The internet is a void. The internet is a void supported by a ghost cage of class consciousness that provides a platform for underrepresented voices. The internet is a voidfish. The internet is a void that sits atop an even larger void created by a slave trade that stripped the history from innumerable people.
The internet of today is not the internet we once knew: it is no longer private; it is no longer about broadcasting to a group (a la Tumblr circa 2009, a la the early pings of AOL Instant Messenger); instead, as — Daniel Miller points out in Social Media in an English Village — the internet and social media (in the U.K., at least) “has created a range from private to public and from small to larger groups, replacing the traditional opposition between the private dyad and the public broadcast.” It is a small ‘something’ that needs a reason to be itself that hovers over …
How do we fix the void? It seems that part of our attempt to fix the void has been to speak clearly — to signpost — but we must do more than signpost. We put passion behind our signposts so that our signposts can be seen — and they often are — but that so often seems to create a feedback loop that leaves some seemingly stuck forever arguing the same point in the same register. The market is as such that some gain success and critical acclaim from pursuing and feeding the same loop again and again.
Meanwhile: we binge-watch. We receive distributed rewards to our attention, but we never feel like we’ve had our fill. We accidentally ring the bells of our own confirmation bias along the way. A company pushes us in a certain direction in the name of vertical integration. Repeat.
In a way, this answers some of the sketched-out questions that were raised at the beginning of “Against The Mobius Strip of American Politics” — and somewhat explains the animating drive to nail down the meaning of everything vis-a-vis a ‘textual act’: the reason why we are confused by seeing left-leaning activists going after Ted Wheeler and Steve King going after children bump up against each other in the seemingly same space is because there isn’t a broader cultural understanding and acceptance of the geography of the internet: instead, it’s treated as a void. It’s the obvious ‘there.’ We put out energy into the ecosystem of the void to tame the void — but that might not be its purpose. It — like the quarry in Faulkner’s Light in August — “lay there … impenetrable, its garland of Augusttremulous lights. It might have been the original quarry, abyss itself.”
It puts me in mind of what Finn Brunton at NYU told me three years ago —
I dream of a network where the humans are at the periphery rather than the center. A network optimized for sensor traffic and signals from sequoias, beehives, comets, tides, mangrove deltas, buildings and bridges, dogs and cats, aquifers, ice sheets, abyssal squid, quasars. A network reflecting a world where our passing concerns are not the most important thing. I have absolutely no idea how this would work, or what it would look like, or why we would build, but I have actual REM sleep dreams about it.
—and whether or not the shift (or a shift — of any kind) will ever arrive.
A bot will message you a story reflecting a point of view opposite your own. One company seeks to “Develop[…] public sphere health metrics.” Another seeks to offer “balanced perspective on trending news stories by showing compelling arguments on different sides of a debate.” And yet — mindful of data regarding how many people go online in the U.S. compared to how many people use Facebook versus how many people use Twitter, which played into the winding thoughts of “Against The Mobius Strip” — it’s also worth noting results obtained by the Oxford Internet Institute in 2014 —
… there is a strong correlation between the number of Web pages mentioning a country and the number of Internet users in that country, with the number of Internet users accounting for more than half of the variation of the amount of content about a place. In contrast, the total population or the area of a country account for only about 33% and 16%, respectively, of the variation in amount of content about a place.
— and how these two solutions against the void omit the idea of geography entirely.
If modernity was something that could exert authority, then an example of how modernity exerted its authority would be through a variety of kinds of dislocation. (This is at least an argument as old as Max Weber, who — per Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks — described ‘disenchantment’/Entzauberung as “the distinctive injury of modernity.”) Geography is the difference between location and dislocation. Geography is important to our collective self-understanding here because it teaches us what dislocation means and what empathy means.
In a talk delivered on William Faulkner and his sense of geography, Barbara Ladd quotes Alfred North Whitehead, who writes that the body “is the organism whose states regulate our cognizance of the world,” then goes on to note Pascale Casanova’s reaction to Faulkner’s work —
But while in the centers, and especially in Paris, the technical innovations of [Faulkner] were understood and valued only as formalistic devices, in the outlying countries of the literary world they were welcome as tools of liberation.
Faulkner’s work, more than that of any other writer, henceforth belonged to the explicit repertoire of international writers in dominated literary spaces who sought to escape the imposition of national rules, for he had found a solution to a commonly experienced political, aesthetic, and literary impasse.
