digital rhetoric

It turns out that the Internet is a big place

I suppose this is coincidentally a follow-up of sorts on my last post. It might also be “a web-based argument for the humanities” of a sort. We’ll see.

On The Daily Beast, Ben Collins asks the musical question “How Long Can the Internet Run on Hate?” One might first be inclined to answer, “I don’t know, but we’re likely to find out.” However, on reflection, one might take pause: hold on, does the Internet run on hate? I don’t think I need to summarize Collins’ argument, as we all know what he’s on about here. If one wasn’t sure, then the comments following the article would at least give one a taste.

So a couple observations.

1. The Internet cannot be separated all that easily from the rest of culture. One might as well ask how long can civilization run on hate (the answer? apparently a good long while). Obviously the Internet did not invent hate. Does it make us hate more? Or does it simply shine a light in the dark corners of humanity’s hatred? Probably both.

2. The affordances of social media facilitate particular online genres and affects. Specifically, the comment. If I may be allowed generalize somewhat here, the comment as a genre refers not only to what follows various articles online but also to the acts of commenting in discussion forums, on Facebook, and Twitter (though obviously Twitter’s 140-character limit changes things).  By now, we are familiar with the observation that the immediacy of the comment and the relative ease of commenting results in a lot of reactionary feedback. I would analogize it to the barroom brawl in an old Western movie. It starts with two people shoving. One gets shoved backwards into a third person. That person throws a punch, misses, and hits a fourth party. Before you know it, everyone in the bar is fighting.

3.The Internet is fueled by a number of other desires too:  shopping, pornography, the idle curiosity of the Google search, etc. In other words, it’s not just hate; it’s also lust! And it’s not just Clay Shirky’s “cognitive surplus,” it’s also idle hands doing the Devil’s work. We shouldn’t judge ourselves harshly for having desires.

4. The Internet runs on exposure. This ties into my Enculturation article from a few years back. Even though we commonly say that people tend to live in cultural-ideological echo chambers online, those chambers are not nearly as sealed as the comparatively parochial lives that we lived even in the days of mass media. The simple exposure to expression is enough to generate intense affective responses. Of course it doesn’t have to be hate, and obviously it isn’t only hate. Sometimes that affectivity can be directed through assemblages that result in fairly even-minded academic blog posts. If you think about it though, when one goes on Facebook, for example, one is unlikely to be doing something purposeful. One is just looking for stimulation, like channel-surfing (in the “old days”).

Imagine a kind of P.K. Dick-esque sci-fi world where instead of social media, you were more directly plugged into the affective responses of others online. You’re exposed to various media and you not only feel your own responses but those of others. You’re excited and so are some others, but then others are offended or disgusted or angered or bored. This generates a secondary set of affects. Maybe you’d imagine that it could all turn to love (or at least lust) as easily as it could all turn to hate. But maybe what you’d discover is that it’s all just stimulation, exposure, and the particular name you give the feeling doesn’t really matter. At some level, it becomes an ineffable clicking. In that imagined world, language is entirely bypassed. In fact, all conscious, deliberative thought is bypassed. It’s not even sharing “feelings,” because, at least as I’m using the word, a feeling or emotion would require some kind of reflection, some judgment and identification/representation. This is just responsiveness. It’s a deterritorialization of language. As I mentioned in the previous post. It’s not about communication or information. It’s expression.

Obviously we don’t quite live in that world. We’re still mediating with “human languages” rather than machine languages measuring our embodied responses and communicating them across the web. But the distinction is more subtle than you might at first imagine. As such, one might argue that the Internet is not fueled by hate because the phenomena Collins discusses are not sophisticated enough to be hate. That’s not to suggest that there isn’t plenty of hate out there to go around. It’s just that what we see on the web when we see this things is a kind of stimulus response to exposure.

Or course part of the point here is that the Internet is not all like that. It’s a big place, as it turns out. Even in the spaces of social media commentary it’s not all like that.  Everyone knows that the Internet provides access to an extensive body of cultural knowledge. So much so that it’s kind of a running joke that goes something like “imagine trying to explain the Internet to an alien. Here we have access to many of the great works of human endeavor and cutting edge research about our lives, the world, and the universe, and what do we use it for?” Typically though, this comes off as some kind of moralizing.

I wonder if it’s possible to take the morality out of it though. It’s worth noting that building knowledge, information, and communication out of exposure and expression requires effort. I’d like to think of that statement as being closer to physics or biology or cybernetics than morality. Energy must be expended. So here’s my brief bit about the humanities: maybe we can have a role in this.

If you read the comments on the article above (or really any similarly-themed article), the humanities are often characterized as a kind of prescriptive, moralizing, leftist thought police. In some respects it’s an understandable characterization. That’s a subject for another time. However, the humanities can also be a mechanism for understanding how expression operates through media ecologies. It’s hard to know exactly how the theological moralities of agrarian cultures or the rational, deliberative discourses of the modern bicameral scientific-democratic print-industrial culture will translate into digital media ecologies. As I often say here: some assembly is required. While the humanities cannot (at least not productively) tell us what to do/think, they perhaps can explore the capacities that become available to us in the context of the capacities the past provided.

Ultimately though it always comes back to expending the energy to build something that goes beyond that initial stimulus response.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.