The Melancholy of the Solitary Society

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have revolutionized the way we exchange information on the societal level. Allowing for better coordination of people they provide a soapbox to a potentially global audience. Websites such as these are an ever-changing noticeboard in the middle of a town centered around you and your concerns. Content is recommended to you by algorithms trying to please your interests. These algorithms within themselves are benign – If they work better and give you a better user experience, the company will make more money and the more we use them, the better they know us. However, these tailor-made spaces come at the cost of a vast array of information that we have willingly entered being available to those who control it, as well as those who may access these databases. This obviously opens up the issues that have arisen over the past few years about personal security and privacy from organizations such as the NSA. As the psycho-sphere of our times is adjusting to new waves of telecommunications, AI and algorithmic controls that further change at an accelerating rate, we need to ask what really is our relationship with technology? This cannot be done directly as these machines are new, they can talk back to us and react to us like nothing before. What we must observe are the effects social media has had on our relationships, for it is through relationships with one another that we can call ourselves a society. This essay will explore our relationships, suffering and solitude.

 

Relationships

Whereas new technologies such as these may have weakened our relationships with our governments, they have made more open the concept of fame. Picking up from the world of reality television, social media in all forms; from Twitter updates, to Facebook statuses, Vlogging, Blogging and Instagramming allow one to project a level of exposure that has never before been possible. Figures such as Kim Kardashian West and Donald Trump have cultivated massive followings without seemingly having achieved anything. This fame is also unique to the information age, as it stands at the mercy of those algorithms that feed us content. What matters here is the sheer volume of times something is mentioned, where it is coming from and how often, there is no morality within this system. Whether you have saved a baby from a burning building or shot a policeman, what matters to the machines is whether people are talking about it for good or for ill. Never before has it been true that any publicity is good publicity.

And it is the ability of people like Kardashian to keep churning out images, status updates, short video clips non-stop to keep this chatter about them alive. She may have started with reality TV but with 3 mobile apps, 63m followers on Instagram, 43m on twitter and 28m on Facebook, her exposure very much has roots in social media. She treats her audience as her best friend, always there for you with a new update on her life, though long-distance, oh and you have to pay $2.99 a month:

“The Kim Kardashian West Official App gives Kim’s audience unprecedented and exclusive personal access to her life. Through the app, Kim shares original and curated content, interactive experiences, live streaming, access to offline events, tutorials, and much more. Kim is giving her fans more access and producing and curating more experiences here than she has ever offered before.” (Whalerock Digital Media, 2016)

It seems rather fitting that the highest paid ‘Reality Television personality’ last year (Forbes.com, 2016) was catapulted into the limelight by a moment of complete exposure – the sex tape she made with Ray J, and has managed to sustain and grow her presence in the zeitgeist by exposing everything else.

Social media sites act much like the postal service and telephones: they monetize communication; however the step that Kardashian and other Internet celebrities have made is to monetize friendship itself.

This access to the lives of others isn’t the sole proviso of the celebrity. Our social media profiles provide a record of who we are, that will remain forever more unless special measures are taken to remove them. Advances in telecommunications also enable us to be much more spontaneous and flexible with our time. We are able to spend time alone whilst still being active within conversations that may be happening elsewhere. Traditional etiquette is being eroded and rebuilt within this new sphere of techno-life. Social protocols, such as maintaining a fixed attention upon one person speaking to you are often interrupted to check devices. This has led to the questioning of how our attention spans have been affected, the faster access and easier switching of activity that has come with the rise of the smartphone and associated tools, has resulted in a drop in attention spans (Watson, 2015). However it is important to note that this has also been accompanied by a rise in the ability of people to multi-task and extract relevant information quickly:

“While digital lifestyles decrease sustained attention overall, it’s only true in the long-term. Early adopters and heavy social media users front load their attention and have more intermittent bursts of high attention.

“They’re better at identifying what they want/don’t want to engage with and need less to process and commit things to memory.” (Watson, 2015)

So when it comes to the question as to whether conversation is under threat due to the interruptions it may receive, it is absurd. Conversation isn’t dying, merely transforming to fit a world that is running more than one at a time.

