Impersonism: a manifest

February 7th, 2018

I’ve tried to hide from the truth, but wherever I go it finds me… whatever age I might claim to be, right here, right now, I’m an Internet Grampa.

As soon as a columnist finishes the first draft of an article bemoaning the hordes of trolls that lurk under every digital bridge, I’m knocking at their front door, ready to warn them that they’re at risk of demonising dissenting voices, that they might just be confusing those guys who’re always two clicks away from a rape threat with those who simply don’t want to bow down to the guy who wrote The IT Crowd.

Whenever a young man is about to serve up a freshly baked Game of Thrones meme, I’m limbering up so I’m ready to come crashing through the rafters like the world’s shitest Santa!  As soon as that image is sent out into the world, I’m there, covered in plaster dust but still willing to deliver a pointless lecture about the good old days when you needed more than thirty seconds on their phone and a snazzy font to contribute to a fandom.

And don’t think you’ve escaped my reign of tedium! Next time you like something that a casual acquaintance has posted online I’ll be there, tucked up in your jumper drawer, just waiting to have a conversation about why Livejournal was a better platform for conversation than whatever the fuck it is we’re using now.

To my fellow Internet Grandparents, all I can do is offer you condolences and love!  You’re at least as wrong as you are right, but like you I feel the pull of the copper-clad garden, and like you I’m not quite ready to give up on the whole damned thing!

***

But let’s go back a bit, see if we can figure out what the damage is and where it was done.

As a tragic teen I spent far too much time haunting bookshops, libraries, newsagents, anywhere I could stand for hours reading as much information as I could while paying as little as possible for the privilege. I offer this not as a testament to my prospects for a happy life but to illustrate the fact that the internet is in some ways the perfect trap for me.

If you’d caught me in a rare moment of self-aware honesty back in 1997 and you’d asked me how to ensure that I was kept occupied and yet somehow unfulfilled forever, I might just about have been able to dream my own life circa 2010-2016: give me the ability to read around topics I already find interesting, a platform to display the results and an environment in which this behaviour was tolerated and maybe even encouraged.

“If you wanted to absolutely fucking ruin me,” I’d say, “Yeah, that might work!”

But then you knew that, didn’t you?  This is why you’re here.  This is the platform.  These are the results.  They don’t justify the efforts but I still feel like your attention might.  I’m not asking you to save me, and I apologise for making you complicit in whatever the hell this is, but… well, perhaps this is why I feel like such an Internet Grampa these days.  It’s not because I’m disgusted with how we talk to each other now, more that I don’t know how to own the means of interaction and thus feel cut off from the approval of strangers.

I used to know how to talk about pop culture as a way of talking about capitalism or depression or love and have people congratulate me for it online. These days I’m either just talking about these things or I’m just talking about pop culture.

It’s hard to make myself write about anything these days.  It’s also hard to convince myself that this means that I’m now free, that I’ve somehow escaped either the trap or that tragic teenage self.

***

Speaking of escaping yourself, let’s talk about the place where people in their thirties with upwards of ten quid in their pockets go to grow even less worldly in the dark.

Let’s talk about the movies!

More specifically, given that we’re talking about how out of touch I am, let’s talk about Her:

Her is a 2014 Spike Jonze movie that you could easily, and only a little bit cruelly, dismiss as being about a man who wants to fuck his phone.  Author and literary critic John Pistelli described the implied setting of Her as

A post-democratic world comprising an archipelago of capitalist city-states that culturally favor a highly self-controlled and therefore free elite with relatively Classical and/or Confucian aesthetic values has become the new normal.

Whether or not you agree with this colourful sketch, it neatly highlights the way the movie invokes various forms of otherness in a very cosy way.  It’s not a movie heavy on plot or sociological exposition but there’s something to its landscape, its melancholy pasteltones, the way it suggests a certain distance from where we live now while also keeping continuity with out tastes.  This otherness is, as Pistelli also notes, partly Orientalist in its construction, but it feels very much of a piece with the consumer aesthetics of the past decade plus, the iPod era.

