Pass the Remote: The iGeneration
by: Jessica Birthisel, Lindsay Bosch, and Beth Bonnstetter
Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lindsay and Beth,
As I stop to think about my daily routine, I find one form of media particularly dominant: the Internet. It’s not that I dawdle away hours each day on chat rooms or Apprentice bulletin boards. Rather I use the Internet to engage in some primordial information hunting and gathering.
When I wake up in the morning, I log on-line to check the headlines on my most trusted news websites. Several times throughout the day I log into my e-mail accounts to send and receive updates with family and friends (though, unfortunately, my most unwavering e-mail correspondents are erectile dysfunction SPAMers.) I spend my evenings traversing the Internet for school-related research and, abashedly, I peruse MSN’s celebrity gossip at least twice a week.
At the rate of about one hour a day, I spend a significant portion of my free time on-line. But, often when I log onto the Internet, I feel a slight tinge of guilt, like I am choosing to log out of my physical existence and the relationships therein. As I consider our generation’s increasing dependence on the Internet for information and communication, I begin to think about embodiment and the Internet. Do we traverse the Internet to shed the responsibility and monotony of our physical experiences, or does the Internet (with its vast information and communication potential) aid or improve the quality of our off-line physical existence? What implications do new media habits have for the future of media use and human-to-human interaction?
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Beth and Jessica,
Jessica, I believe you are certainly not alone in your internet guilt. I think this worry that is associated with the use of new media is a common and universal feature. We have been taught that our interactions and life on the computer are somehow sub-par, that they pale in comparison to our embodied lives.
Anti-Technology theorists such as Theodore Roszak maintain that through internet interactions we lose the nuance of the physical body and the intimacy of person-to-person contact. Jacques Ellul furthers the antitech argument by relating the traditional physical body to a truthful human communication and so the informational or technical body to untruth. Many believe that a downfall of the internet is that it provides easy ability to lie or present yourself as “other-then-what-you-actually-are”. Such an argument is based on the idea that a physical body is truthful, and that human flesh represents the real-you.
I would argue that Cyber-space, with it’s emphasis on bodies of information rather then flesh, presents individuals with new ways to present themselves and their own interiority. The internet does not help or hinder the qualities of our physical existence. Rather, it is a permanent and valid aspect of our physical existence. It is necessary that we understand our actions and interactions on the internet as real. Our virtual choices (what we buy, who we speak to, what we look at) have actual and long ranging effects. It is truly dangerous to read the internet as a realm divorced from “responsibility or experience”.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Dear Lindsay and Jessica:
The privileging of the physical world is also symptomatic of the shift to the Information Age. Whereas our society once dealt predominantly with material goods and services (i.e. the Industrial Age), today the majority of U.S. American jobs deal in services and information. This is a startling and unnerving shift at best, and some of the concerns and guilt we have derive from weathering this shift. Those who dealt in material goods and services have taught us the value of the “physical” over the “non-physical.” In the Information Age, to value one over the other is nonsensical–they are intertwined. But guilt exists nonetheless.
I agree with Lindsay; we cannot divorce our physical experience with our online one. Ethnographers such as Mizuko Ito, Nancy Baym, and Lori Kendall argue this point as early as the 1990s. This becomes especially true when we consider that the Internet allows the creation and performance of identity as never before (i.e., characters in RPG, gender experimentation in chat rooms, etc.). We must not forget that each of these new identities is still connected to the human beings that created them.
However, if we make choices that take into account physical-world consequences, the Internet can provide opportunities to read literature, learn information, and access other people as never before. The Internet provides the opportunity to continue the physical world. In a McLuhanesqe sense, the Internet is an expansion of our senses, our human-to-human communication, and not an escape from it.
Colorado State University
Lindsay and Beth,
I think it’s appropriate that it was Americans who coined the term “information super highway” for the Internet. As Beth mentioned, this country has shifted a lot of its business focus from material goods to information technology, but we cannot ignore the fact that one of the sole functions of the Internet is to serve as a virtual highway, a transport and shipping system for information, products and services between producers and consumers.
On the Internet, as with any business service, there are leaders, and America is undoubtedly the leader in on-line commerce and information distribution. This is evident in the dominance of American websites and search engines and the common use of Roman numerals and the English language. And, the more dominant these Western ideals become on the Internet, the more censorship many countries place over their citizens’ on-line access, fearing that their citizens might access too many dangerous, western ideas.
As a middle-class American, it’s easy to think altruistically about the Internet. Companies can profit from a larger customer base. People can access huge quantities of information. The human-to-human connection can be strengthened locally, nationally and internationally.
But, is this the reality of the Internet, or rather the reality for the American or Western Internet user? I think the difference is an important thing to distinguish.
This difference comes back to Lindsay’s point about the Internet and responsibility. If the Internet has the capability of opening doors economically, socially and globally, what happens when a country and its citizens cannot access this technology? And, what responsibility does America, the founding father of the Internet, have in leveling the on-line playing field around the world?
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Dear Jessica and Beth,
I always have the sneaking suspicion that this question about access comes in to the conversation to neutralize our conjectures about the internet’s communicative potential. It is a very post-modern caution; ” If not everyone is given a voice, do we have the right to speak at all?” It is certainly a mark of our progress that we continually mull over this problem, but at some point I think that it actually does more harm then good. It is a non–question. We cannot really cease the way we have come to rely on the internet, nor can we personally amend the lack or censorship of technology in developing nations.
While we are nowhere close to universal access, we must realize that the internet audience is worldwide — reaching far beyond America and western Europe. I believe there is more value in celebrating the size and diversity of the internet’s scope then in bemoaning its limits. We were discussing before about acknowledging our own responsibility within our online interactions. There is much to be gained from the belief that we are participating in a worldwide dialogue, even if it is not exactly the case.
Lindsay and Jessica,
Again, I agree with Lindsay, but I would add that a more postmodern question is, “What rights have the U.S. to level the Internet playing field?” Eradicating disease, starvation, and ignorance seem much higher priorities. Questions about the U.S.’s (and other technologically-developed nations’) rights or responsibilities on “leveling the playing field” have no easy answers, and also get into issues of assistance vs. imperialism.
Additionally, I would disagree that the Internet’s sole function is as a business tool (just as a highway’s sole function isn’t for truckers and company cars). Indeed, it began life as an emergency communication system for the U.S. government should nuclear war break out. Without question business now plays a large, perhaps even dominating, role, and that may indeed be problematic, but that does not negate the Internet’s use for information access and community-building. Among the commercialism does exist libraries, support and friendship groups, and websites dedicated to issues besides selling a product.
Like Lindsay, I too believe celebrating what the Internet offers has value. I suggest then that we approach the Internet with cautious optimism. When people support an online business, they should be aware of its practices, just as they should be in the material world. When someone interacts with another person online, s/he must remember that s/he is interacting with another person, not just a computer. It comes back to the point made earlier: we cannot divorce the material world from the digital one. To do so will lead to dire consequences.
1. Woman using Internet
Please feel free to comment.