The Lifestream Stops

David Gelernter, 2013:

“And today, the most important function of the internet is to deliver the latest information, to tell us what’s happening right now. That’s why so many time-based structures have emerged in the cybersphere: to satisfy the need for the newest data. Whether tweet or timeline, all are time-ordered streams designed to tell you what’s new … But what happens if we merge all those blogs, feeds, chatstreams, and so forth? By adding together every timestream on the net — including the private lifestreams that are just beginning to emerge — into a single flood of data, we get the worldstream: a way to picture the cybersphere as a whole … What people really want is to tune in to information. Since many millions of separate lifestreams will exist in the cybersphere soon, our basic software will be the stream-browser: like today’s browsers, but designed to add, subtract, and navigate streams.”

E. M. Forster, 1909:

“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:

“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes-for I can give you fully five minutes …”

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

“Be quick!” She called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”

[Conversation ensues and comes to an abrupt close.]

Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one”s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? – say this day month.

To most of these questions she replied with irritation – a growing quality in that accelerated age. She said that the new food was horrible. That she could not visit the public nurseries through press of engagements. That she had no ideas of her own but had just been told one-that four stars and three in the middle were like a man: she doubted there was much in it.

When I read Gelernter’s piece and his world-stream metaphor (illustration below), I was reminded of Forster’s story and the image of Vashti, sitting in her chair, immersed in cacophonic real-time stream of information. Of course, the one obvious difference between Gelernter’s and Forster’s conceptions of the relentless stream of information into which one plunges is the nature of the interface. In Forster’s story, “The Machine Stops,” the interface is anchored to a particular place. It is an armchair in a bare, dark room from which characters in his story rarely move. Gelernter assumes the mobile interfaces we’ve grown accustomed to over the last several years.

In Forster’s story, the great threat the Machine poses to its users is that of radical disembodiment. Bodies have atrophied, physicality is a burden, and all the ways in which the body comes to know the world have been overwhelmed by a perpetual feeding of the mind with ever more derivative “ideas.” This is a fascinating aspect of the story. Forster anticipates the insights of later philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty and Hubert Dreyfus as well as the many researchers helping us understand embodied cognition. Take this passage for example:

You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of “Near” and “Far”. “Near” is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. “Far” is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet; the vomitory is “far”, though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man”s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.

But how might Forster have conceived of his story if his interface had been mobile? Would his story still be a Cartesian nightmare? Or would he understand the danger to be posed to our sense of time rather than our sense of place? He might have worried not about the consequences of being anchored to one place, but rather being anchored to one time — a relentless, enduring present.

Were I Forster, however, I wouldn’t change his focus on the body. For isn’t our body and the physicality of lived experience that the body perceives also our most meaningful measure of time? Do not our memories etch themselves in our bodies? Does not a feel for the passing years emerge from the transformation of our bodies? Philosopher Merleau-Ponty spoke of the “time of the body.” Consider Shaun Gallagher’s exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s perspective:

“Temporality is in some way a ‘dimension of our being’ … More specifically, it is a dimension of our situated existence. Merleau-Ponty explains this along the lines of the Heideggerian analysis of being-in- the-world. It is in my everyday dealings with things that the horizon of the day gets defined: it is in ‘this moment I spend working, with, behind it, the horizon of the day that has elapsed, and in front of it, the evening and night – that I make contact with time, and learn to know its course’ …”

Gallagher goes on to cite the following passage from Merleau-Ponty:

“I do not form a mental picture of my day, it weighs upon me with all its weight, it is still there, and though I may not recall any detail of it, I have the impending power to do so, I still ‘have it in hand.’ . . . Our future is not made up exclusively of guesswork and daydreams. Ahead of what I see and perceive . . . my world is carried forward by lines of intentionality which trace out in advance at least the style of what is to come.”

Then Gallagher adds, “Thus, Merleau-Ponty suggests, I feel time on my shoulders and in my fatigued muscles; I get physically tired from my work; I see how much more I have to do. Time is measured out first of all in my embodied actions as I ‘reckon with an environment’ in which ‘I seek support in my tools, and am at my task rather than confronting it.'”