Or to put it another way, it’s an aesthetic that promises transformation that leaves no sign of rupture:

This carries all the way over into the plot, which details the growing interpersonal relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely professional letter writer Theodore Twombly and the new operating system in his life, which is voiced by Samantha Morton Scarlet Johansson.  This OS seems to grow in intelligence as it grows in Twombly’s affections, becoming his  most intimate interlocutor, then eventually transcending him entirely, leaving him alone in his curiously stylised world, with only his fellow meatbags and the books in his local library for company.

The resulting movie is strangely weightless and sometimes hard to care about. Whatever damage has been done the aforementioned smooth, fracture-free aesthetic of the film means that it’s hard to dwell on either the point of contact or the exit wound. In the end what Her leaves us with is a vision of haunted flesh, stripped of purpose or the capacity for understanding what might come next.

If the technology we’ve invested so much of our hopes and ourselves in was to leave us, would we still be trapped here in the networks that we’ve built up around it?

Would we be able to move on, or would be stuck here, still dreaming about fucking our now-inert mobile devices?

Was that even really what anyone was after in the first place?

***

Elsewhere in 2014 - a supercomputer passed the Turing test! Except apparently there was no supercomputer, and anyway – it didn’t!

People seem to want to believe in this sort of story, though, to want to believe that the middle man in so many of our daily interactions could eventually replace the person on the other side of interface.  Contact with a mind that is clearly not your own but which still lacks the capacity to leave us, whether through its own volition or otherwise – that’s the desire that Her raises and then thwarts.

There’s been a lot of talk about the singularity/the nerd rapture in certain circles recently, but instead of imagining a world where we’re able to transcend our physical forms thanks to computers Her charts a parallel fantasy, one in which the rapture is achieved but we’re all left behind.

I’ve been open in my mockery of all these cheerfully nerdy cures for death, which seem to me to be just more wishful thinking in the face of very real environmental disaster and social catastrophe.  If you want to read a whole book that skewers this line of thinking and those who make money out of it, our own Andre Whickey has written a whole murder mystery on the topic

…but without refuting any of what I’ve just said, or denying the pleasure I took in Andrew’s novel, on some level I still think that I get it, that I know where these tech evangelists are coming from.  What was I doing back as a kid, scouring through all those books and magazines but trying to transcend my physical form, aiming for a state of pure information?

This still appeals to me now, having watched the bodies of loved ones turn against them and torture them across decades, having felt totally disconnected from my own body due to my own wavering mental health, capable of living comfortably only as far away from things I can’t control as possible . Which is to say: having known life, how could I not want to escape it?  The parallel situation, where technology achieves superhuman consciousness without us and leaves us here, is more plainly unappealing because it suggests that this speculative playtime might just end, leaving us alone here with the companies who want to sell what’s left of this world back to us one piece at a time.

The trouble is that our technology is no more going to leave us or be destroyed in some sort of dramatic climax than it’s going to solve poverty without prompting.  There is no clean break from now.  Whatever comes next will be built either on top of this moment or in its ruins.

The trajectory of Her, then, is every bit as delusional as the one outlined by cheerleaders for the geek rapture.  It’s a displaced love story, and anyone who knows loss will understand its layered transpositions of personal sadness.  Still, while this provides another way of understanding the film’s aesthetic - who hasn’t felt totally transformed by contact with another but known that they don’t look any different on the outside? – we should always be wary of mistaking the way we feel in the grip of hangover for an objective analysis of what’s happening in the world.

***

Speaking of self, what do I want?  What am I trying to get out of all this?

I don’t want to escape you or become one with you, and I don’t want you to leave me behind either.

All I want is to know that you are out there, and for you to know that I am here too. This is a selfish, but only up to a point because I want you to know that I am here for you as well.  I think of you while I’m lying in the dark.  All of you.  The people I know.  The strangers.  I wonder what you want.  I wonder what I can do for you.  What we could do together.  How you might destroy me.

The internet has brought me into contact with people who have been there for me when I’ve not been worth it, people I talk to every day, people I gossip and dance with, people I have my best day of the year with.  Social media is where I make stupid jokes about Star Trek away from prying eyes, where I embarrass myself in my attempts at self-promotion, where I work up my crushes in the hope of feeling special, of being loved.

