The Search For Meaning In A Virtual World
"We burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the infinite. But our groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses."
-- Blaise Pascal, quoted in Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self
Sprawled across the MSN home page on the morning of June 11, 2003 were these headlines:
-- Should You Rent Or Buy?
-- Health Snacks To Avoid
-- Flicks To Get 'Dumberer' [sic]
-- Last Minute Dad Gifts
-- Check Your Credit (free)
-- Enhance Your Broadband With MSN 8
-- Where To Eat Sinful Treats
-- Help! My Boyfriend Is A Cheapskate Date
And blinking across the AOL welcome page the very next day were these:
-- "One Suave Guy, 50 Jilted Ladies: Smooth-Talking Colonel Was A Serial Proposer"
-- "Meeting of the Mindless: Lloyd & Harry Take Stupidity To New Lows"
-- "Summer Looks From Top To Toe"
-- "Be The Belle Of The Beach"
-- "Order A Gift For Dad Today"
It's possible that the guy who writes the headers for MSN also writes them for AOL. This would explain a lot.
Notice how the reader is addressed as a consumer, not a citizen, as a member of an amorphous, dumbed-down mass rather than as a thoughtful individual. The stories appeal to our frivolous side, and the whole thing smacks of marketing shenanigans (as do so many other things these days), with the domain of common interests being exhausted by shopping, dating, entertainment, and health issues.
A trivial matter, barely worth mentioning -- except that social reality today consists of so many such instants. I can imagine people glancing at the MSN/AOL pages for a split second and instantly clicking them off, relegating the editorial to the category of the stupid and frothy and leaving it at that. The reflex to delete or click off is one we are increasingly taking for granted as the world continues to be saturated by so much content and so many choices; we routinely delete junk e-mail, hurl direct mail in the trash, change the channel during the commercial, and flip past the ads in a newspaper or magazine. But even froth can have use-value: a vapid collection of headlines can be a symptom of a cultural malady, or a reflection of a social ethic, and to ignore it as a matter of habit can mean keeping one's eyes closed to reality. (Do the ads reveal anything about ourselves? Does the content of ads matter? Are not even dumb commercials expressions of culture?) Naysaying, moreover, isn't the same as disengaging from the medium: we don't zap away a headline like "Be The Belle Of The Beach" and zap away the World Wide Web -- or, for that matter, zap away the emotional and psychic attachment to the thing and the epistemological conditioning that has been built up over time.
I don't see the examples above as aberrant pieces of electronic fluff. In many ways they are thoroughly representative of our information age. The appeal to the restless, narcissistic self; the frivolity of content; the hip words, pithy phrasing, slick packaging; the avoidance of anything serious or profound, are all present in television programming, in advertising, in publishing, and in other facets of social life. Consider just television:
-- The evening newscast as an already aged "news you can use" genre consisting of lead story, health news, money chatter, and anecdote capped off by the appropriate news anchor grin (or fake laugh, or fake tears). The grin on the anchorwoman's face as a happy emoticon, a bright yellow smiley.
-- Whole programs and commercials devoted to health: physical health, sexual health, vitamins, diet, exercise, exercise contraptions, cosmetics, medical procedures, prescription drugs. Narcissistic excess which no novelist attuned to the decaying civilization 50 years ago could have dreamt up.
-- Equivalences of "Help! My Boyfriend Is A Cheapskate Date": endless self-debasement in the form of low-rent daytime talk shows; brainless shows on dating and relationships; "reality shows"; shows dealing with sex, intimacy, betrayal, infidelity, violence, confession; fictional shows dealing with the same things, etc.
-- The preference for the shallow, for concision over elaboration, surface over depth: cable talk-show jabbering, where instead of being called a "cheapskate date" someone can be called a liberal or a lunatic; where the imperative is to spit it out -- spit anything out: the shape and sound of the spew are beside the point -- in a manner appropriate to fill and sell the air time (the equivalent of 'providing content'). Any ebullition of opinion or emotion, no matter how removed from history and reality, no matter how groundless or tasteless, can find a happy home in a three-minute segment on a ratings-deprived news or talk show.
-- The interactive aspect of television the same as "the online community" of discussion boards. "Our question of the day: Do you support the troops in Iraq? You can vote now by logging on to msnbc.com."
So many aspects of modern life approximate the fleeting act of clicking off an Internet headline and clicking on something else:
-- Walking through a mall, for instance, and letting the eyes flit from store window to store window, from overhead monitor to young woman in short skirt, from eateries to movie theaters to oneself in a shiny mirror. The eyes as surrogate for text cursor when the human body roams in the real rather than in the virtual world.
