Over the last six months, I’ve inadvertently transformed from Luddite to digitally obsessed data-fiend. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not become a trained analyst (yet), but I have embarked on an exploration of the astonishingly broad implications of us living more of our lives online. Access to education, ease of data-sharing for scientific research purposes, social networking to aid political movement, the ease of online shopping for people with physical disabilities are all fantastic things. And online gaming. Bafflingly, that seems to bring geeky joy to a hell of a lot of people. Lack of privacy (coupled with diminished trust in international security agencies – thank you for shedding some light Ed Snowdon), individually targeted marketing, social pressures on youth/online bullying are not quite so warmly welcomed into our day-to-day reality. Okay, I still have fears about the future looking like an Orwellian dystopia (with more robots) but have reconciled myself to believing that the Internet is being used both for and against that happening. It is the best political tool we have as it unites like minds. But how is our use of digital communication changing the way we regard one another?
Profoundly, I propose. Here are some examples from the last few days of my life…
Perhaps you can imagine the hurt she felt at not being told privately by her family first. Actually, she used the word ‘betrayal’. To me this is an illustration of the constantly shifting boundaries between information we consider public and private, the desire for immediacy in communication and how it can lead us to act without considering the implications of what we’re putting out into the world and how it might affect others emotionally. This drive towards instant self-expression is also changing social etiquette. I am still surprised (and often annoyed / disappointed) if a friend pulls out their mobile to answer a text whilst we’re dining in a restaurant. Perhaps I do still have one foot in the dark ages for thinking it’s rude. But unarguably, it interrupts the flow of face-to-face communication, making me think; which level of reality is the most significant/important here? Are we losing respect / consideration for the people sitting directly in front of us?
Ideas about the online availability of medical advice and services were discussed in a confidential manner, to protect the identity of participants and encourage freedom of speech. No recording devices were used and we were able to speak openly about our sex-lives and our use of health services without fear of that information being publicly attributed to us.
I considered how willing I would feel about the idea of discussing my body and sexual practice over Skype with a doctor or counsellor, or filling in online questionnaires knowing that the data could / would be held somewhere with the potential to be used for the ends of unknown parties. Would I be equally as happy for the data to be sold to Pharmaceutical Giants to aid with their marketing as I might for it to add to developing scientific medical research? No, I would not – and this would deter me from seeking help.
Whist self-diagnosis and self-medication alleviate strain on the NHS (whilst we still have it!), what about the healing experience of being truly listened to and given time and eye-contact by a trusted professional? Hormonal changes occur in our brains when we stare into one another’s eyes, this release of Oxytocin must surely aid in our feeling safe to communicate difficult information, especially if our issues are psychological.
Thor Magnusson, designer of ‘ixi lang’, a playful digital coding programme that allows you to layer percussion, build melody, and add sound effects at top speed, taught me and a group of PHD students the basics of his code in about 15 minutes. An hour later, we were performing amongst a much larger group, asking them to listen to our noises and choices. It didn’t look like any gig I’d played before; visually, it was more like a school I.T. lesson.
Each performer sat on a chair at random intervals in the room, staring down at our laptops. Once given the signal, we all began frantically tapping at keys, the sounds of our data clashing throughout the space. We were doing this at the same moment in time, all making separate choices and expressions. I certainly wasn’t trying to synchronise my output with anyone else’s. The outcome was at first a confused yet pleasing drone, then eventually, after the addition of too many furiously added layers of conflicting information, an overload for the ears which appeared to stop having any impact / eliciting any kind of emotional response. It was bloody good fun – but probably better as a solo activity. You can use the technology to create a whole band sound, so why bother involving your mates?
I noticed that the space between performers and the randomness of our decisions could have been a metaphorical illustration for all of those people out there, all over the world, staring into screens and changing the trajectory of their lives with the inputting of data. Perhaps we feel protected by the relative anonymity of hiding behind our computers in the safety of our homes. Perhaps we feel more secure about disclosing our private thoughts and emotions to strangers in this way because they are not judging the ‘real’ us, but the versions of us portrayed on websites, in messages, in carefully selected photographs. I felt far less nervous performing live code to an audience than I would have if asked to do some improvised singing – because I was restricted and therefore protected from personal disclosure to a large extent by the medium – in the same way social media restricts our portrayal of ourselves (e.g. Twitter: self expression in under 140 characters).
Imagine a probe-like sex machine hooked up to your computer, controlled online by other people. What??? Yeah. Apparently this was designed to aid closeness in long-distance relationships… hmmm. Oh, the indignity! I don’t know whether to laugh or despair. But if the games giants are getting involved there must be a huge market for it. What does that say about the way we connect? Perhaps that we need to get out more, meet real people and have physical, instead of desperate capitalism-feeding, virtual sex?
This isn’t a Craig David song – I didn’t have any insights on Friday. I went dancing.
Anyway, I digress. Here are a load more questions we should probably be asking ourselves in order to keep our mentality and our relationships healthy within the current digital climate …
Does having constant instant access to my significant other via texts, emails, Skype, Facebook, Instagram, Facetime, Snapchat etc. make our communication clearer, more congruent, deeper, more fulfilling? Does ‘sexting’ and sending nude selfie’s enrich my lovelife? Does Internet dating sort the wheat from the chaff and enable data love-matches that translate positively to the world of the flesh or does the data I post better facilitate the world of online marketing? Has Internet pornography influenced the way I express myself sexually? How do the limitations of data language limit my ability to bond with others over distance?
From other research into online relationships, I am coming closer to the conclusion that there really is no substitute for the real flesh and bone thing: however many YouTube links you send each other and cleverly worded emails – nothing bonds like shared experiences. Let’s make sure we still give ourselves time to be real, socialise, make love, travel and engage with nature – for the sake of our health, perspective and happiness. And let’s always bear in mind who has access to the data we share online and what they might be using it for.
By Rachel James