That last distinction between being at my task rather than confronting it seems particularly significant, especially as it involves the support of tools. Our sense of time, like our sense of place, is not an unchangeable given. It shifts and alters through technological mediation. Melvin Kranzberg, in the first of his six laws of technology, reminds us, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Our technological mediation of space and time is never neutral; and while it may not be “bad” or “good” in some abstract sense, it can be more or less humane, more or less conducive to our well-being. If the future of the Internet is the worldstream, we should perhaps think twice before plunging.

Worldstream Gelernter

Memory, Facebook, and the Narrative Unity of a Life

Below are links to three essays in conversation with one another on the relative merits of Facebook as augmented memory. Jurgenson argues that expressing the “glad I didn’t have Facebook” sentiment is likely to reinforce what he considers an unhealthy preoccupation with consistency of identity over time. Boesel and Horning each offer diverging perspectives on Jurgenson’s piece. I’m glad for the exchange since it foregrounds an aspect of social media’s consequences that seems to get less attention than it deserves. What follows is not really a response to these essays so much as another reflection on the theme.

“Glad I Didn’t Have Facebook In High School” by Nathan Jurgenson

“Let Sleeping Memories Lie: High School and the Facebookless Past” by Whitney Erin Boesel

“Everyday schadenfreude” by Rob Horning

Several months back I wrote a couple of posts on Facebook and memory. The first considered Facebook as a form of social remembering, and the second suggested that Facebook is a contemporary form of the ancient arts of memory tradition.

My thinking on the relationship between memory and Facebook remains largely unchanged from when I wrote those posts and is summed up rather nicely by Jacques Derrida when he writes, “They tell, and here is the enigma, that those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia found there two springs and were supposed to drink from each, from the spring of memory and from the spring of forgetting.”

We must be able to do both — remember and forget. The ability to do so in the appropriate proportion seems essential to living with ourselves in some meaningful and morally responsible manner. What that proportion is, every one must discover for themselves. But it seems to involve some delicate balance among the past, present, and future which acknowledges their entanglement while also respecting the integrity of each.

In any case, memory is tied up intimately with identity; this much has been apparent since antiquity. Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiographical account of his journey toward conversion, includes an eloquent chapter on memory which remains a classic text in what we might call the philosophy of memory. And while it may be the case that there is, in some quarters, an unhealthy fixation on a rigidly construed consistency of identity over time, it seems to me that this is not really the issue. We know, most of us, that we evolve over time, sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically, while, indeed, some aspects of our personality remain stubbornly persistent. This was, in fact, the theme of Confessions. (Certainly if Augustine had Facebook, he would have been bemused by the enduring record of all those “Likes” of Manichaeism.) We change over time and thank God for it.

But that change may still be taken into account within what Alasdair MacIntyre has called the narrative unity of a human life. “The unity of a human life,” MacIntyre writes, “is the unity of a narrative quest.” Facebook enters into this narrative quest with potentially significant and not entirely benign consequences. It amounts, we might say, to an outsourcing of the quest and consequently to an evacuation of the quest’s moral significance.

Richard Terdiman’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the city happens to articulate some of  these concerns rather well:

“[Benjamin] argued that the nineteenth-century city produced a particularly acute experience of disconnection and abstraction. Such abstraction defeats the associative structure of natural memory and induces in its place a different form of the habitus or technology of recollection that we could call ‘archival consciousness.’ Its principle would be the increasingly randomized isolation of the individual item of information, to the detriment of its relation to any whole, and the consignment of such information to what earlier I called ‘extrindividual’ mnemonic mechanisms.”

It is no small thing to substitute an archive, Facebook’s in this case, with its particular structure, for the “associative structure of natural memory.” Or, I would add, for the moral work of memory — the weighing of guilt and regret, for example, and the coming responsibily to terms with one’s past.