-- Standing in the middle of a chain bookstore and turning the head first toward a stack of books, then to an overstuffed collection of glossy four-color magazines, then to the crowd of people filing through the entrance, and then back to a couple of book jackets, which disport glowing (if hackneyed) blurbs ("Wickedly funny! Lots of sass and insight"; "Stunning, perceptive, brilliant!"). Standing in the midst of millions of books, feeling powerless, flooded and overwhelmed (like visiting a single website and seeing a hundred links in the margin) -- realizing that books these days are merely salable content (like shampoo, like soap) and that a serious imbalance exists: one of too many talkers (authors, webmasters, lecturers) and too few listeners, readers, students.
-- The video-game aspect of modern warfare. A military general points his schoolmarm stick at a map and tells a group of reporters that the "enemy has been neutralized." Click on a square mile of somebody else's country, and then click it off. It's here one second; it's gone the next: just like a website or a pop-up ad.
The superficial scope of media content and the hyperactivity of the digital age are only two aspects of this "meaning-devouring" milieu. There's a broader sense today of the perennially absurd, of a logical outcome or resolution y not following from a social event x. People embarrass themselves or disgrace their families or commit a crime, and the scandal leads almost directly to a lavish book deal or a long stint on the lecture circuit -- a marketing opportunity that wouldn't otherwise have presented itself. Acclaim as defilement, as it were; the door of opportunity flinging most enthusiastically open to abasement and shame. (It was revealed the other day that President Clinton has amassed over nine million dollars in speaking fees: 61 paid speeches around the world last year, a typical fee rounding out at $125,000, though some were as high as $400,000 apiece. Are the high sums merely the going rate for a former president's expertise and insights, or might not the controversy and titillation of a fairly recent sex scandal also figure into it?) Almost any contretemps or tragedy is ripe for instant commercial exploitation, whether this means turning the debris of the fallen World Trade Center into souvenirs and selling them, or consenting to a book or movie deal after a long, enervating legal trial, or seizing upon the war-torn fields of a ravaged country and setting up shop.
Our digital/information age is also characterized by a disjunction between the receipt of news and any possibility of doing anything about it. Anything can just happen nowadays, no matter how outlandish or bizarre, and life goes on just as feverishly as ever, with little expectation of remediation, and rarely ever sufficient time for collective reflection. Consider the news clip below:
NEW YORK (AP) -- The Pentagon made an interesting choice when it hired a U.S. company to build a small wireless phone network in Iraq: MCI, aka WorldCom Inc., perpetrator of the biggest accounting fraud in American business and not exactly a big name in cellular service. (Source: CNN, May 22, 2003; emphasis added)
How should a rational person react to this little bit of news? With surprise? Such outrages are neither unparalleled nor new. With resolve "to do something about it"? Every rational person knows it's useless to get worked up over such things, and besides, no one person can fight the quotidian venality of government bureaucracies. But then how does a rational person respond? With a customary sigh, a shrug of the shoulders, a mumble to the effect that life is simply absurd and "on with the next..."
I've only scratched the epidermal layer of a complex social problem (or is it a condition?). The paramount questions, I think, are these:
1. With what justification can someone speak of meaning or truth anymore when so much modern experience is self-parodying, insignificant, hollow, contradictory, disjunctive, hyper- and virtually real? Where does the "truth-seeking," meaning-seeking, serious self fit into the mix? Does it have anywhere to go, or is it, as Nietzsche put it, homesick in this nihilistic world?
2. Does it make any sense anymore to define selves and identities the way philosophers did two and three centuries ago? For instance, a self as autonomous, rational, the creator and master of external circumstance and of its fate rather than as a conditioned, protean subject, defined and bent by society, discontinuous and ever evolving? Is the modern self as much a slave to the marketplace as it is rational and free? Is the ironic, playful, pastiche, jesting, unhung-up self the most authentic self that can emerge in our milieu? The self, that is, that doesn't take anything seriously because there is nothing serious to be taken anymore? A self that can meet the demands of everyday social life, find contentment in relationships, bend enough to fulfil certain social roles, and look out at the larger world cum grano salis?
3. But isn't this a moral cop-out? Doesn't an individual have a responsibility to clean up the mess -- to devote a good portion of her life to speaking the unpleasant truth and adding some semblance of coherence and rationality to frivolous culture, to denouncing power and helping humanity along in practical ways? Recall the last couple of passages from Bertrand Russell's "Free Man's Worship":
The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible forces, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair.
4. How does one relate this kind of discussion to the world of real and pressing problems: poverty and famine and disease in the Third World; unipolar military supremacy; ethnic and cultural wars; moral problems involving science (e.g., cloning, genetically modified organisms, artificial intelligence); the suffusion of deadly weapons around the world; the perceived loss of community in many places? Should the philosopher or academic sit detached in a remote office somewhere and spin out skeins of theories while the world marches along in an ever-downward slide? But then what could the philosopher do otherwise?
