This past April I was fortunate enough to attend the Theorizing the Web Conference at the University of Maryland (as a side note easily one of the better conferences I have ever attended). Following lunch, George Ritzer gave one of the keynote addresses in which he argued that sociology, specifically sociology research which focuses on the internet, could benefit from relying more on, or incorporating more, postmodern theory in its respective analysis. (In the “Title your talk with your thesis” vein his address was called “Why The Web Needs Post-Modern Theory.”) It is difficult for me to comment on the merits of this talk with respect to sociology, not being as familiar with the discipline as I am that of literary studies, however I will say that I find his central thesis, if not the individual claims, persuasive (or perhaps more accurately, I agreed with Ritzer before his talk and was further persuaded after his talk). Theory, and particularly post-modern theory has a lot to offer our understanding of the web. (Which is not to suggest that those operating out of a post-modern theory background have the only or even primary approach, just a useful one. Indeed, I think disciplines such as legal studies, media history, network analysis, etc. all play important roles.)
What interests me about Ritzer’s talk though was the theorist who was held up as the privileged example, the theorist whose work he argues might be most useful for understanding the internet: Baudrillard. This is not an entirely unusual claim, even if not often framed in this matter. That is, that when engaging in understanding the net we ought to think about theorists who have spent time theorizing the virtual, understanding the virtual, talking about simulations etc. To paint very broad brush strokes here, which are not entirely true, but I think are mostly correct, and illustrative of the trajectory of thinking about the web, theorizing about the web has often happened along the lines of theorizing about the virtual. And so while Baudrillard might not play a central role in the way that many critics have approached the web, certainly the “virtual” or a certain thinking about simulations and the virtual which is loosely influenced by the works of those like Baudrillard has informed our approach.
This is not to discount Ritzer’s thesis, again I am not familiar with sociology or the degree to which American sociology has embraced or rejected theory, certainly if one wants to think about the web as a virtual space of simulations and virtual worlds, then Baudrillard is a good place to start. And, a more nuanced engagement with his work would probably yield some fruitful insights. The problem is that I think this is already a wrong way to frame the analysis of the web. That is, while theory might be useful for illuminating the complex set of influences the existence of the digital network yields Baudrillard is the wrong place to look, even if the recent history of web theory would seem to point to the primacy of his work.
As a way of looking at this problem consider Bolter and Grusin’s canonical text Remediation. Originally published in 2000, it is characteristic of much of the early thinking about the public internet and the related digital technologies. Two technologies, one fictional and one real, serve as the primary examples which drive the argument. Fictionally, Bolter and Grusin frame their case by using the 1996 film Strange Days and the SQUID technology. In the film humans are able to wear a skull cap, and jack into another narrative world, experiencing another narrative as if it were real, the ultimate virtual reality experience. Indeed virtual reality, the real technology, serves as the other important example throughout the book, the “ultimate” artistic experience which is both immersive and interactive.
I don’t mean here to practice some sort of reductivism, reducing this book to these two examples, or to argue against Bolter and Grusin. Indeed this text is one of the ones I am most likely to teach in my “Theory of Digital Media” classes, as I find the dual logics of immediacy and hypermediacy particularly useful as a frame for thinking about the aesthetic logic and discourse informing digital media. Rather I want to suggest that this texts focus on the virtual is representative of a certain line of thinking in digital media or theorizing the web that, until recently has been particularly dominating. And in this respect Ritzer’s comments seem helpful: If we are going to theorize about these virtual technologies, we ought to try and leverage theorists of the virtual. The problem though is that these technologies are anything but virtual.
The virtual angle though, again to paint broad brush strokes which are only mostly true, seems to me to have informed both the early imaginations of the widely used public internet (film and fiction) and the early discourse about its cultural effects (both within the academy and the more public discourse). Consider the internet narratives of the 90s and early 2000s. Films like Strange Days were not an aberration, indeed Strange Days was more an early harbinger of a range of films that addressed the idea of what would happen as we all start to lead virtual lives via avatars, jacked into the the net. The Matrix probably serves as the most ubiquitous example here, reflecting a sense that the virtual worlds will be so intense, reducing physical bodies to a mere battery, while simultaneously representing a sense of unease about this type of future.
One can notice the same pattern in the almost fetishistic obsession that academics had about Second Life. It seemed that every conference I went to after its launch in 2003 contained numerous panels discussing the importance of virtual worlds, from creative, critical, and pedagogical standpoints. And this focus on virtual worlds extended past the academy. Numerous academic institutions as well as corporate ones purchased space in Second Life, believing virtual worlds to be the future and preparing to stake their claim there. Indeed, popular discourse and media coverage focused on Second Life as the digital future, the virtual future we were all about to live in. One could say that the early internet of Neuromancer had been replaced by Snow Crash, rich 3D worlds inhabited by avatars represented our future. The key piece of this vision though is the sense that online lives will be different from real ones, the virtual being the key component.