The internet has also brought me into contact with people who have accused me of being a genuine crook, geek fascists who have hounded my friends, and former heroes who have slyly threatened this very website with legal action.  Social media is where women and people of colour are harassed by goons who plead innocence so hard they would make Shaggy wince, where your neurosis becomes someone else’s product, where abusive former partners can creep into your life no mater where you are or what you’re doing.

It’s a lot to carry around in your pocket, so it’s a shame that so few of our stories that try to address all of this can really see past themselves enough to do so

***

For all the horror Charlie Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror derives from screens, apps, networks and augmented realities, its sense of importance is predicated on the continued relevance of this bank of images.  You’d think this would translate into a raw, barely containable urge to understand what this technology is and how it operates in the world…

…so why, while watching the most recent season, did I feel like the concerns about parental monitoring in ‘Arkangel’ were so much less harrowed and intricate than my most recent child safety training?  Isn’t the dynamic in there – between allowing kids the freedom to see violent / pornographic images and coddling them - a bit Tipper Gore?  Professionals I’ve spoken to seem aware of how much they don’t know about what kids are sharing with each other, how this is being used, what the new vectors of shame and fun and bullying are.  Kids are quicker to adopt than their adult supervisors, and I’d say the implications of that were startling if I actually had any idea what they might be. 

The pattern repeats elsewhere in the series.   I enjoyed ‘Hang the DJ’ well enough – if Brooker’s a sap, so am I – but its take on the world of computer-assisted dating draws more from the science fiction of the past century than from contemporary reality.  A world where people are repeatedly told to have faith in a system of cold, distant rules that they must obey feels like something from the cold war; the idea that real love must surely overcome such arbitrary nonsense has a sun-soaked optimism to it that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Ray Bradbury short story.  This is very much a frequency I can tune into, but it seems rote and boring compared to any random twitter thread from a queer pal who’s just went back to their hometown and fired up Grindr.

Looking back at earlier episodes, you find a lot of stories that play out along the lines of young adult novel turned Emma Roberts / Dave Franco vehicle Nerve, stories in which democracy, or at least, some sort of idea of ”the public will”, becomes pure demonism when fully unleashed.  Episodes like ‘White Bear’, ‘Nosedive’, ‘Shut Up and Dance’ and ‘Hated in the Nation’ hum with a fear of the mob that would make Burke blush. 

Sometimes there’s more to it than that.  The National Anthem’ hints at some of the deep state forces that impact political decision making, while ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ and ‘USS Callister’ make the appeal of certain modes of entertainment obvious while also criticising the power structures that form around them.  Mostly, though, technology in these stories works to strip away a thin layer of socialisation, exposing us all to be bloodthirsty, damaged monsters, a generation of cannibal children who are just waiting for a weaker kid to present themselves to the playground.  It’s not the sort of worldview that makes sense when you’re watching trans kids from all over the place support each other through some real shit, but it’ll feel real if you’ve been doxxed or if your notifications are a hissing bog of rape threats and racist invective.

Black Mirror‘s future schlock can make for compellingly ugly telly, but as fiction about how we live and what that might do us it’s almost entirely disinterested in the socioeconomic, which means that it’s partially revealing and thus perfectly inadequate to our moment.  Most of us are as unlikely to be turned into HK drones by our smartphones as we are to be abandoned by them.

Or to put it another way: no matter how many times we reread The Invisibles, we’re unlikely to find ourselves becoming one in the supercontext.  Perhaps it’s because I can get wistful about this that I find myself struggling to say something simple here.  The temptation to make a death fetish out of the most obvious trappings of our current consumer culture is strong.  The need to resist it, therefore, is urgent indeed.

There is a prison, but inside it?  Just us…

…and for the time being we’re all locked in here together:

***

None of the above should be taken as an argument that the medium has no impact on the message. Modern tech may give the impression of transparency, but none of these wannabe Motherboxes provide you with an unmediated experience of the world – how could they?