(ŠTim Ruggiero, June 17, 2003)
Excerpts from Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self (Basic Books, 1991):
"The pastiche personality is a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation. If one's identity is properly managed, the rewards can be substantial -- the devotion of one's intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on. All are possible if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to full potential in the moment at hand. Simultaneously, the somber hues of multiphrenia -- the sense of superficiality, the guilt at not measuring up to multiple criteria -- give way to an optimistic sense of enormous possibility. The world of friendship and social efficacy is constantly expanding, and the geographical world is simultaneously contracting. Life becomes a candy store for one's developing appetites.
"The invitations to open-ended and guilt-free construction of the self are many and varied in contemporary culture. Consider our changing attitudes toward the presidency. Voters in the modernist era hoped to select 'a real man,' a president who was realistic and rational, as powerful and reliable as a smoothly running turbo-jet. One's choice thus depended on a thorough assessment of 'the real thing.' Gradually, however, society became aware of strategic manipulation in the construction of the man. As Joe McGinniss's The Selling of the President 1968 made clear, the days of 'getting to know you' were rapidly vanishing. Presidential candidates were 'made' and 'sold' like commercial goods; a contender's true character, ability, or political views were secondary to creating a winning image. From a modernist standpoint, such processes were detestable; presidential races were beginning to approximate a competition among unscrupulous advertisers. As we move into the postmodern era, however, interest in 'true character' and disgust with 'false advertising' diminish. The candidate's 'true character' seems elusive, unknowable, even irrelevant. For success as a president can be a matter of style -- saying the right thing with the right manners at the right time. If we learn that 'seeming' rather than 'being' enables one to attain the presidency, then marketing one's personality becomes the most reasonable orientation to daily life. . .
"As the modernist is drawn into the socially saturated world, the dominant sense is that of being a strategic manipulator: committed to a sense of substantial self but continuously and distressingly drawn into contradiction. As the moorings of the substantial self are slowly left behind and one begins to experience the raptures of pastiche personality, the dominant indulgence becomes the persona -- the image as presented. Yet as all becomes image, so by degrees does the distinction between the real and the simulated lose its force. At this point the concept of the true and independent self -- whether constituted by a deep interior or a machine-like rationality -- loses its descriptive and explanatory import. One is thus prepared to enter a third and final stage, in which self is replaced by the reality of relatedness -- or the transformation of 'you' and 'I' to 'us.'"
Excerpts from Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation (University of Michigan Press, 1994):
"We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning. . .
"Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten. Triumph of superficial form, of the smallest common denominator of all signification, degree zero of meaning, triumph of entropy over all possible tropes. The lowest form of energy of the sign. This unarticulated, instantaneous form, without a past, without a future, without the possibility of metamorphosis, has power over all the others. All current forms of activity tend toward advertising and most exhaust themselves therein. . .
"...melancholia is the fundamental tonality of functional systems, of current systems of simulation, of programming and information. Melancholia is the inherent quality of the mode of the disappearance of meaning, of the mode of the volatilization of meaning in operational systems. And we are all melancholic. . .
"There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capable of adopting the force of reality -- no more stage either of mental or political solidarity: what do Chile, Biafra, the boat people, Bologna, or Poland matter? All of that comes to be annihilated on the television screen. We are in the era of events without consequences (and of theories without consequences)."
Excerpt from Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange (Verso, 2001):
"The destiny of the individual soul has lost much of its grandeur. In the past, the human being was not doomed to be merely what he is. God and Satan wrestled over him. In the past, we were important enough to have a battle fought over our souls. Today, salvation is our own affair. Our lives are no longer marked by original sin but by the risk of failing to fulfil their ultimate potential: so we accumulate plans, ideals, and programmes; we constantly pass the buck and seek to outdo each other in a universal effort to perform. And we subside into the condition of those who, as Kierkegaard put it, are no longer capable of facing the Last Judgement in person.
"Since no one fights over our souls any longer, it is up to us to fight over ourselves, to put our own existences on the line, to be endlessly trying things out and competing in a perpetual, infernal contesting of ourselves -- though there is no Last Judgement any more, and there are no longer any real rules.
"Now, how do things stand with the Other when it has disappeared? What does the Real become, what does the body become, when they have been supplanted by their operational formulae? What do sex, work, time and all the figures of otherness become when they fall prey to technological synthesis? What becomes of the event and history when they are programmed, broadcast and diluted to infinity in the media? Where the medium becomes highly defined, the substance becomes highly diluted."
1. Thomas de Zengotita, "The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic," Harper's Magazine (April 2002).
2. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite -- specifically Chapter 13, "The Mass Society."
3. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.
4. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
6. Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.