Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Outsourcing Time, Outsourcing Life, Outsourcing Reality

From Edward Gorey, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).  Image Source: Satori Stephen.

Recently, I read a post on Writer Beware! about the problems that blogger is having with the Internet and procrastination.  This has now become enough of an issue that software is being sold to block users from Internet access for set periods:
I also know I'm not alone in struggling with this problem--which is why I was doubly pleased to discover this blog post by ShelfTalker's Elizabeth Bluemle. She spoke with a number of writers about their distraction-circumventing techniques, and got some fascinating responses (it's really interesting how many writers move to a different spot, or use a different computer). She also links to a program called Freedom, which lets you block the Internet for up to eight hours at a time. You can disable it once you've set it--but you have to re-boot, and, theoretically at least, "the hassle of rebooting means you're less likely to cheat."
I was reminded of my early posts on shortening attention spans and procrastination, here and here.  This is the problem of time bleed, caused by overexposure to tech and the Internet, which erodes our days.  But what interests me more is motivation and emotional responses to time as they relate to Cyberspace.  One commenter on the Writers Beware! blog felt that procrastination results from fear. But there is something larger to this if people feel so helpless that they can no longer turn off the Internet by themselves and need a program to do it for them.

Web surfing no longer constitutes procrastination.  It's become part of living. The idea that the time we spend on the Internet isn't 'real time,' or 'worthwhile time,' or is 'wasted time,' hails from the early 1990s to the mid 2000s, when the Web was still a novelty and contrasted with 'real' activities.

What happens on the Internet every 60 seconds. Image Source: Shanghai Web Designers via MSNBC.

But what are we supposed to do when the procrastination becomes real, when searching the Web is no longer a destructive displacement activity, but a function of genuine living? Look at statistics like the ones MSNBC just reported, on what happens on the Internet every 60 seconds. Even if you read the numbers with caution (which they recommend), you start to grasp the size of the monster (Hat tip: Lee Hamilton). Here are some of the stats:
  • Search engine Google serves more that 694,445 queries
  • 6,600+ pictures are uploaded to Flickr
  • 600 videos are uploaded to YouTube, amounting to 25+ hours of content
  • 695,000 status updates, 79,364 wall posts and 510,040 comments are published on social networking site Facebook
  • 70 new domains are registered
  • 168,000,000+ emails are sent
  • 320 new accounts and 98,000 tweets are generated on social networking site Twitter
  • iPhone applications are downloaded more than 13,000 times
  • 20,000 new posts are published on micro-blogging platform Tumblr
  • Popular web browser FireFox is downloaded more than 1,700 times
  • Popular blogging platform WordPress is downloaded more than 50 times
  • WordPress Plugins are downloaded more than 125 times
  • 100 accounts are created on professional networking site LinkedIn
  • 40 new questions are asked on YahooAnswers.com
  • 100+ questions are asked on Answers.com
  • 1 new article is published on Associated Content, the world’s largest source of community-created content
  • 1 new definition is added on UrbanDictionary.com
  • 1,200+ new ads are created on Craigslist
  • 370,000+ minutes of voice calls done by Skype users
  • 13,000+ hours of music streaming is done by personalized Internet radio provider Pandora
  • 1,600+ reads are made on Scribd, the largest social reading publishing company
This reality did not exist even ten years ago. And there are no rules on how to live in it.  What's that line from Fight Club? "Let's evolve, let the chips fall where they may."

What does that involve?  In this reality, we kill time constantly, while considering every millisecond to be pressured - and precious.  We're obsessed with not wasting time, where by old standards, that's practically all we do on the Internet.  Perhaps the sheer volume of information being dumped on us every day is creating a deer-in-the-headlights response.  Perhaps the daily avalanche of data and mails creates a sense of helplessness.  The machine-driven reality is expanding exponentially beyond our ability to cope.  The popularity of online procrastination may stem from unconscious attempts to reinsert a human messiness into the computer-generated context.  Tech is pushing us to go faster and faster, to mimic the capacity of machines to churn forward unthinkingly and mechanically.  The drag of procrastination is human resistance, a counter-force against the hyper-mechanization of the new world.

