The world hasn’t yet invented the right word for my deep new disenchantment with the Post-Internet. It has elements of a broken romance, a burn-out, a nervous breakdown, depression and physical anxiety. It’s a state of exile from a cyberspace where things became unfriendly, where words harm rather than help. A frontier that defined itself as futurity becomes a dead shopping mall behind rags and barbed-wire.
It’s no simple matter to reinvent oneself, to create a new world of sensibility, in a new place where one is somehow freed of one’s own characteristics, that historical baggage of illusions and emotions. If you have no illusions or emotions, then you cannot imagine or love, but delusions and lies are a deadly peril to a loving relationship.
It’s so many years ago, that I can’t even remember when my dry interest in digital communication machines became a real passion. Somehow, though, I was waking up each morning with true, unfeigned enthusiasm about opening a personal computer. I took joy in the sound of its automatic dialling and its eerie modem squeal and hiss, which I had learned to recognize as the anthemic sound of connectivity to the world. It was a digital space, but it was also “the world,” because it the wider globe beyond the tight boundaries of my small Balkan nation, with its local obsessions, grim news, good guys and bad guys.
I understood, in a halting way, that the Internet was a product of Cold War military science and was not some etheric digital product made by morally stainless angels. But I blessed even the military for having invented such a radical glamorous change for good in my own daily life. As a nomad, as a woman without a mother language or a homeland, cyberspace seemed a proper place for the likes of me to dwell and conduct her life. No shouted questions there, no demands for visas or work permits, no fierce identity politics; it was so new and different.
You all know the story of what happened afterward. It took about a generation, with many historical twists and turns, some good some bad. But these days, I wake up with the grave understanding that the physical world around me, which once seemed so limiting and archaic, is much less menacing than the world behind the screen. I know perfectly well that search engines, ranking systems, social algorithms and even well- paid thieves, spies, provocateurs and vandals are very profitably busy there.
When I glimpse my own reflection in the screen, I can see I’m not happy. I have the guarded look of a Warsaw Pact woman playing it cool at some police checkpoint. I have a new appreciation for, say, Russian Bolshevik feminists who found themselves, a generation later, in a brave new Soviet world that lacked Czarists but had plenty of gulags. Of course I built the world I live in now, I was keen to contribute, because I knew it was a revolution, but revolutions aren’t permanent.
The squalid, ugly and deeply deceitful Post-Internet situation we have now isn’t permanent, either.
My nightmares arise from my post-traumatic stress of remembering how bad things once were. I overreact because I can see a social sensibility that freed me, that I enjoyed, becoming an oligarchy that is a funhouse mirror of a nomenklatura. I don’t hear the halting squeal of a desktop modem nowadays. Instead I find myself afflicted by the endless repertoire of beeps, tingles, and squeaks that are emitted by a device on my own body. This device is small, fast, relentless, impersonal, has cameras and microphones on board, and emits these Pavlov noises in order to connect, control, and alert me. I have no global Internet anonymity; they literally have my number.
I could turn the beeps off, but I know that the crucial interactions in this device, the activities of genuine political and economic importance in this small but potent device, are mostly silent and deliberately unrevealed to me. I’m not a citizen of my smartphone; I am its product. It’s not a personal phone, it’s social. And it’s not “global” — it is oligarchic.
Its presence in my life no longer gives me a vicid feeling of agency, connection and protection. It’s become old-fashioned to think that a portable telephone might make a woman more “safe,” when away from her kitchen and hearth. I can remember that older social attitude, because I am not young anymore, but now my phones and its many insistent apps feel isolating to me. Its presence reminds me that my parents are long dead and can’t help me, and that I live far away from the twentieth century’s routines.
Slavenka Drakulic once wrote a book called “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.” That was true; it was doable. Plenty of us survived Balkan communisms, from Tito to Milosevic, if we lacked fierce and powerful enemies, and if we had family friends and some social stability, or some job or social role where we could be useful and could keep our noses clean. But their was also a pervasive atmosphere of surveillance and repression, carried out by a remote, elite, airtight and secretive apparatus. You didn’t have to be personally whacked with a baton to know that you were living in a bad scene.
And now, after a long historic period of relative footloose livability for me, I can feel the trouble. I’m getting an odd neuralgia, a carpal tunnel, from my daily forced submissions to this small glass device. It’s bad for my posture; I feel pangs in my arms and shoulders; my busy screen-wiping fingers take on odd arthritic shapes. The digital world is older now; the normal people around me are older, too; and I can feel this device, with its compulsive jingle-jangle of advertising sounds, aging me before my time.
