “So is it FBO yet?” “FBO?” I responded, quite puzzled, to which she exclaimed, “Facebook official!” When I explained that my partner had deleted her account several months ago, my friend only scoffed, “You and those arty types.” It may sound a little silly, but there is mounting evidence of the influence of digital/social media on contemporary relationships. According to British divorce firm, Divorce- Online, Facebook was cited as a contributing factor in one-fifth of the divorce petitions it processed in 2009. My point? Again, I point to the concept of the interface. As we form these new digital medias, we must be conscious of the ways in which they
simultaneously disrupt and redefine our culture. We may be forsaking the very richness of our analog lives for the cheap convenience of digital technology.
Music and the Problems of Digital Production
Music, or at least musical recording, may represent the first casualty in the digital takeover. I won’t bother with the discourses on digital piracy, academia has already contributed more than enough to this subject. My discussion aims at the metaphysical problems of digital music. I mentioned earlier that up until recently my only experience with sound and music technology took place through digital formats such as CDs and mp3s. That all changed in the Summer of 2010, when my grandmother gave me her old Zenith hi-fi stereo. A few of my audiophile friends were so excited for my ‘vinyl conversion.’ I was a bit skeptical; I had a 5th Generation iPod that I loved, and I suppose I had my friends pegged as sound snobs. My roommate and I lugged the old stereo into our apartment (it was one of those 60s era players that came in a big wooden cabinet). I remember the first album I played on it, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits album. I listened through Something in the Way She Moves, and then Carolina in My Mind. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, it was like listening to an entirely different track. I could almost feel James’ fingertips gently brushing the strings, his voice carried with a resonance I hadn’t heard before. My description will probably sound hyperbolic to some readers, but I assure you, it was a sonic epiphany. I decided to learn all I could about vinyl recording; I had to know how this worked.
Through some research, I stumbled upon the website, HowStuffWorks.com, that explained the difference between analog and digital recording, “A vinyl record is an analog recording, and CDs and DVDs are digital recordings…A digital recording takes snapshots of the analog signal at a certain rate (for CDs it is 44,100 times per second) and measures each snapshot with a certain accuracy (for CDs it is 16-bit, which means the value must be one of 65,536 possible values). This means that, by definition, a digital recording is not capturing the complete sound wave. It is approximating it with a series of steps. Some sounds that have very quick transitions, such as a drum beat or a trumpet’s tone, will be distorted because they change too quickly for the sample rate.” In other words, digital recordings represent poor facsimiles of the original analog recording, lacking the warmth, the resonance, and the nuances of sound captured in an analog recording. This process is illustrated in the graph below.
But diminished sound quality is not the only problem of digital sound technologies. In a conversation with one of my classmates, Trevor Tremaine, he observed the ephemeral quality of digital music. He has a point. I’m not talking about the fragility of digital data (though it too, is a worthy topic), but rather, the seek-ability of digital music, the option to quickly and easily scan from one part of a song to the next. This function completely disrupts the listening experience, one is unable to grasp the fullness of a work if they are not totally committed to it. Think of it like this; one can hardly grasp the totality of a novel by skimming a few pages. Indeed, it often requires several close readings before one can really understand the richness of the text. And so too is the case with music. Reducing music to a passive, forgettable listening experience undermines the full experience of a musical piece.
Troubling, too, are the physical (or lack thereof) implications of digitalized music. One of the real pleasures I find in vinyl records is holding the tangible article in my hands,
feeling the grooves of the record, hearing the soft crackle as I lay the needle down and set the record spinning. With digital music, however, the tracks are ‘compressed’ into invisible data, data I cannot feel, housed somewhere in labyrinthian circuitry. This bothers me. The feeling of detachment, of distance from the music, bears the eerie stamp of modernity.