Does that mean that efforts to make the Tech machine move faster and more efficiently - in other words, initiatives that grease the Internet's wheels - reduce the Internet's human dimensions? You could say that the Internet simply mirrors us and in that respect is very human.  In fact, the mirror itself, the mechanical medium we are using to reflect ourselves, distorts the image it throws back at us.  We are constantly getting the message that we somehow do not measure up to a seamless, humming reality that never sleeps.

The rise of anomie in the UK (2008).  Image Source: Sheffield University via BBC.

Caption for the above image: In 2008, the BBC reported on Sheffield University research into the decline in rooted attachment to community as an index of growing anomie. The maps above show the erosion of values between 1971 and 2001.

At the turn of the last century, the big worry (which Gorey captured so well) that nagged at people was ennui.  These days, anomie and constant, mild dissociation are greater sources of distress. At Urban Dictionary, they have a new term, Dissociative Facebook Disorder, in which people manifest different personalities online from the ones they display in reality:
Dissociative Facebook Identity Disorder
A common disorder where a person displays multiple personalities: One in person, and one on Facebook.
Kevin: "Damn, have you met that girl I work with L'fondra?"
George: "Yeah, shes a weirdo in person, but she acts all cool on Facebook. She must have Dissociative Facebook Identity Disorder."
That disconnect is often made real in other ways.  One of the big features of Millennial life is outsourcing. First, the explosion in global trade and travel meant that manufacturing and piece work could be farmed out from wealthier nations to developing nations to lower the costs of production.  Next, through the miracle of instant global communications, businesses had their service calls routed to call centres abroad.  Then, women began outsourcing pregnancies.  On the Internet, some people create the avatars that they cannot be in real life, and live out those fantasies of themselves. They are in fact outsourcing their  personalities to TwitterFacebook and other social forums.  It's a weird combination of elements, in which tech makes everything grow ever closer globally; yet at the same time everyone is increasingly alienated from each other and themselves.

This is the dual quandary in Millennial existence.  Case in point: the latest arrival on the Internet scene is a group called Shame Begone, an outsourcing outfit that will answer all the E-mails you can't bring yourself to deal with. That includes the broken romances, angry bosses, lost friends, and plain old neglected correspondents whom you haven't answered in over a year because there are too many messages waiting in all your E-mail and social networking accounts. In their words:
We specialize in digging you out, by doing the hard writing for you—whether it involves long-unanswered emails, missed birthdays or apologies for social messes. We handle end-of-relationship fall-out, missed connections, difficult RSVPs, overdue condolence notes. We address long-lost pals, best friend's ex-boyfriends, family members, low-grade stalkers, people who owe you money, people to whom you owe money—almost anything and anyone.
Shame Begone makes all the unsettling problems which arise from hyperactive, moment-by-moment over-communication go away.  Digital Life writer Rosa Golijan presented the people at Shame Begone with a hypothetical situation to see how they would do (for another report, go here).

Image Source: Shame Begone via Digital Living.

The breezy, light banter says a lot about how the Internet has changed our attitudes and emotions.  Virtual chit chat uses delicate euphemisms to describe real life.  This was an apology that Shame Begone produced for Rosa's hypothetical situation:

Apology in a can, courtesy of Shame Begone.  Image Source: Shame Begone via Digital Living.

Let's be honest.  Is this really about convenience, streamlining and saving time in a hectic world?  Or is it a crutch for people who have forgotten how to emotionally connect, behave and communicate?  In Cyberscape, where all we do is communicate, have we ironically reached the point where we can't emotionally handle meaningful communication?  Or do people just not know how to be polite anymore?  What does it mean if we are hiring other people to handle sentiment-laden interactions?  How savvy is it?  What is an apology worth when the receiver of the apology discovers (via, say, a Facebook jibe) that the apology was outsourced?  It would be just another level of meta-insult.  One could argue that this service returns civility to communication, but it isn't worth much if the message is not original.

Presumably, the Shame Begone people mean well.  They promise confidentiality when you outsource your personal E-mails to them.  Even so, they've hit a chord.  And it's not a good one.  Hire out your virtual chatter, and your reality might grow ever more distant.  The gap between reality and virtual reality will widen, not narrow.  Rampant dissociation in the void of values opens up questions about responsibility.  How responsible are we for the disconnect between our real and virtual selves?  (See my earlier post on that here.)

