Friday, November 24, 2006

Permission to promise

The moral question, 'how are you going to live your life?', invariably in my experience elicits a conversation based around how best to achieve happiness. It seems we are a bunch of Happiness Harrys, or at least Pleasure Petes. What interests me about this is not that happiness (in the sense of living a comfortable, pleasurable life) is immediately and unproblematically placed at the centre of the discussion, but that it often will not shift no matter how the conversation seems to progress.

Take, for example, a conversation where we are granted an agreement that happiness doesn't consist in feeling comfortable but in being active and useful in the right way. It is my experience that in moving from this agreement to considering whether it can therefore be right to devote your life to difficult, painful causes, several unfortunate responses tend to be brought forth. Now, because we know that society actively promotes happiness as pleasure to the extent that it almost constitutes a religion, we can group together the 'I'm powerless and alienated' reflections that tend to issue from the more honest. Of course we should note that such arguments aren't seen as undesirable states of affairs, but offered as explanations of the reasonableness of settling for hedonism, which means that the honesty they are displaying is simply the honesty of stating their actual beliefs, and not the honesty of real regret. This is the first typical kind of negative response.

The second most typical response, and to my mind the most despicable, is the wry smile or the uncomfortable 'maybe', issued with the subtext that 'we both know that I want to enjoy my life and won't do anything like that ever'. It is this subtext that shows the dishonesty of the original agreement, and the inability to have the argument. Similarly to responses of the first kind, the identification of the subject with capitalism is highlighted. The argument doesn’t proceed to a genuine agreement over ‘what happiness is’ because of the overriding relationship the person has with consumer capitalism and the culture industry; because the level of investment is too large to throw away on some singular, unimportant conversation. If someone invested in consumer society legitimately challenges the basis of their consumption (that happiness is the pleasure they get from consuming), they would to that extent no longer function as consumers.

The relationship between the consumer and the productive forces of consumer society is one of social contract, and all (for want of a specific analysis) of the rewards and punishments of society are geared towards making these transactions work out. A la Nietzsche, the person is permitted to promise only insofar as he is conditioned to accept the consequences.

To sum up, in the first kind of negative response to the question whether we owe our allegiance to painful causes, the rewards and punishments of society are laid bare in language. We can do something with this. But the second kind of response – the kind that demonstrates consumer allegiance through the behaviour of the person – this is disgusting and slimy. While both responses are deletory, belying the confidence of the agreement about the nature of happiness, it is the second that refuses to come to the fore and display its sad trajectory.

The point of this post is to attempt to demonstrate a real difficulty that regulative discourses can ease. I tend more and more these days to press the question further, to demand to know why happiness must be what they think it is. But if the person will not follow me in conversation the real issues will not be discovered, and their non-compliance will mean much less to them than it should.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wet slippers

  The waves of revulsion were already lapping at my slippers when I saw the front of the Guardian's Weekend magazine - "How these men and women remade the internet". The sight of affluent, technophiliac, endlessly-youngish people in smart/casual shirts and trousers pretending to be The Next Big Thing is always going to worm its way into me like a disease and leave me reaching for the medicine cabinet of pre-emptive prejudice. It's probably because I love too much.
  What have these mostly white people done? Well, let's look at what they say about 'Web 2.0':
  "Wide-open public participation [is] the right tool for the web". "Broadband has allowed people to live online a lot more". "It's just the wave of stuff that's happening on the web right now." "A marketing term". "Interacting with the systems we're building". "Passion". "Using the internet as an operating system". "The 'write' approach". "A philosophy that customers are in control". "A new group of ideas that understand the internet as being full of people who are doing things at a given time". "A lot of people who find it natural to spend a lot of their time doing things on the internet". "People with no technical ability creating really amazing sites". "That theme of communication and personal publishing".

  Now, if some of those definitions haven't turned your stomach into a belching puke festival, you're a stronger man than me. "Understanding the internet as being full of people who are doing things at a given time"? That could sound, also, like a library, shop, swimming pool, or illegal massage parlour called 'Cuddles'. In fact, it almost resembles a puddle with some amoebas reproducing. What the hell is really being talked about?
  The journalist says many slightly breathless things, such as: "Cool - everything to do with cool - is a big, big business. MySpace is in that business. It has more than 110m registered users; if it were a country it would be the 10th biggest in the world, just behind Mexico. Its audience, heavily skewed towards the affluent youth of the west, is a marketer's and advertiser's fantasy." But, at the end, he hit a note that salvaged my desire to remain alive...
"Sit someone at a computer screen and let it sink in that they are fully, definitively alone; then watch what happens. They will reach out for other people; but only part of the way. They will have "friends", which are not the same thing as friends, and a lively online life, which is not the same thing as a social life; they will feel more connected, but they will be just as alone. Everybody sitting at a computer screen is alone. Everybody sitting at a computer screen is at the centre of the world. Everybody sitting at a computer screen, increasingly, wants everything to be all about them. This is our first glimpse of what people who grow up with the net will want from the net. One of the cleverest things about MySpace is the name."

  Phew, that was close. Let's look back at the techies' definitions of, ahem, Web 2.0. Participation, writing, living and doing stuff online, interaction, using the internet as a basis for all sorts of things, being in control. A theme that occurs seems to me to be that of the ability to choose to regard or disregard whatever you wish - of producing what you want, participating in what you want, ignoring whatever doesn't suit you. It really is 'all about you', I would argue to the extent that you can build your own little webuniverse and ignore, or redefine as a straw man, anything you don't like.

  Yet, there is something that seems missing from this article. Is all this exciting, new technology really changing much? What is possible now that wasn't possible before?
  Wikipedia is easily the best thing touted in the article - a massive, free encyclopedia anyone can write in. Yet it comes with its own massive problems, and although it 'democratises' both the construction and consumption of information, it can also act to demean information. Thorny points of view, matters of opinion, are planed and polished and buffed away by the ceaseless tide of tiny changes and nit-picking arguments. What is left is fine for articles that are based on matters of fact, but what about the most important and pressing topics, that are so important because a consensus has not been reached?
  And, although Wikipedia is new, it could have been done before. On smaller scales, it has been done before. What it adds to the world is, most probably, a focus for the opinionated and obsessive to write up facts about things that are often of little importance. I'm afraid that I reckon I could do without it - there is nothing I could learn on Wikipedia that I couldn't better learn by studying. It offers a digested mulch of (usually uncontroversial) facts, and a forum for arguing with people who think you're wrong.
  Nothing in the article particularly excites me. I already am participating in knowledge creation. I'm thinking and living and trying to do each better every moment. Do I really need a website on which I can post pictures of my cat and share them with millions? Has 'Web 2.0' really changed what it is to be human?

  We don't need "Web 2.0" to do what's important, it is merely a technological upgrade that can help (and sometimes hinder) us in doing important things. It is not essential, and nothing it does creates such big and new possibilities that the world has changed. The ability to work together for mutual gain is faster and more convenient, but also the ability to aggrandise ourselves and publicise ourselves is faster and more convenient. The ability to band together in groups in order to share something important and make progress is faster and more convenient, yet the ability to band together in groups in order to share a common distrust and refuse to contemplate the world is all too possible, and even more convenient.
  We don't need "Web 2.0" to do anything new. We need to be doing what's important, concentrating on what's important, and thinking about things. I fear that the internet gives us, more than anything, a way of escaping that, and is so far a technology that excuses our fascination in ourselves. Nothing has changed; it's just become more compelling to celebrate what we've always been doing - partly because now it's so much easier to please our selfish desires.