A few weeks ago BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours discussed the question ‘Should pornography be discussed as part of sex education?’ The programme was responding to the Children’s Commissioner for England’s press release, which expressed the worry that children’s access to porn “influences their attitudes towards relationships and sex…and there is a correlation between holding violent attitudes and accessing more violent media.” No huge surprises there then: the projected link between violent media and violent acts is now pretty much par for the course in discussions of violent and/or sexual crimes. Take the recent debate about rape porn, triggered by the exhumed internet histories of Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell. And in general, the association between technology and extremism is oddly ubiquitous.
This is perhaps because online pretty much everything is, by definition, available to everyone. It should arguably be democracy and freedom of expression at its height but it frequently serves to reinforce and ferment different pockets of marginalization. Terrorists can be ‘brainwashed’ and ‘radicalized,’ plots for mass murders can be masturbated and elaborated upon, child pornography is circulated, anorexics can seek ‘pro-ano’ inspiration.
Most young people have now probably watched at least one extreme or sadistic video: a porn star having sex with an animal, a soldier being tortured or beheaded, two girls doing stuff with a cup… In the aforementioned press release, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz reported how, “young perpetrators of sexual abuse describe their activity as ‘like having been in a porn film.’” Technology is pervasive and potentially, when it trips over into our ‘real lives,’ permissive.
In his über controversial, quasi-dystopian, technological-porn novel Crash (I recommend it more as an experience than a ‘good read’ – probably something like trying oysters, or acid, or bungee jumping,) Ballard’s Roth-esque self-named narrator feels transformed by a violent car crash. He finds himself “taking my place with all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives” – on television and now, increasingly, computer screens – so that we have a sense of the original, dangerous reality existing on the screen.
In his 1995 introduction to the novel, Ballard refers to this as a reversal of roles, whereby the inner world of the mind comes to represent reality more than the external world around us. Perhaps in the last (almost two) decades this process has gone even further. Ballard talks in the novel of being “de-cerebrated” by machinery; the mind and personality give way and are somehow neutralized, so that they become a sort of passive receptor for the extremes of digital experience.
This is true to some extent for a lot of people, for whom technology as a medium is (or is assumed to be) by nature devoid of responsibility, personality or emotion. Typing is like the final coda to desensitized communication: we speak in person, we speak on the phone, we write letters, we text, we instant message, we email, we blog, we tweet, we ‘comment.’ As the list progresses, the face behind the act becomes more blurred: we can obscure the appearance, then the voice, then the handwriting, then the phone number and email address until we become no more than a codified ‘username’ and an empty box for a profile picture. You can literally see or say anything you want, without being accountable.
But when you can say anything with impunity, sometimes you relinquish the right to retrieve it. Technology is both a fleeting nexus of endless possibility, a place where trends and comments can rise and disappear on an endlessly fluctuating, renewed and updated, tide of information. And yet it is also the locus of permanence and indestructibility. Once you ‘share,’ there’s no going back. Popular examples of virtually preserved idiocy that come to my mind include the geniuses that copied the girl they were (somehow both) bitching about and lusting after into their email chat and Kevin’s ludicrous post-date text barrage, which has been circulated internationally. Most of us only have to google ourselves to get our own – hopefully less shaming, but frequently quite bizarre – melee of our previously posted exploits. Email inboxes, photos uploaded on facebook, tweets, comments and links can follow you backwards and forwards in time with all the surreal elasticity of Dalí’s melting watch.
Dawn Ades says “soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of afixed cosmic order”. Technology can be seen as at once the absolute collapse of our ‘cosmic order’ (in the senses of corporeal human supremacy, physical and sensory experience, temporality and mortality) and at the same time the necessary prognosis of a race who consistently defer and subject physical experience to the numinous, the immaterial, the beyond. Technology is like the new religion: another infinite, omniscient, all encompassing ‘I AM.’
Comparing technology to religion or the collapse of space and time probably seems kind of overdramatic, especially since a lot of the internet’s supposedly terrifying, “de-cerebrating” content is stuff like memes, cat videos and poorly advertised weight loss programs (my god are those things uniformly unappealing.) But it is interesting that Crash is not alone in associating technology with a depersonalizing dystopian worldview—‘not alone’ being probably the world’s biggest understatement. Most of the dystopian literature produced since the early 19th century has contained some element technology-based extremism, usually with the aim of reducing humankind to a faceless, feeling-less techo-tribe.
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, precursor to Orwell and the rest, depicts a society with the ethos that “nobody is one, but one of.” Zamyatin’s indoctrinated narrator D-503 makes the same comparison between technology and traditional religion when he says “Their god did not invent anything cleverer than sacrificing oneself…we bring to our god, the United State, a quiet, rational, carefully though-out sacrifice.” People have numbers rather than names, a hidden pregnancy is an offense, having sex means applying for access to someone, getting a little pink coupon and rolling down the blinds on one of the, almost prescient, glass boxes they now live in. Logic is key and freedom is nonsense: the meaning is in the “absolute, ecstatic submission, in the ideal non-freedom.”
Maybe I’m getting carried away but it seems to me, almost a century later, this nascent idea is manifest in our relationship with technology. Logic is what is behind the machine and as people become increasingly defined by their online connections and exposed to a battery of advertisements, extreme content and other people’s views, sometimes it’s hard to stay rooted in the self and the now. At the very least we have all experienced the sort of procrastination where you are trawling Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter, or following a trail of links and you look up and realized two hours have passed, or find your whole mood and outlook altered by seeing what other people are ‘doing’ and saying. Your day, your perspective, the space in your mind for individual thought and ideas is overrun by the ever-expanding collective.
If a bit of mild dissatisfaction with your looks or your lot can be massaged into distress by some particularly masochistic online ‘stalking,’ it is little wonder people are concerned about what technology can do to social hatred or sexual perversion. While Crash takes the possibility to its limit, making the violence of the car crash the template for a perverted sexuality, there’s something familiar about a scenario in which: “Every aspect of Catherine at this time seemed a model of something else, endlessly extending the possibilities of her body and personality.” The internet stretches the possibilities ad infinitum – both in themselves and in their number –but it can end up reducing the autonomy and individuality of the self and leave us feeling “less real than the mannequins in the car” or the people on the screen.
The rampant, perverse sex Ballard describes as “an act divorced from all feeling” is perhaps not simply a derivation of, but a response to, what technology can impose on us: an overwhelming, floating ‘feeling’ divorced from all non-virtual (a.k.a. REAL) acts. We are left struggling in our actions to create an experience more real and more powerful than the content that seems to be overtaking us.
At the end of this article, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be feeling fairly confused, which at least means you haven’t been indoctrinated into a singular extremist view, right? Our love for (or obsession with) the internet is confusing in that it takes place on multiple spatio-temporal plains, is the portal to both freedom of thought and dependency and, not least, because the web contains a whole lot of crap. Zamyatin’s D-503 writes: “the most difficult and the most exalted love is—cruelty.” The internet can indeed be a cruel master but sometimes the hardest thing is what is most needed: switching off.