That is not, however, the internet we ended up with. Second Life is clearly past its prime, most of the virtual stores opened there long since abandoned, and now when I attend conferences I hear only the occasional paper about it. Some might disagree, and maybe there will be a revival, but in my estimation Second Life is dead, has been for some time. While marginal interest may remain, it clearly is no longer the focus of our digital futures.
What we have instead is Minority Report. Tellingly this is also the conclusion Grusin reaches in his newest book Premediation, in which he argues that while Strange Days was the ur film of the late 90s, the film which turned out to be more descriptive of our digital future was Minority Report. For the most part Grusin leverages the film to suggest that it is important because of the figure of the pre-cogs, the ability to predict, control, and prepare for the future (hence the title of the book pre-mediation. But I want to extend this even further, pointing out how the vision that the film offers us, seems to be pretty close to the one we ended up with.
One could point out how many of the technologies present in the film come pretty close to ones that we now have, everything from self driving cars (admittedly a popular sci-fi vision), to robot drones, and billboards which customize themselves based on the viewer. Even the idea of the pre-crime unit seems more and more plausible each day. It isn’t however the fact that the film got these individual instances of future technology more or less correct, but rather that the film portrayed no vision of an online versus offline self. Rather than imagine networked technology as a separate space, in Minority Report it is portrayed as something pervasive and all encompassing.
This it seems to me is one of the principle points to understand about the digital network. The digital network isn’t a separate realm. It isn’t that we are leading virtual and real lives. Rather the digital network is pervasive in the real world, has substantially altered the way that the real world is structured. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the net to treat the space as virtual, it is very real and very present. I think this is a point that some critics (again both in popular accounts and more academic ones) frequently miss—for example when parents ask how can teenagers socialize virtually online via Facebook. Faceboook isn’t a virtual socialization it is part of (a significant part of) socialization in general. The online isn’t a separate self, it isn’t even an extension of the self, it is part of the self.
And so here is the problem, while many people spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the internet envisioning virtual worlds and virtual selves, we missed thinking about the internet that developed, one of ubiquitous computing, mobile computing, personalization, prediction, and persistent surveillance. To be sure there were many books written during the late 90s early 2000s, during both the growth of “cyberspace” and the rise of Web 2.0, which chose to focus not on our virtual futures, but a future of ubiquitous computing networks. But, these narratives and critiques were far less prominent and usually didn’t constitute the focus on analysis. Perhaps one of the more interesting exceptions to this would be the work of Howard Rheingold who in 1992 wrote a book about Virtual Reality, but by 2001, in Smart Mobs had already made the shift to focusing on ubiquitous computational technologies, pointing to them as the key to understanding the contemporary shift. In each case Rheingold seems to be at least 5 years ahead of the critical curve.
The central tenant I want to push here is the idea that the first step to theorizing about the web is to recognize that the web is not a separate realm, not an online space which needs theorizing, but rather a significant part of our current cultural landscape. There is no online versus offline and continuing to think of it as such hinders our ability to ask the important questions. I think that this was a problem (self included) in the way the internet was theorized during the late 90s early 2000s. By treating these two spaces as separate (cyberspace vs. meatspace) we ended up focusing on the wrong things and a host of critical concerns ended up being pushed to the margins. Everyone was busy talking about Second Life and The Matrix, but what we built was more like Minority Report.
Which brings me back to Ritzer. At the end of his talk I said something to the effect of you make a strong case for theorizing the web, but you seem to be theorizing a web that doesn’t exist, that is you are talking about the web of Second Life when what we got is Minority Report. (Zeynep starts this critique at 35:00 minutes in, and my question comes right after that.) I think this was probably the wrong way to ask the question, or a poor phrasing, for it counted on Ritzer being familiar with both Second LIfe (which he seemed to be) and Minority Report (which based on his answer he didn’t really recall). I should have probably explained my thinking a bit better, how I got to the question rather than just asking about my conclusion. Which is to say, that I think we do need to theorize about the web much more than we do (although the first move I might want to make would be to claim that there is no web, or at least not singular web of which we could speak, but I’ll save that for another post), but when doing this theory I think it is important to get beyond thinking about the possibilities and limits of the “virtual” or “cyberspace.” In short don’t think about Second LIfe think about Minority Report.