Our relationship with strangers has also changed. In a seminar series at Central St. Martin’s, Richard Reynolds, acting course leader in MA Applied Imagination said, ‘There are no contextualizing journeys when we meet someone online’ such as that may be likened to meeting a friend in a dodgy part of town, so when we meet someone new through a website such as Facebook or Twitter it relies on a degree of trust (Reynolds, 2016). These spaces do however cultivate particular psycho-geographies about them, the etiquette for each space helps to determine what are the contextually important factors around a person. Facebook for instance encourages the exploration of a newly friended person’s past. Profiles, status updates and photo galleries provide a textual and visual trace of someone’s personality, curated to tell the story only with the bits they choose. This is obviously open to the possible abuse by someone who may be attempting to fake an identity for some nefarious purpose, however, in the majority of cases, how is this persona any less genuine than the various personas one might adopt when talking to parents, friends, doctors or judges? There is no complete side to a person, just as meeting a friend in a bad part of town may not reveal he volunteers in the soup kitchen there. Much like in real life, to get some sense of a person requires spending time trying to understand them, it comes as no surprise therefore that the questions asked of the user in their profile are the same questions we ask as small talk in a party (what do you do? What have you done recently? What music/film/TV/books… do you like?).

The accessible nature to many can also turn these curated spaces into weaknesses. Whereas one might have a perfectly professional persona at work, when interviewed an interviewer may have passed over the curation of their LinkedIn profile to see the wilder, more political or otherwise undesirable side of their personality reflected by a quick search through their Facebook profile. This is however no more a reflection of the ‘Truer’ candidate than the work-based profile that was looked over due to its manufactured nature. These multiple personas all act as a form of social capital that make up ‘The Amazing Me’ (Damjanovski, 2016) and each of them is an accurate representation of the individual. An example of this can be found within the Oscar winning short film ‘Stutterer’, where unbeknownst to each other a man with a crippling stutter that renders him almost mute and a deaf woman are able to form a relationship online without mentioning these things and so transcending what they believed to be fatal character flaws. The characters are not imposters of themselves any more than someone who only posts images of the meals they were proud to make; it may be received that they are a culinary master, but they haven’t lied about making it.

We are only just beginning to contextualize ourselves in the new psycho-geographic spaces. The etiquette around these spaces will continue to evolve from and warp the etiquette from our physical lives. This will inevitably follow where the money is made and right now the money is made through engagement, interaction and having larger networks of people.

 

Suffering

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide analyses the relationship between Capitalism and mental health and the ways in which new technologies and new media have affected this. Berardi does this within the context of tragedies of high school shootings, terrorist attacks and waves of suicides.

Pekka-Erik Auvinen, Berardi points out, used his YouTube channel to announce the massacre he was later going to commit. Having made the announcement, Berardi likens the actual act of murder as more of a form of self-advertising than blind atrocity. Auvinen had ‘accurately prepared the mediatization of his show’ (Berardi, 2015, p41).

Auvinen’s thoughtfulness about the media storm after his suicide is not a unique case. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators behind the Columbia High School Massacre left behind many videotapes of themselves deliberating over which director would create their movie. However it is the case of Korean born Seung-Hui Cho that Berardi delves deepest into. Cho had sent a PR package of video, photographs, and a manifesto to NBC News after having already killed 2 of his eventual 32 victims at Virginia Tech State University. This press package paints Cho as ‘a Quentin Tarantino character’ (Dr Michael Welner in Berardi, 2015) which Berardi argues should not be dismissed but instead treated as the other side of Cho’s personality, the one that did not show itself in person. This radicalized character, is argued to be caused by the dissociation that Cho suffered after the move to America from Korea:

“The language of operational interaction, for him, was different from the language of affection and intimacy… At school he wrote a language he could not speak and at home spoke a language he could not write.” (Berardi, 2015, p66)

Berardi simplifies this as ‘possibly only an extreme form of that dissociation of language and affection which is generally widespread among those who are learning more words from a machine than they do from their mothers’ (Berardi, 2015, p66). The argument here is that without the mother to connect language to emotional discourse a division between the two is formed, resulting in a reduction in empathic responses. It is unclear whether Berardi is arguing here that machines are incapable of providing this emotional connection all together, but he seems rather pessimistic about the general effects of exposure to them.