Rather, what I’m struggling to articulate is the ways in which this mediation exposes us to a heightened version of the world I was already struggling to navigate.  You might call this neoliberalism if you want to piss off a hack columnist, or patriarchy if you want to bam up a gammon man, or you could talk about how it was all built off of systematic racist exploitation that still haunts us to this day if you want to offend the painfully deluded.  Hell, if you really wanted to rile people you could call your enemy capitalism and be done with it.

The last few years have felt like an accelerationist wet dream to me, and this is partially down to my immersion in the internet, with its rapidly updating death counts, its shock heel turns and its endless pile up of new contexts. It’s just that none of this can be separated from the more tangible fuckery of the world.

When I say I’m an Internet Grampa, I don’t really mean that I’m unable to handle the memes or the shifting platforms through which the discourse perpetrates itself.  Anyone who’s on the SILENCE! Facebook group will know that my meme game is real, if embarrassing:

So what was I really going on about almost 3,000 words ago?  My initial experience of using the internet was a lot like lurking in the library and discovering that the books could talk back, that you could maybe even go to the pub with them.  For all that it seemed like the perfect trap, it didn’t actually work that way, at least not at first.  For a while there it felt like real magic. Sometimes it still does.

I’ve made fun of the plot of Her for the same reasons that I’ve tried to distance myself from the narrative mode of Black Mirror. I recoil because I recognise myself in these fictions, because I know their wishful thinking and forgiving nihilism intimately.  I recoil because I can’t recoil from what I am, because while I believe in your reality I have lost all faith in my own, my own viability as part of this network.

I no longer know how to perform my paralysis, and the fact that I’m talking about “viability” now hints at the scale of the breakdown.

Whatever “I” am, I’m old school.  I think we should try to treat the various entities we encounter in this world as though they were real.  Perhaps they are.  Perhaps we might even be able to treat some of them well, but this will require a constant effort to imagine the reality of digital phantoms.  It will require an alert opposition to fascism online and in the streets outside your home.  It will require an understanding of what the corporations that patronise us are actually getting out of all this, and a careful eye for the true costs of our industrial scale indulgence - in the end, no amount of ice cold subtweets will stop us from pulling the rug out from underneath our own feet.

The world is ours.  If we want to survive, we must be nothing less than fabulous.

***

Speaking for self, I’m not. I’m not able to sort it all out.  “Illogical Volume” was a construct designed to deal with the more difficult aspects of the world as they manifested online.  It was supposed to be as good at running with the suggestions of friends as it was deconstructing the arguments of enemies. It was supposed to break down boundaries with a frankly irritating level of good cheer.  It was supposed to be funny.

It’s not really cut out for this, not anymore.  I don’t know how to maintain contact with the material world or to meaningfully manifest myself online.  If I can understand the structures that are at play in our daily lives – and I think I can, up to a point – then I’m no longer sure Illogical Volume can change them.

It no longer matters whether or not I was a track star for Mineola Prep.  You can do this without me.

I’m not really cut out,

I’m not

U’m n

I–

6 Responses to “Impersonism: a manifest”

  1. erstlaub Says:

    I read this, it was good.

  2. Illogical Volume Says:

    Thank you brother.

  3. Aleph Says:

    “I’ve made fun of the plot of Her for the same reasons that I’ve tried to distance myself from the narrative mode of Black Mirror. I recoil because I recognise myself in these fictions, because I know their wishful thinking and forgiving nihilism intimately. I recoil because I can’t recoil from what I am, because while I believe in your reality I have lost all faith in my own, my own viability as part of this network.

    I no longer know how to perform my paralysis, and the fact that I’m talking about “viability” now hints at the scale of the breakdown.”

    Okay, wow.

    Way to get THE MOST REAL and also give words to a lot of the uncomfortable stuff going on inside my head.

    The whole piece is wonderful, but that there is the gutpunch. For me at least.

  4. Illogical Volume Says:

    Heh, well I was aiming for my own gut so it was good of you to put yourself in the way!

  5. EmperorofChairs Says:

    This was a fantastic piece of writing. Got me right in the heart.

  6. Illogical Volume Says:

    Thanks. Seems like I’m out to wreck all sorts of body parts this week!

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