In July 2008, when I posted the photo above on this blog, some readers thought Santa Barbara Mission was on fire. It didn’t matter that I explained in that post how I got the shot, or that news reports made clear that the Gap Fire was miles away. The photo was a good one, but it also collapsed three dimensions into just two. Hence the confusion. If you didn’t know better, it looked like the building was on fire. The photo removed distance.
So does the Internet, at least when we are there. Let’s look at what there means.
Pre-digital media were limited by distance, and to a high degree defined by it. Radio and television signals degrade across distances from transmitters, and are limited as well by buildings, terrain, weather, and (on some frequency bands), ionospheric conditions. Even a good radio won’t get an absent signal. Nor will a good TV. Worse, if you live more than a few dozen miles from a TV station’s transmitter, you need a good antenna mounted on your roof, a chimney, or a tall pole. For signals coming from different locations, you need a rotator as well. Even on cable, there is still a distinction between local channels and cable-only ones. You pay more to get “bundles” of the latter, so there is a distance in cost between local and distant channel sources. If you get your TV by satellite, your there needs to be in the satellite’s coverage footprint.
But with the Internet, here and there are the same. Distance is gone, on purpose. Its design presumes that all physical and wireless connections are one, no matter who owns them or how they get paid to move chunks of Internet data. It is a world of ends meant to show nothing of its middles, which are countless paths the ends ignore. (Let’s also ignore, for the moment, that some countries and providers censor or filter the Internet, in some cases blocking access from the physical locations their systems detect. Those all essentially violate the Internet’s simple assumption of openness and connectivity for everybody and everything at every end.)
For people on the Internet, distance is collapsed to the height and width of a window. There is also no gravity because space implies three dimensions and your screen has only two, and the picture is always upright. When persons in Scotland and Australia talk, neither is upside down to the other. But they are present with each other and that’s what matters. (This may change in the metaverse, whatever that becomes, but will likely require headgear not everyone will wear. And it will still happen over the Internet.)
Digital life, almost all of which now happens on the Internet, is new to human experience, and our means of coping are limited. For example, by language. And I don’t mean different ones. I mean all of them, because they are made for making sense of a three-dimensional physical world, which the Internet is not.
Take prepositions. English, like most languages, has a few dozen prepositions, most of which describe placement in three-dimensional space. Over, around, under, through, beside, within, off, on, over, aboard… all presume three dimensions. That’s also where our bodies are, and it is through our bodies that we make sense of the world. We say good is light and bad is dark because we are diurnal hunters and gatherers, with eyes optimized for daylight. We say good is up and bad is down because we walk and run upright. We “grasp” or “hold on” to an idea because we have opposable thumbs on hands built to grab. We say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure” and careers are “paths,” because we experience life as travel.
But there are no prepositions yet that do justice to the Internet’s absence of distance. Of course, we say we are “on” the Internet like we say we are “on” the phone. And it works well enough, as does saying we are on” fire or drugs. We just frame our understanding of the Internet in metaphorical terms that require a preposition, and “on” makes the most sense. But can we do better than that? Not sure.
Have you noticed that how we present ourselves in the digital world also differs from how we do the same in the physical one? On social media, for example, we perform roles, as if on a stage. We talk to an audience straight through a kind of fourth wall, like an actor, a lecturer, a comedian, musician, or politician. My point here is that the arts and methods of performing in the physical world are old, familiar, and reliant on physical surroundings. How we behave with others in our offices, our bedrooms, our kitchens, our clubs, and our cars are all well-practiced and understood. In social media, the sense of setting is much different and more limited.
In the physical world, much of our knowledge (as the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi first taught) is tacit rather than explicit, yet digital technology is entirely explicit: ones and zeroes, packets and pixels. We do have tacit knowledge of the digital world, but the on/off present/absent two-dimensionality of that world is still new to us and lacks much of what makes life in the three-dimensional natural world so rich and subtle.
Marshall McLuhan says all media, all technologies, extend us. When we drive a car we wear it like a carapace or a suit of armor. We also speak of it in the first person possessive: my engine, my fenders, my wheels, much as we would say my fingers and my hair. There is distance here too, and it involves performance. A person who would never yell at another person standing in line at a theater might do exactly that at another car. This kind of distance is gone, or very different, in the digital world.
In a way we are naked in the digital world, and vulnerable. By that I mean we lack the rudimentary privacy technologies we call clothing and shelter, which protect our private parts and spaces from observation and intrusion while also signaling the forms of observation and contact that we permit or welcome. The absence of this kind of privacy tech is why it is so easy for websites and apps to fill our browsers with cookies and other ways to track us and report our activities back to dozens, hundreds or thousands of unknown parties. In this early stage of life on the Internet, what’s called privacy is just the “choices” sites and services give us, none of which are recorded where we can easily find, audit, or dispute them.
Can we get new forms of personal tech that truly extend and project our agency in the digital world? I think so, but it’s a question so completely good that we don’t yet have an answer.