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(Diss) Connecting

In his 2017 book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, Byung-Chul Han examines the challenges of working in a global economy. Concerned about employee burnout, Han writes,

Even though we are now free from the machines that enslaved and exploited people during the industrial age, digital apparatuses are installing new constraints, new slavery. Because of their mobility, they make possible exploitation that proves even more efficient by transforming every space into a workplace—and all time into working hours. The freedom of movement is switching over into a fatal compulsion to work everywhere. (34)

According to Han, “a fatal compulsion to work everywhere” leaves employees stressed out and sleep deprived. During the industrial age, workers suffered untold hardships, Han says, but at least they could clock out and leave the factory behind for the night. Today, turned into mini international business machines, many workers drag the factory home with them on phones, tablets and laptops.

The amount of information—be it personal, social or work-related—stored on our “digital apparatuses,” as Han calls them, boggles the mind. Jean Baudrillard called people’s compulsion to collect and catalogue every last piece of data “obscene.”

With a flair for the dramatic, Baudrillard writes in his 1987 book The Ecstasy of Communication that “today there is a pornography of information and communication, a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility, availability, regulation, forced signification, capacity to perform, connection, polyvalence, their free expression” (26-27).

Today every event, every interaction, every idea, every word must mean something unequivocally. Earth and all its satellites must speak. We can’t go off the grid of “forced signification.” No one has the right to remain silent. We must answer every email and text, share our thoughts on social media, express ourselves on blogs. Non-tweeters risk ex-communication.

Seventy-five years before the release of the first iPhone, Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran just wanted to be left alone. Writing was anti-social media for Cioran, who proclaims in his 1934 book On the Heights of Despair in full pessimist mode:

As far as I am concerned, I resign from humanity. I no longer want to be, nor can still be, a man. What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and aesthetic ideals? It’s all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone. But am I not already alone in this world from which I no longer expect anything? (43-44)

I admire Cioran’s defiant spirit, but short of committing suicide, no one can resign from humanity. We can quit a corporate job, but we can’t quit seeking the company of others.

There has to be a middle ground between being hyper-connected—to our families, colleagues, (Facebook) friends, Instagram followers—and being totally isolated, as Cioran might have envisioned it. Anyone who finds this middle ground might, with the right connections, sell millions of self-help books and never need a “real job” again.

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Cynic-In-Chief

Many of us are familiar with the definition of a cynic. Disillusioned by “politics as usual,” cynical Americans don’t trust Washington insiders to work for the common good.

This is not how the Ancient Greeks defined the term. According to Robin Hard, translator of Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes (2012), the word is attributed to a philosopher named Diogenes who lived from approximately 412 to 323 BC. “Cynic” roughly translated means “dog.”

Diogenes gave up his possessions for the life of a beggar to show that true happiness is possible only when humans satisfy their basic needs in simple ways. Material wealth, he argued while shamelessly displaying his half-naked body in public, bankrupts the soul.

The father of the contemporary performance artist, Diogenes strived for the virtuous life, challenging social conventions by shocking citizens out of their stupor. He famously carried a lit lamp through Athens in the middle of the afternoon, looking for (but never finding) a man committed to the truth. In an act of civil disobedience, he walked into the theater as crowds poured out, forging his own path against the herd.

In the final chapter of Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (2014), Maurizio Lazzarato discusses Michel Foucault’s belief in the revolutionary potential of the original Cynics’ way of life. Foucault valorizes the Ancient Greek principle of parrhesia, or truth-telling. A citizen who stood up in the assembly to speak difficult truths risked his credibility, his very life, in the name of democracy. Cynics risked their lives every day in the streets to save the souls of their misguided brothers and sisters.

What is the status of truth in the era of alternative facts? Conservatives have accused liberals of championing relativism for decades, but when philosophers argue that Truth is socially constructed they aren’t suggesting that nothing is true anymore.

Today a Republican president and his inner circle are flat out lying.

An important story the liberal media refuses to report: Diogenes’ top adviser, Kellyannopoulos of Jersey, spoke to supporters outside the assembly shortly after his death and said that the number of people who attended his funeral was twice the amount of those who mourned the death of Socrates.

“Amazing crowds, tremendous crowds,” she said.

Too bad we don’t have aerial shots—or any shots—of the ceremony.

The Reign of Trump begs for spectacular displays of outrage. I agree with Lazzarato that we need to cultivate new ways of being in the world as economic forces beyond our control condemn more and more global citizens to a sub-human existence.

But how do we overcome cynicism to summon the moral strength of the Cynics? How can we be sure that images of our dissent won’t be co-opted and sold as prepackaged lifestyle choices?

“He will not divide us. He will not divide us.” Actor Shia LaBeouf and his comrades have been chanting this slogan outside the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens since the day Trump took office. They plan to have at least one person repeat the refrain into a webcam all day every day for the next four years. Is this the start of a movement bigger than ourselves? A call to arms for brave truth-tellers to stand up and follow each other on social media?