‘In my opinion, extended exposure to the virtual flow is one of the most important causes of the current psycho-cognitive mutation. Yet it would be inaccurate to assume that such exposure is necessarily and in itself a cause of pathology and alienation, because it seems to me that the conditions of psychic suffering (namely loneliness, angst, depression) precedes any such circumstantial factors’ (Berardi, 2015, p116)

This dissociation is a key witness to the changing psycho-sphere of our times, however it is important to remember that the Internet and its associates are tools. As with any other tool, they can be used incorrectly and cause harm, furthermore, these technologies are in their infancy and as mentioned earlier, over time and with more use will become less corrosive to the psyche.

South Korea is perhaps the country that has suffered psychologically the most due to the digital revolution. With a suicide rate of 28.4 individuals per 100,000, it is the highest amongst OEDC countries and the 3rd highest in the world. From an agrarian society at the beginning of the 20th century, Korea was industrialized by a Japanese empire that crumbled after the Second World War, after which, Korea itself was pitched into a civil war that devastated and split the country (Berardi, 2015). Following this came the 30-year period of economic growth known as the “Miracle on the Han River”. This complete change and hyper-acceleration of lifestyle has left modern Koreans cut off from their cultural past. Changes such as war and technological innovation on the scale of an industrial or electronic revolution shock the public psyche and it needs time to recover and rebuild the culture around it. In a century, Korea went through occupation, a world war, a civil war, two technological revolutions and massive economic growth. Each generation has been alienated from the experiences of their parents and with no way to contextualize themselves against the past, ‘suicide has come to be perceived increasingly as the only effective action of the oppressed, the only action which can actually dispel anxiety, depression and impotence.’ (Berardi, 2015, p.145)

 

Solitude

In his series ‘Art of Scandinavia’, Andrew Graham Dixon explores the sensibilities that tie the three nations that share similar languages of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. This Nordic Sensibility that flourished in the Viking Era but became provincial and quiet, had missed out on the enlightenment, had missed out on the renaissance, been left aside from the main currents of Europe and suddenly had ‘urbanisation, industrialization, mass emigration, alienation, revolutionary ideas, Nietzsche – The Death of God… when a Norwegian finally wakes up to the modern, what does he do? He Screams’ (Art of Scandinavia, 2016). Graham-Dixon was talking about Edvard Munch as being almost a last throw of the dice of this mentality at attempting to keep up with the modern. Munch’s ‘The Scream’ spoke for all of Scandinavia and thus, the area began to rebuild its minds. Norway, Sweden and Denmark all remained neutral during the first and second world wars, creating welfare states, focusing on education, health and infrastructure.

John Rawls’ thought experiment ‘The Veil of Ignorance’, asks us if we were to be born randomly into a country, with no knowledge of where or to whom, where would we want to be born? Rawls was paying attention to the fact that we know what is wrong with the world and that by asking this question it externalizes these ideas. Rawls concluded that the societies we would want to be born into would be those in the mould of Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, where education, health and happiness are high, where the gap in quality of life between the richest and poorest is small (The School of Life, 2015).

When inspecting the motivations behind the Nordic Noir scene that has brought forth spectacles in the vain of The Killing, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Wallander, Graham-Dixon failed to find the seedy underbelly of Nordic society. His conclusion was that this angst was a way of keeping the societal ego in check. At the beginning of the 20th century, ‘while others dreamed of creating a perfect world, here in Sweden, they showed the way and actually started building it’ (Art of Scandinavia, 2016). This was not an idealistic attempt to make heaven on earth, but a very grounded attempt at Utopia. Utopia is not a place, it is ‘a process, a recognition that things now are not perfect’ (Smith, 2016) and it is this continuous strive for perfection with the knowledge that the whole endeavor is ultimately flawed, for perfection is unattainable, that causes this angst. Any falling short is magnified, however, failure is not punished but seen as a block to build on. This knowledge of its own failings is therefore what keeps this ideology intact.

This utopianism is reflected within the concept of ‘The Amazing Me’. The multiple personas attempt to project the best version of the user at all times in all areas.

It must also be noted that personal space, silence and solitude are heavily important features within the Nordic psyche. The Swedish artist and playwright, August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata illustrates this intimacy with silence:

“Colonel. Shall we converse then?