It would seem as well, that the rhythms of natural memory have their own consolations. Near the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens writes the following exchange between Carton and Lorry:

Sydney turned his eyes again upon the fire, and, after a silence of a few moments, said:

“I should like to ask you:—Does your childhood seem far off? Do the days when you sat at your mother’s knee, seem days of very long ago?”

Responding to his softened manner, Mr. Lorry answered:

“Twenty years back, yes; at this time of my life, no. For, as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep, of my pretty young mother (and I so old!), and by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me, and my faults were not confirmed in me.”

Sentimentalized perhaps, but not, I believe, dishonestly so. It is perhaps how our memory may seek to help us along in the quest for the narrative unity of our life.

For Your Consideration – 7

“Welcome to the Future Nauseous”: Some jargon and neologisms, but interesting perspective.

“We aren’t being hit by Future Shock. We are going to be hit by Future Nausea.  You’re not going to be knocked out cold. You’re just going to throw up in some existential sense of the word. I’d like to prepare. I wish some science fiction writers would write a few nauseating stories.”

“The World Is Not Enough: Google and the Future of Augmented Reality”:

“It is The Future. You wake up at dawn and fumble on the bedstand for your (Google) Glass. Peering out at the world through transparent screens, what do you see?”

“Speaking in Memes”:

“We’ve developed a kind of meme literacy, a habit of intuiting in real time the potential virality of a speech act — to hear retweets inside words.”

“A Sense of Place”:

“The digital and the physical world are interacting ever more closely. The rapidly declining cost of communications and computing power has already wrought huge changes in the way people go about their daily lives. Digital maps and guides will affect the way people behave in the physical world and bring about yet more changes. The digital and the physical are becoming one.”

How We Talk About Media Refusal, Part 1: “Addiction”:

“This is the first of a series of three posts I’ll be doing in Flow about the topic of “media refusal,” which I define as the active and conscious rejection of a media technology or platform by its potential users. In these posts, I’ll be discussing how popular discourse tends to frame practices of media refusal and what implications these frames might have for the way we understand our participation in media culture.”

“What Words Are Worth”:

“The humanities, encountered primarily in the high school and college years, teach students to recognize a significant question, to make crucial distinctions in the articulation of its terms, to draw consequential conclusions, to assess conclusions in human terms, and to communicate the procedures and results of inquiry. These are all elements necessary for the making of right meaning, and meaning is a singularly powerful shaper of deeds.”

Literary Miscellany

In a recorded interview discussing the merits of Longfellow’s poetry, Dana Gioia, a fellow poet and former chairman of the NEA, made some arresting observations regarding the power of lyric poetry. He noted that great lyric poetry, of the sort Longfellow wrote, could weave “a spell of words around the auditor which goes right to the heart” — a reminder that the desire to “get” the meaning of a poem in other than poetic terms can be misguided.

Gioia then went on to tweak Franz Kafka’s metaphor — a book is the axe with which we break the frozen seas within us — for the purposes of understanding what poetry can do:

“A popular poem is this kind of … icepick that cracks this sort of … this composure we have around ourselves and affects us deeply and mysteriously in ways that we might not be able to articulate but that we can feel — our intuition recognizes as genuine.”

This resonated with me and I thought it worth passing along. Poetry, or the poetic imagination, as I have elsewhere suggested, can be a powerful supplement to the dispositions and habits seemingly engendered by technology (huge generalizations there, I know, but I’m going to have to let them lie). Read more poetry.

And while we are on poetry, here are two lines that have recently caught my attention, particularly in light of discussions of self-consciousness and authenticity. The first is from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock”:

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”

And the second from Emily Dickinson, who elsewhere wrote, “Of Consciousness, her awful Mate The Soul cannot be rid”:

Me from Myself — to banish —
Had I Art —
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart —

But since Myself — assault Me —
How have I peace
Except by subjugating

And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?

Lastly, I’ll use this venture into the humanities to note the passing of the great scholar and critic, Jacques Barzun. He was 104. As Alan Jacobs tweeted this morning, it is striking to consider that Barzun could remember the First World War. I noted a passage from Barzun not that long ago.