Will the revolution be live-streamed across all compatible devices?

I admire Lazzarato’s poetic sensibilities, but is romanticizing the archetype of the eccentric street prophet all we have left? Am I entitled only to an esoteric, navel-gazing revolution in my corner of the internet because collective political action is no longer possible? Does holding up clever signs or publishing obscure blogs challenge the constitutionality of Trump’s hastily produced executive orders?

He wasn’t on Facebook but Diogenes had a huge public profile. He’s seen as the first cosmopolitan philosopher, a mystic roaming from city to city in the hustle and bustle of daily life, shouting his worldview at people more interested in Ancient Memes than ethics.

What if Diogenes believed he was really more dog than man?

To “figure out what the hell is going on,” Trump has banned all pagans and pantheists from entering America against the flow of the crowd. Diogenes wasn’t Christian after all.

The president doesn’t really want to be president. He wants to build walls and promote the “bigly-ness” of his brand name. He wants to stir the passions of God-fearing Americans longing for a sense of security that no longer exists. He would rather pout over perceived personal slights than listen to the so-called expertise of five-star generals.

Anointed by the Resentful, Maligned and Dispossessed, the leader of the free world doesn’t believe in the rule of law. He disrespects federal judges on Twitter and insults congressional leaders of his own party (also on Twitter).

Donald J. Trump is the democratically selected winner of the Cynic-in-Chief sweepstakes. Against the common good, he’s the executive seducer of a reality-show circus in which his hubris is the main attraction for a mass of cynics who require more and more spectacle to conceal the truth of their (political) impotence.

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The Empathy Of Communication

In The Pathology of Communicative Capitalism, David W. Hill alerts us to the power of empathy, a skill under siege in the digital age:

Empathy is a craft of understanding and responding to other people. It requires attentive communication, listening to others, and responding to the other person such that communication progresses whilst keeping the differences between interlocutors intact, so constituting a meaningful encounter since the other person is met on his or her own terms. Is there any time left for this kind of empathetic communication? Is there any space available? (50)

I asked similar questions in my book, The Intimacy of Communication, earlier this year, wondering aloud if there’s “space for intimacy in a hyper-connected world.” It’s nice to see I’m not the only writer concerned about smartphone addiction in what’s known today as the attention economy.

Empathy is not extinct, of course, but it’s definitely not trending on Twitter. It’s hard to connect with humans across the table from us when our heads are buried in our smartphones. I can’t recognize your uniqueness or meet you on your own terms on a first date, for instance, when I’m lost in thoughtlessness on Facebook.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, I admit I’m worried about kids these days, the cohort known as Generation Z. Gen Z follows Gen Y, also called millennials, which follows Gen X. Anyone born after 2001, the theory goes, is part of Generation Z. Given we’ve reached the end of the alphabet, I hope we haven’t reached the end of the evolutionary line.

The more I see kids attached to electronic devices, the more I sense we’ve been invaded by Generation Zombie. Rather than pick their parents’ brains for knowledge or existential templates for approaching the world, Gen Z wants to eat them. They know everything, in screenshot form. They’re born digital consumers browsing through history, with no concern for the past. “No ideas,” to invoke the spirit of poet William Carlos Williams, “but in images of images of things.”

You can’t empathize with an avatar when you’re trying to kill it, even if the human behind it is your best friend in real life. Pretty soon the character of empathy will be harder to find than the rarest Pokémon.

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The Nine Billion Names Of God

In The Perfect Crime Jean Baudrillard references Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” to set up his critique of virtual reality and our desire to actualize the world in its totality.

Clarke’s story centers on a group of Tibetan monks who for centuries have been transcribing with great care the nine billion names of God. Logging the final name, we’re told, will trigger the end of the world.

It’s a tiresome task so the monks call in technicians from IBM. Computers finish the job in a few months.

On page 27 of The Perfect Crime Baudrillard describes man’s fate: “As they walk back down into the valley, the technicians, who did not really believe in the prophecy, are aghast to see the stars going out one by one.”

I believe the monks not only knew their project would end the world but actively wished for it.

The rise of IBM and its solution-focused IT professionals facilitated a quicker exit. Computers relieved the monks of their duties. Ethics and the Middle Way no match for algorithms and HTML.

Computers relieve us all from the burden of being human. Tools for the realization of every fantasy, computers fulfill our secret wish to disappear. Social media posts serving as our collective suicide note.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops communicate for us, but not necessarily on our behalf. “I’ll text you,” we say, as if the text creates you—a “you” we never meet. If the medium is the message, today the message is singular: “Show me your text and I’ll show you mine.”

In the valley of the shadow of tech we are all monks—all “IBMers”—exchanging the pleasure of face-to-face interaction for the stupor of screen-to-screen manipulation.