My feeble eyes behind their advanced, lightweight bifocals get swollen and misty from staring at it. I look away, with a vague, unfocussed feeling of dread, but pretty soon, I have to look back. Because I have no other portal of access into my own life anymore.
Of course I saw that process happening. I understood early on that the digital was ridding the world of the analog clutter of material belongings, that apps were swallowing the functions of other devices. That process was freeing me to prosper out of a global suitcase, even if it took a cruel toll on certain things I loved and cherished, such as newspapers, magazines, vinyl records, antiques, books and my happy memories of an analog world. I wanted to be free, and I wanted information to be free, and I knew that freedom, especially for a woman, was a stern and demanding state of affairs, that it always had a cost.
It’s easy for an early adapter to lament about a mainstream situation, but the mistake is thinking that history has some happy end. History is not soluble, it is one damned thing after another. No cure is permanent and there is no Silicon Valley solution to the human condition. Even science is nobody’s rational utopia, it’s an “Endless Frontier,” as Vannevar Bush remarked not long after his crash course in creating nuclear war.
So I’ve learned to trust my instincts and look for the comic relief in smart mistakes.
Recently, my smart phone misbehaved. I was on the road, between flights, between countries, working hard. I had no time to fix my phone’s obscure glitch, which was buried deep in some OS compost heap of pull-down menus.
Instead, my phone anxiety just detached, somehow. My frustration and rage drifted away from the surface of the malfunctioning phone. My technical troubles lost their grip on my psych. I was out of their loop.
Instead of drowning in the black-screen ocean of lost connectivity, I realized that I could swim. I even enjoyed it. Of course I felt a spasm of work-guilt, because I was the chattel who had let go, downed my tools, denied the unspoken command to be instantly available 24-7, and defected into the 404 world of not found, user error…
But I had also broken a bad habit. Of course the people traveling around me didn’t see this tiny act of rebellion; no, we the livestock of Big Tech are much like a some ancient feudal clan with rigid customs and superstitions engrained by centuries of dysfunction. But even feudal peasants have black sheep. The bullshit floats to the surface eventually: the nakedness of the imperial social networks comes to light.
Then I realized that many behaviors I once saw as my virtues were in doubt; they were indeed virtues once, because it took a lot of tech education, discipline and craftsmanship to learn them, but the moral context around these behaviors had changed. It was like some act of comfort — like an adult daughter pouring grandpa a nice shot of vodka — that had turned into vicious enabling behavior.
Why did I dutifully answer every entity, all the time, on all social media? Were all those bots or paid social PR really friends, inhabiting my reality, to which I wanted to be connected? Wasn’t I thoughtless applying hard-won habits of personal politeness, net etiquette, and authentic connection in situations where they no longer made any sense? And wasn’t I inflicting that same behavior on everyone else?
I needed to pay more attention to my lived experience. Especially the psychosomatic pangs, which were flinching reactions of my body to a worldless situation, a deep social woe that still lacks any proper political terminology. Some day I, or more likely somebody else, will be able to verbally package this instinctive loathing, but we’re in the early days of psychoanalysis for our current state of oppressive, feudal, digital sociality.
I can’t deny that I suffer, that I am in pain and I feel betrayed and abandoned. I feel the blueness of a failed love affair, with passion gone cold and a creeping insecurity. My concept of the routines of a happy life has collapsed.
Mind you, I was never a happy-go-lucky type who was happy to be happy. But when I didn’t cringe from my glass spy device, I had many elated moments in my life. I hopped from bed most mornings propelled by creative ideas, and keen to see what was cooking, far over the horizon. My digital actions gave me that satisfaction, in war or in peace, in relating to friends or enemies, to close family or utter strangers.
Where has that cherished feeling gone? I won’t find it by tossing my phone aside and going to live in the woods, like Henry David Thoreau. Nor do I want to start bitterly raging that I’m lost in a world I never made, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What was it that I wanted in the first place, and how did I mistake the technical means for the moral end?
Finally , as a war blogger before the word blog was even invented, when my words went virally online, I believed I saved my life and maybe somebody else’s conscience. But today with Syrian crisis, and the general indifference and web inefficiency, I can honestly admit that I was wrong.