Navneet Alang writes about digital culture with a rare combination of insight and eloquence. In a characteristically humane meditation on the perennial longings expressed by our use of social media and digital devices, Alang recounts a brief exchange he found himself having with Alexa, the AI assistant that accompanies Amazon Echo.
Alang had asked Alexa about the weather while he was traveling in an unfamiliar city. Alexa alerted him of the forecasted rain, and, without knowing why exactly, Alang thanked the device. “No problem,” Alexa replied.
It was Alang’s subsequent reflection on that exchange that I found especially interesting:
In retrospect, I had what was a very strange reaction: a little jolt of pleasure. Perhaps it was because I had mostly spent those two weeks alone, but Alexa’s response was close enough to the outline of human communication to elicit a feeling of relief in me. For a moment, I felt a little less lonely.
From there, Alang considers apps which allow users to anonymously publish their secrets to the world or to the void–who can tell–and little-used social media sites on which users compose surprisingly revealing messages seemingly directed at no one in particular. A reminder that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has noted, “Confession, once rooted in religious practice, has assumed a secular importance that can be difficult to describe.”
Part of what makes the effort to understand technology so fascinating and challenging is that we are not, finally, trying to understand discreet artifacts or even expansive systems; what we are really trying to understand is the human condition, alternatively and sometimes simultaneously expressed, constituted, and frustrated by our use of all that we call technology.
As Alang notes near the end of his essay, “what digital technologies do best, to our benefit and detriment, is to act as a canvas for our desires.” And, in his discussion, social media and confessional apps express “a wish to be seen, to be heard, to be apprehended as nothing less than who we imagine ourselves to be.” In the most striking paragraph of the piece, Alang expands on this point:
“Perhaps, then, that Instagram shot or confessional tweet isn’t always meant to evoke some mythical, pretend version of ourselves, but instead seeks to invoke the imagined perfect audience—the non-existent people who will see us exactly as we want to be seen. We are not curating an ideal self, but rather, an ideal Other, a fantasy in which our struggle to become ourselves is met with the utmost empathy.”
This strikes me as being rather near the mark. We might also consider the possibility that we seek this ideal Other precisely so that we might receive back from it a more coherent version of ourselves. The empathetic Other who comes to know me may then tell me what I need to know about myself. A trajectory begins to come into focus taking up both the confessional booth and the therapist’s office. Perhaps this presses the point too far, I don’t know. It is, in any case, a promise implicit in the rhetoric of Big Data, that it is the Other that knows us better than we know ourselves. If, to borrow St. Augustine’s formulation, we have become a question to ourselves, then the purveyors of Big Data proffer to us the answer.
It also strikes me that the yearning Alang describes, in another era, would have been understood chiefly as a deeply religious longing. We may see it as fantasy, or, as C.S. Lewis once put it, we may see it as “the truest index of our real situation.”
Interestingly, the paragraph from which that line is taken may bring us back to where we started: with Alang deriving a “little jolt of pleasure” from his exchange with Alexa. `Here is the rest of it:
“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”
For some time now, I’ve entertained the idea that the combination of technologies that promises to animate our mute and unresponsive material environment–think Internet of Things, autonomous machines, augmented reality, AI–entice us with a re-enchanted world: the human-built world, technologically enchanted. Which is to say a material world that flatters us by appearing to be responsive to our wishes and desires, even speaking to us when spoken to–in short, noting us and thereby marginally assuaging the loneliness for which our social media posts are just another sort of therapy.