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Private Eyes

In 1983 Sophie Calle published Suite venitienne, a “true” account of her adventures following a man named Henri B. for two weeks in Venice. Sophie barely knows Henri. She’s not attracted to him. But she’s fascinated with the idea of tracing his steps. Donning a blond wig, Sophie photographs Henri moving about the city, keeping her distance. Diary entries accompany photos resembling the work of a private investigator.

It’s the pursuit that interests Sophie. There’s no desire for contact; sex would kill the mood. In following a stranger, Sophie disappears. She relinquishes her responsibilities, giving into the ecstasy of the chase. And Henri is, in a way, relieved of the burden of tending to his life all alone. When he finally catches Sophie, he blames her eyes for exposing her. But he’s not upset.

Consider this: Rather than simply striking up a conversation, taking in the sights and then departing (as the book describes), Henri and Sophie rent a room and get down to business. Instead of pure seduction, banal fornication. Perhaps Henri leaves his wife for her. How easy! How predictable! How unhealthy, this constant urge to speak “I love you.”

Or consider this: Sophie encounters Henri at a party, Googles him and unearths every intimate detail of his life. She’s bored or appalled, maybe both. Here’s his Tinder. Here’s his blog. No mystery, no shadow to seduce. Sophie sees right through him. And Henri walks alone.

Today we project our lives upon the world-as-screen. We come to Twitter to be followed, Facebook to be strangers. Constantly watched, obsessively watching—we are objects in mirrors, closer than our profiles appear.

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If Sartre Married A Kardashian

Way back in the twentieth century Sartre famously declared: “Existence precedes essence.” You exist first, Sartre said, then you build a life. You are nothing more—or less—than the choices you make. As a condemned-to-be-free consumer in the Digital Age, I’ve discovered new ways of applying Sartre’s catchphrase.

Facebook precedes friendship

I’m not friends with someone unless we’re on the same page: Facebook. Before Mark Zuckerberg stole from those dopey twins and set the social media world on fire, people connected on a personal level. Facebook eliminates the need for genuine communication. And yet we’re socializing more than ever. Without accepting my friend request you’re just another stranger. Even if we’re twins.

Google precedes memory

Don’t know what I mean? Here let me Google that for you. Eons ago when elders passed down stories via word of mouth, memory played a vital role. Today our myths assume database form, milliseconds from our fingertips. It’s a far cry from oral history. But if you’re at work don’t Google anything with “oral” in it.

Twitter precedes mourning

People used to die in peace, away from cameras and smartphones—and smartphone cameras. Die today as a celebrity and the world will tweet its condolences. There are no private ceremonies anymore. Everyone’s an eloquent eulogist exalting your character in one-hundred-and-forty characters or less.

Instagram precedes eating

Enjoy your chicken enchiladas after capturing the essence of the dish in a shot creatively captioned: “Best lunch ever!”

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Breaking News

An event, especially a painful experience, feels most intense to the person or people directly involved in it. Hearing about something that happened to someone else can be troubling, but pales in comparison to the discomfort the sufferer endures.

Say I break my leg. As news of my accident spreads to people in my immediate circle, the impact of the event carries weight, but its magnitude decreases as the story passes through the grapevine and filters out away from me. I matter to a small group of family and friends, but beyond them my suffering means little, save for the doctors and nurses who treat my injury.

But what happens when Harrison Ford breaks his leg, as he did earlier this month on the set of the new Star Wars film? The media pick up the story, turning coverage of the event into an event in itself. First it’s reported he broke his ankle; it matters not that a few days later we learn it’s his leg. As word spreads, the truth of Ford’s experience undergoes profound shifts. Our attention quickly turns to questions like: How does this affect filming? Will this delay the film’s release? What scene was he shooting? What more might I learn about this blockbuster-in-waiting?

I break news of my mishap on Twitter and Facebook or look for sympathy on my blog. I post a video of me falling, the snapping of the bone ready at the click of “play.” The personal is public. A lot less people care about my misfortunes than Ford’s fans do about his, but strangers whom I’ll never meet find out that I’m in pain thanks to the gospel of gossip: social media.

As information accelerates—as we share and overshare detail after detail—the lived experience of individual events gets discounted, forgotten, displaced. My truth, as it passes from person to person—and Ford’s truth, as it cycles from news outlet to news outlet—gathers false details and suffers from serious omissions, such that appearances trump the Real. But nobody cares about the truth; we simply need to know everything all the time without considering sources or fussing over facts.

It’s like saying “orange” over and over in a short span to the point of exhaustion. The tongue turns “orange” inside out, perverting its sound, stretching it into nonsense. The media repeat (reproduce) stories many times over, draining them of substance, erasing all traces of human suffering. Lost in the business of its global display, tragedy becomes spectacle. Remember: we’re only considering a famous actor’s broken leg; what might we say about America’s recent reentry into Iraq or the VA scandal that resulted in the deaths of veterans waiting for medical care?

Every accident becomes spectacle. Pain becomes mundane. When everything’s covered, when no moment escapes the watchful eye of real-time “expert analysis,” the spectacle itself is breaking news.

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