Monday, February 15, 2010

Paradise lost?

In Slavoj Žižek’s Violence, I met a passage in which he describes that today’s world of the Internet has no longer “Master-Signifiers”: world leaders like Churchill who simply take decisions and steer the world on the basis of the complexity of information brought to them by specialists-advisers. “A basic feature of our postmodern world is”, says Žižek, “that it tries to dispense with this agency of the ordering Master-Signifier” (p. 30). Typical for the present world is a “World Web Surfer ... sitting alone in front of a PC screen [who is] increasingly a monad with no direct windows onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever in a global communication network” (p. 29; italics mine). Here, I do not want to discuss whether the Master-Signifier is a vanishing type. I wouldn’t be surprised if it will come out sooner or later that the events in the world are more manipulated than ever before. However, even if we suppose that the World Web Surfer is not only a World Web Surfer but has direct personal relations as before like family, friends and colleagues, the quotation evokes a picture of modern man becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and increasingly losing his or her grip on it. But is it a correct picture?
It is true, many of our relations are nowadays no longer from face to face but from screen to screen. No longer from voice to voice and from look to look, but intermediated by apparatuses and bits. But does this make the relations less personal? When we look around and see what most of our direct relations involve, we realize that, outside the little circle of family, friends and colleagues, although being “personal”, our relations are only superficial in most cases. My washing machine has broken down and I buy a new one. I have lost my job and I apply for an unemployment benefit. My car has been stolen and I go to the police. All these contacts are made in person, indeed, but we do not meet persons here as Mr. or Mrs. Johnson, Mary or Pete, but we meet them as functionaries, usually playing their parts in larger bureaucracies; bureaucracies that one can penetrate, if at all, only with much patience, time and energy. The reality one encounters here is often no less virtual than the one encountered in the Internet. As soon as one thinks about making the functional relation really personal, one is usually stopped by one’s own reserve and a lot of institutional rules and practices.
Against this, I want to state that the window onto reality offered by the screen and keyboard of a PC is often by far more direct. On the Internet one has many opportunities to come in a direct contact with persons one has never met before and could hardly meet in another way. The Internet gives the opportunity to get round blockades that exist in the “real” world. Authors can publish in bits what nobody wanted to publish in paper for often vague reasons. There are social relations websites like Facebook, elderly people can escape isolation brought by their age, to mention a few things. I do not need to list the advantages of the Internet as a means for communication and making relations for the readers of this blog. They are already caught in the Web and they know what I mean. However, I do not want to glorify the Internet and the computer era. My problem with quotations like the one above is that they always seem to suggest that we have lost a paradise of personal relations and communication that never will come back. Yes, we got global communication back for it, it is said, but it is virtual, not real (forgetting that this virtuality is also a part of reality). I want to state, however, that if we have lost a paradise, we have got back another one. It is different, indeed. Maybe it is not better but it is also not worse. We have lost the old Garden of Eden, but we have got a new one in return.


Luzdeana said...

Well I find this post extremely interesting, Henk. And clear enough for me to have something to say. You know I love philosophy, but some of your texts are beyond my possibilities... you ARE a philosopher, I'm just a curious reader, lol.
I have experienced myself the joy of making personal and valuable relationships on the Internet with people I wouldn't have met in my life in the "real" world. I appreciate I can share interests and exchange opinions, ideas and even knowledge with a number of surfers, which opens my mind and teaches me about anything and everything, even when we don't agree. And it's fair to say that I feel they are "real people", not just virtual encounters.
Have a nice week! :)

HbdW said...

Diana,thank you for your reaction.
Not only the philosophers Badiou and Žižek said these things, also the Dutch queen Beatrix thought in a recent speech that the Internet leads to isolation of people, not realizing that it leads also to new types of personal relations and friendships.