Freedom From Authenticity

Last night I listened to a recording of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address.  I know, I know. Wallace is one of these people around whom personality cults form, and its hard to take those people seriously. If it helps, there’s this one guy who is really ticked at Wallace for what must have been some horrible thing Wallace did to him, like having had the temerity to be alive at the same time as he. I also know that Wallace could at times be a rather nasty human being, or so some have reported. That said, the man said some really important and true things which need to be heard again and again.

These things as it turns out, or as I hear them now, in this particular frame of mind that I am in, have everything to do with authenticity. This is not because Wallace is talking directly about authenticity and its discontents, but because he understands, intimately it seems, what it feels like to be the sort of person for whom authenticity is likely to become a problem, and without intending to propose a solution to this problem of authenticity, he does.

Authenticity becomes a problem the second it becomes a question. As William Deresiewicz put it, “the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it.” Authenticity, like happiness and love and probably everything that is truly significant in life partakes of this dynamic whereby the sought after thing can be attained only by not consciously seeking after it. Think of it, and now it is a problem; seek it, and you will not find it; focus on it, and it becomes elusive.

So authenticity is the sort of thing that vanishes the moment you become conscious of it. It’s what you have only when you’re not thinking of it. And what you’re not thinking of when you have it is yourself. Authenticity is a crisis of self invoked by a hyper-selfawareness that makes it impossible not think of oneself. And I don’t think this is a matter of being a horribly selfish or arrogant person. No, in fact, I think this kind of hype-rselfawareness is more often than not burdened with insecurity and fear and anxiety. It’s a voice most people want to shut up and hence the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

What does Wallace have to say about any of this? Well, first, there’s this: “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.”

This is what he calls our default setting. Our default setting is to think about the world as if we were its center, to process every situation through the grid of our own experience, to assume “that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” This is our default setting in part because from the perspective of our own experience, the only perspective to which we have immediate access, we are literally the center of the universe.

Wallace also issued this warning: “Worship power you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

So then, worship authenticity and … 

But, Wallace also tells us, it doesn’t have to be this way. The point of a liberal arts education — this is a commencement address after all — is to teach us how to exercise choice over what we think and what we pay attention to. And Wallace urges us to pay attention to something other than the monologue inside our head. Getting out of our own heads, what Wallace called our “skull-sized kingdoms” — this is the only answer to the question of authenticity.

And so this makes me think again of the possibility that certain kinds of practices that help us do just this. They can so focus our attention on themselves, that we stop, for a time, paying attention to ourselves. Serendipitously, I stumbled on this video about glass-blowing in which a glass-blower is talking about his craft when he says this: “When you’re blowing glass, there really isn’t time to have your mind elsewhere – you have to be 100% engaged.” There it is.

Now, I know, we can’t all run off and take up glass blowing. That would be silly and potentially dangerous. The point is that this practice has the magical side effect of taking a person out of their own head by acutely focusing our attention. The leap I want to make now is to say that this skill is transferable. Learn the mental discipline of so focusing your attention in one particular context and you will be better able to deploy it in other circumstances.

It’s like the ascetic practice of fasting. The point is not that food is bad or that denying yourself food is somehow virtuous or meritorious. Its about training the will and learning how to temper desire so as to direct and deploy it toward more noble ends. You train your will with food so that you can exercise it meaningfully in other, more serious contexts.

In any case, Wallace is right. It’s hard work not yielding to our default self-centeredness. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace explained, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” I know I’ve cited that line before and not that long ago, but the point it makes is crucial.

Freedom is not about being able to do whatever we want, when we want. It has nothing to do with listening to our heart or following our dreams or whatever else we put on greeting cards and bumper stickers. Real freedom comes from learning to get out of our “skull-sized kingdoms” long enough to pay attention to the human being next us so that we might treat them with decency and kindness and respect. Then perhaps we’ll have our authenticity, but we’ll have it because we’ve stopped caring about it.


A transcript of Wallace’s address is available here.