 

Old Man. Talk about the weather…which we know. Ask how we are, which we know… I prefer silence. Then you hear thoughts…and see the past. Silence can conceal nothing…which words can.” (Törnqvist, 2015)

Strindberg’s Old Man enlightens us to the nature of conversation, small talk is discouraged for it wastes words and leaves us with a sense of connection that is nothing more than superficial. We should spend more time with our own thoughts, with silence, so that in concealing nothing, we might better understand ourselves.

For the Nordics this inner exploration is often journeyed whilst accompanying an exploration of nature, as explained by the Norwegian Satirist Erland Loe:

‘Nature is the place we go to escape, where we can be part of something and we can be free. Where I live, it’s only, you know, ten minutes cycling down here to the centre [of Oslo] and ten minutes the other way I’m in a forest and I don’t have to see anyone for days, if I don’t want to. And this is very… For me, it’s very important. I use this several times a week.’ (Art of Scandinavia, 2016)

Loe here points to the need for solitude within Scandinavian society and it is a society where people are first themselves before any form of identity. This “Solitary Society” is where the Nordic sensibility fits into the wider world of Internet users: We are all alone, yet we are together.

 

Scandinavia went through a traumatic start to the 20th Century, akin to that which South Korea is going through now. However, with a century of building for a better world and better minds, it has emerged into the information-era seemingly without the economic and psychological crises that have rocked the rest of the world. Berardi’s pessimism may have good reason, but he fails to see that there already are societies that are able to embrace the new era without recoiling in the horror of it all. And this mentality, to care less about others and to prioritize the health of our minds and feelings over driving our aspirations and desires, is what has enabled this.

When we type our messages to the world, we think, we reflect, we question what we want to say and how we want to say it. It is easier to reassess emotions and think clearly. Ridicule is often poured onto “Keyboard Warriors”, but when physical confrontation is removed, people are less reactionary, the words themselves matter, and not who says them loudest or most confidently. Reason and argument are more highly valued, human thought, not animal strength.

And in this reflection we become more sensitive to ourselves, what we think and who we are, and whilst we are questioning ourselves we consume 500 friends worth of curated exhibitions of their lives along with the rivers of aspirational lifestyles our celebrities send us. This is the Melancholy of the Solitary Society.

 

 

 

 

References

 

60abc.com. (2016). Humanoid robotics and computer avatars could help treat social disorders – 60abc. [online] Available at: http://60abc.com/humanoid-robotics-and-computer-avatars-could-help-treat-social-disorders/ [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

App, K. and Whalerock Digital Media, L. (2016). Kim Kardashian West Official App on the App Store. [online] App Store. Available at: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/kim-kardashian-west-official/id1000716588?mt=8 [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

Art of Scandinavia, (2016). [TV programme] BBC4: BBC.

Berardi, F. (2015). Heroes. London: Verso.

Damjanovski, S. (2016). Digital Detox: Choice and Relationsips.

Facebook.com. (2016). Kim Kardashian West. [online] Available at: https://www.facebook.com/KimKardashian/?fref=ts [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

Forbes.com. (2016). Forbes Welcome. [online] Available at: http://www.forbes.com/profile/kim-kardashian/ [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

Reynolds, R. (2016). Digital Detox: The Search Online for Love.

Smith, D. (2016). Utopia.

Statista. (2016). Instagram: most-followed accounts worldwide 2016 | Statistic. [online] Available at: http://www.statista.com/statistics/421169/most-followers-instagram/ [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

Stats, K. (2016). Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) Twitter Stats. [online] twittercounter. Available at: http://twittercounter.com/KimKardashian?utm_expid=102679131-71.lNIIk7Z3Qla8lBIXov2YVw.0&utm_referrer=http%3A%2F%2Ftwittercounter.com%2Fpages%2F100 [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

Stutterer. (2015). [film] London: Benjamin Cleary.

The School of Life, (2015). Political Theory – John Rawls. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-JQ17X6VNg [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

Törnqvist, E. (2000). Strindberg’s The ghost sonata. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, p.215.

Watson, L. (2015). Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/humans-have-shorter-attention-span-than-goldfish-thanks-to-smart/ [Accessed 17 Apr. 2016].

 

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