We’ve referenced Faulkner’s geography before, but it’s worth drawing out what we mean when we reference Faulkner’s sense of geography, what Casanova is getting at, and how all this relates to our notion of ‘the void’ here.
To set our terms, let us first turn to J. Wretford Watson —
“Our feeling flows into places,” Geoffrey Grigson writes in his anthology On Poems and Places, “and an accumulation of feeling, cultural and personal, flows back from places into our consciousness.”
Now, let us turn to one way in which Faulkner himself defines a place, as told near the end of the story “Centaur in Brass” —
Yet he spent quite a lot of his time there, sitting on the steps, not doing anything. And so they wondered what he could be looking at there, since there was nothing to see above the massed trees which shaded the town itself except the low smudge of the power plant, and the water tank. And it too was condemned now …
So they wondered what Snopes was looking at. They didn’t know that he was contemplating his monument: that shaft taller than anything in sight and filled with transient and symbolical liquid that was not even fit to drink, but which, for the very reason of its impermanence, was more enduring through its fluidity and blind renewal than the brass which poisoned it, than columns of basalt or of lead.
Now let us look how Taylor Hagood academically defines that place, as he did in Faulkner’s Imperialism —
Faulkner establishes plots of space informed by an Arcadian ethic and haunted by configurations and reconfigurations of pagan values. And he uses these places to tease out the conflicts of speech and speechlessness by invoking literal historic earth to expose the mythic layers of experience that define the mythic-imperial place and control its constituents.
How does this chain relate to Daniel Mailer noting the range of communicative choices available to an individual? How someone falling ill might feel overwhelmed by e-mails — but still might feel comfortable with texting? How someone might not like the fragmentary effects of texting — but still find themselves liking the clarity of e-mail? (How it reminds them of letters they used to receive and write?) How one parent can feel like they can’t keep up with the technology — and yet that technology also leaves them able to communicate with someone far away, someone who might be important in their child’s life? (Note: these cases are a summary of pages 21–32 in the book.)
All of these reactions to technology show someone making a choice based on changing circumstances. No one cited here in this ethnography creates their own social network that they themselves control, for instance. The internet they use has already been dominated by someone else. Even when someone uses technology for a purpose other than for what’s been intended (teenagers simply using Twitter as a platform for group banter, for instance), the technology is still being used.
How dominated is ‘dominated?’ Consider some of the information gleaned from the opening remarks and opening session of the Privacy Convention that took place near the end of February in Washington, DC: (1) e-mails are tracked far beyond send tracking (as in — someone being able to tell whether or not you’ve opened up their e-mail; one example given in one talk notes that opening a single e-mail from a single company can lead to you being tracked by 20 different companies with the possibility of ‘de-anonymizing’ your e-mail activity to 10); (2) “many of the top web trackers are in e-mails”; (3) 29% of e-mails from 19% of senders leak the e-mail address to third parties; (4) advertisers who know this also know that the use of e-mail is “deterministic and persistent”; (5) that your browser history is vulnerable if you have a browser extension; (6) that ‘Internet of Things’-enabled devices that create ‘if, then’ actions with other ‘Internet of ‘Things’-enabled devices leaves about half of 20,000 different apps open to exploitation of some kind; (7) that ‘session replay scripts’ exist on more than 99,000 of the top one million web sites (a ‘session replay script’ being a literal video of how you interact with a website — the scrolling, highlighting, hems and haws — all made available to publishers); (8) that that information isn’t secure; (9) that session replay scripts capture FERPA-protected data (beyond just health data, student data, and the like); (10) that Facebook’s advertising interface allows someone who has your personal identifying information to target you with a direct ad; (11) and that that interface enables you to access PII you might not have had initial access to — and that the barrier to accessing that information has been — up until this point, at least — very low (as it’s put at one point: “No ads placed, no victim interaction, no way for victim to detect attack.”)
So if the internet is a ‘dominated literary space’ that is no space — that is, again, a void — then what can Faulkner teach us? Do we let the system dream in total darkness? What about Robert Macfarlane’s creative fieldwork, where he notes that the Shetlandic words he learned in his travels were “so supplely suited to the place being described that it fit [the place] like a skin?” What about Black Mirror and the feeling of feeling watched? (Let alone by a very didactic Foucault?) What about Atlanta and the feeling of not being seen?
The answer to that depends where you are when you read this — or — perhaps — we can look to what very well could have been Herta Müller’s one and only tweet: