The history of communications technology is the history of the world slowly shrinking. Writing allows us to share thoughts with people over great distances; trains let us send letters more quickly; fibre optic cables let us do so in real time. The more the world shrinks, the more space is elided. Take the Atlantic Ocean, which has endured a transformation from impassable path to the edge of the world to marginal inconvenience for Europeans who want to watch Game of Thrones at the same time as Americans. Information is everywhere and simultaneous; the spaces in between are forgotten.
One of the effects of the elision of space is that we can live in more than one place at once. We can sustain friendships across the globe with relative ease. Our minds are often as much with those friends who are not present as with those who are. We take pictures to show them, and send them by Snapchat or share them by Instagram. We text and Whatsapp and video call. Part of experiencing phenomena in the local, non digital world, is recording them, encoding them, transmitting them. Something is lost in this encoding: a picture cannot render a place, a video cannot capture a concert, and an email cannot represent a holiday. We do not expect them to, but we do not realise the extent to which they simplify our experience.
Sharing is not without value. It sustains genuine relationships and genuine emotion. But it is in many ways in opposition to the local. We become less present, less in the moment, the more we seek to encode and share. This is a common cry of the technologically disaffected: that we can’t be enjoying pop concerts because we’re too busy taking pictures of them. I’m not sure I would go that far. We are enjoying ourselves, but differently. We are enjoying the unique phenomenon of the lived experience – the fact of being in a particular place at a particular time, the full sensual experience of the moment – less for its own qualities and more for its ability to provide information to share. We enjoy being in the Grand Canyon, but we also enjoy being there so we can take a picture of it.
When we encode things to upload them, we simplify them in certain ways. Computers understand things differently to humans, as do social networking sites. They require specific instructions; they are bad with ambiguity and semantics and guesswork. Because they require specific instructions, they require humans to give them specific, computer-y inputs. So to interface with computers effectively, humans have to learn new behaviours: “because computers cannot come to us and meet us in the our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can ‘understand.’” (David Auerback in n+1] (Observe the difference between an older and a younger person using Google search: the older will likely, if they don’t use computers that much, ask a fully formed human language question – ‘where can I watch Game of Thrones?’ The younger, savier user will type a more computer-y search, consisting only of the important keywords – ‘watch game of thrones’.)
We will live less in our world, and more in theirs: we will live less in space, and more on the Internet, less as bodies, and more as data.
Facebook is in many ways at the forefront of this abandonment of space. Facebook’s business model is based on data, much of it from communications, much of the rest from users’ self-definitions. It wants to know how you categorise yourself: your sports teams, your high school, your favourite band. For the computer (in this case, the vast data-algorithms of Facebook), this information is parse-able and useful. It is a simplification of the self as we currently understand it, a necessary encoding to create a digital, mobile self of bits and selfies.
Facebook’s project, of course, is far from completion. Its users still have many facets of their lives that aren’t quantifiable or digitised. But their end goal is clear. Facebook can’t process space, but they can process digital space – clicks and shares and network maps of who you message. They can’t understand how you felt or what you smelt, but they can tag your photos and locations and ask you “What’s on your mind?” as if you could answer. So they want to make you and your experiences as close to possible to their computable inputs. One way to achieve this is to, as much as possible, destroy space.
They took a significant conceptual step towards the destruction of space with the acquisition of a virtual reality company, Oculus, for around $2 billion (mostly in Facebook stock). Oculus are best known for their development of the still unreleased Oculus Rift headset, a system for virtual reality videogaming. The basic conceit of the headset is that while wearing it the user can’t see or hear the world, only the digitally generated world of the game she is playing, wholly immersing the user in the digitally created world. Various demos of it have been shown. One, a digital recreation of The Wall from Game of Thrones, also featured some ‘fourth dimension’ aspects – a shaking floor, a wind machine – that in any other context would be cheesy. The hope is that by stimulating as many of the senses as possible, while blocking other sensory inputs, the experience of using a virtual reality headset will be as immersive as the experience of living in the world. Virtual reality aims to replace lived space with digital space.
It is clear why this might be appealing to Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg posted enthusiastically (on Facebook) about the possibilities of the Oculus technology:
The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people. […]
Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.
Zuckerberg creates an attractive, eminently normal vision of the applications of virtual reality: watching sports, seeing the doctor, going to class. Entering this digital space will have these banal applications, replacing some of the limitations of real space. In the stadium, hardly anyone gets a good seat. In the Facebook headset, everyone has the best seat possible.
But the virtual reality Zuckerberg instructs us to ‘Imagine’ is not a mere substitute for space. It replaces it. The user feels “actually present in another place”. While “feeling truly present” she can “share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life”, overcome various non-virtual constraints to shared experience like geographic location or barbed wire fencing. Facebook virtual reality will allow the user to share “not just moments” but “entire experiences and adventures”. Or, to put it a little differently, imagine sharing a picture on Facebook, but it’s not a picture, it’s an experience in its totality: all the sensory stimulations and moods, how they coloured your response, how they soured your friendships. All the things you didn’t perceive.
To achieve such a completely shareable digital experience, the computer must be able to track a vast amount of data, to read memories, to process emotions, to encode noticed details, impulses, landscapes, colours, the play of light on the retina and amongst the trees and through a heat haze and through sunglasses and shining off her hair. This seems unlikely. The only way the experience can be “entire” is if the experience is stripped of as many of those complicated things computers struggle with processing as possible. The only way is if as much of the experience of space as possible is forgotten.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor (1969), Van Veen inveighs against the tyranny of space. Van considers his sensations so profound and whole that he can summon any moment of memory with ease, and experience it again. For this reason, time is not linear – because the mnemonist can move through it gracefully. The real problem is space, “the comedy villain, returning by the back door with the pendulum he peddles, while I grope for the meaning of Time”. Van argues that time can only be measured through space, and spatial metaphor: to escape such thinking is to experience time truly, unmediated and pure. Van’s memory bears a striking resemblance to Facebook’s Timeline feature: an easily accessible store of fleeting moments, impressions of time well lived. Van’s claims are somewhat undermined by the frequent narrative interruptions of his lover Ada, who questions the veracity of his version of events.
Timeline doesn’t have the courtesy to offer the same necessary reminders. It has no interest in undermining its own status, no interest in ambiguity or paradox or the distorting power of nostalgia and love. If a self consists of a series of moments and impressions bound together under one label in time, then a Facebook Timeline can represent a self. But it wants to do more: it wants to be a self. It wants to fit the user’s impressions to its mould, to align their real self and their Facebook self as much as possible, to reduce the gap between the experience and the record of it, and reduce the influence of the self in reinterpreting this record. Virtual reality would be a step in this direction: an enrichment of virtual life, but a further reduction in lived experience. It will give users access to a store of memories, memories that have been formed in virtual reality and are capable of being relived and shared with ease. Memories unblurred by recall, untinged by nostalgia, crisp and pixelated as the day they were made. Memories formed, unlike Van’s, not in presentness, not in the pleasures and confusions of the moment, not in the locality of the body, not in space, but bridging space, as nodes in a network – in absence.