Yet despite these problems, our fast-forward culture has all but destroyed the vinyl market, and now even digital hardcopy formats (the disk) have been pushed to the brink of extinction. So one sees that the digital movement will destroy even itself. Perhaps it is too late to reverse the damage done to musical production. The real question for our society is whether we can learn from the lessons of the digital revolution in the music industry. The analog to digital conversion in music resulted in less resonance, weaker sound; will the same be said for our society at large? As we confront a culture supersaturated in digital technology, we must be cautious, alert, diligent to the possible risks.
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Cooper, Simon. Technoculture and Critical Theory: in the Service of the Machine? London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Dinerstein, Joel. Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2003. Print.
Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture. London: Reaktion, 2002. Print.
“Is the Sound on Vinyl Records Better than on CDs or DVDs?” Howstuffworks. 11 Oct. 2000. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/question487.htm>.
Hudson, John. “Report: Zuckerberg Called Facebook Users Who Trust Him ‘Dumb’.” The Atlantic Wire. 13 May 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.theatlanticwire.com/ opinions/view/opinion/Report-Zuckerberg-Called-Facebook- Users-Who-Trust-Him-Dumb-3599>.
Jones, Steven E. Against Technology: from the Luddites to Neo- Luddism. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Poster, Mark. “The Good, the Bad, and the Virtual: Ethics in the Age of Information.” Digital Media Revisited: Theoretical and Conceptual Innovation in Digital Domains. Ed. Gunnar Liestøl, Andrew Morrison, and Terje Rasmussen. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. 521-45. Print.
Shorten, Kristin. “Couples in Strife as Facebook Cited in Divorces.” The Sunday Mail. 10 Apr. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.<http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/couples-in-strife-as- facebook-cited-in-divorces/story-e6freon6-1225852188407>.
“Statistics | Facebook.” Welcome to Facebook. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics>.
Williams, Raymond. “The Technology and Society.” Electronic Media and Technoculture. Ed. John Thornton Caldwell. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2000. 35-50. Print.
“It is natural enough to focus on digital content, whiz-bang technology, and how libraries should provide innovative services for our communities. Yet there is more going on than meets the digital eye.”—Our own Alan Inouye in his recent American Libraries piece, The Revolution Isn’t Just Digital.
I can only hope President Obama realizes how absolutely demoralizing the death of Aaron Swartz is for internet activists everywhere...
…and I hope Obama also recognizes the role his dysfunctional Department of Justice played in Aaron Swartz’ apparent suicide.
One of the worst things the US government can do is aggressively prosecute internet activists. Not only does this demonstrate contempt for this free and open platform that has democratized information, it reveals how incompetent, abusive, and arbitrary our justice system can be. Just last month, the Department of Justice decided to allow HSBC to pay them off rather than prosecute any of the bank’s executives because the bank was “too big to jail.” Yet, somehow an internet activist and kid genius is fair game, even though the organizations (JSTOR
and MIT) he is alleged to have “hacked” decided not to pursue criminal or civil charges.
Obama needs to get his Department of Justice in check because shit like this makes the justice system appear not only out of touch with digital culture, but it completely contradicts the ideals of our Founding Fathers. In a truly free and democratic society, internet hacktivists would be celebrated for procuring and sharing information that is for the good of the people. Instead, the Justice Department exercised out-dated computer laws to punished Swartz as severely as possible (potentially 50 years in jail for a victimless crime). In a totalitarian state, such actions might be seen as typical: if the government disapproves of what one of their citizens is encouraging, they manipulate the law to force that citizen to capitulate.
The worst response to Aaron Swartz’ death for the Obama Administration would be to not respond at all. Something needs to be done because it seems, more than ever, that the equalizing force the internet provides is being misinterpreted by the US government—a government who would rather demonstrate that the law is on the side of (intellectual) property owners rather than being a neutral force for the good of all of her citizens. Digital property is not the same as material property, but it will be decades before those in positions of power comprehend the consequences of this reality. Until then, Aaron Swartz will be remembered as a crusader in the battle for democratizing knowledge, and I hope that Obama understands that.