Others may disagree, suggesting that this is merely a discreet and thoughtful secretarial service.  In any event, you can follow Shame Begone on Twitter here.  They've only just started, but people are already applying to them for jobs, despite the fact that Shame Begone says they are not hiring.  If this takes off, they soon might be.  Apparently, being paid to answer someone else's E-mails beats answering your own for hours and hours, for nothing.

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  1. A densely thoughtful post!

    Perhaps virtual reality is coming to represent/reflect a type of collective consciousness of which many of us are unequipped to really handle yet... and the feelings of anomie you mention stem from an unconscious response to and realization of the sheer scope of this "mental dimension" - that is, the zillions of individual intellects, the diverse lives of the humans generating the various memetic information, and the immense spectrum of values and "norms".

    Of course, this "scope", this human diversity has always existed... It is the categorizing of human life into "norms" and trends that has always been essentially mythical. Cyberspace, in this sense, is a (more or less) genuine representation of a type of ordered chaos of information. That is, it has always existed, but humans have just gained more of an access to it. (Whether or not the actual information is genuine is another matter.) So, perhaps what truly brings on feelings of alienation is the sudden rude awakening that each of us are, indeed, mere points in a seemingly endless field of points.

    Then again, I suppose it depends on how one actually utilizes cyberspace... if its merely a tool for games, pointless chatter, and costume balls, then it becomes a form of entertainment in which perhaps one can overindulge. No worse than television, however. But, I would have to say that individuals needing programs like "Freedom". or services like "Shame Begone" ought to step back and rearrange their priorities.

    Or, maybe take a walk in the park or dig some holes in their gardens!

    Refreshing to see Gorey, by the way! :-)

  2. Thanks for the comment Dia. I don't know whether a collective consciousness has always existed. It does now though! Right now in cyberspace there is a growing tension between different 'interests.' First, there's a tension between individuals and the collective which you mentioned. Then there's the hackers vs. the corporations, states and other power structures that are on both sides trying to manipulate this tool to their profit. I notice Facebook is allowing its individual users, without really asking them, to be lined up with corporate interests. Facebook was always about advertising, but it is increasingly becoming a guerrilla marketing ghetto, which may explain why some people are starting to walk away from it. Finally, there are political and cultural elements who are trying to use the Web against other societies or states. I think Osama bin Laden recognized the power of the Tech Revolution and part of the growth of his affiliated movements in this period is due to the explosion of the Internet.

    In other words, while we have to deal with the usual metaphysical, spiritual and existential quandaries that we always did (quandaries which boil down to individual vs. group), the Internet has intensified that.

    And while we swim around as individuals on the Web trying to find our place in the world and in ourselves, we are swimming through an increasingly urgent battle between different groups that wish to gain control of this fantastic new medium and use it to their own ends. It's no wonder that the Web is rife with groups and organizations that are willing to give us a 'helping hand' with our personal struggles. Enter entities like 'Shame Begone.'

  3. And yes, Gorey is another one of those nostalgic Gothics, like Lovecraft, Saki, Blackwood, and M.R. James, that recall some of the neo-Victorian pomp of the early 1980s, which has been revived again in the late 2000s, early 2010s in the Steampunk movement. I always think of Sunday nights, PBS, Mystery!, Masterpiece Theater in the early 1980s when I see his work now, so it brings back a whole era, while referring to another, earlier era.

  4. Excellent points! And important points that I - in my rarefied position off-planet - tend to want to overlook. ;-)

    Re:"guerrilla marketing ghetto" (I love that, BTW)... too true... It's a shame that while there are some of us who genuinely want to use the internet in educational/informational gathering ways, there are others who will immediately drag it down to the lowest strata of capitalistic gains, political power plays, and, worse, the ways and means to enslave us.

    But, then again, I suppose this should come as no surprise... the prehistoric wolves, who eventually shape-shifted (devolved?) into a type of terrestrial piranha, have merely adapted into a new, deadly and invasive cyber life-form. The lowest common denominator has always been and, no doubt, will always be with us. "Corporate interests" infect our lives across the board.

    And you're quite right about that, too - beware the "helping hand"!

  5. P.S. Re: "nostalgic Gothics"... ah, yes, all of it. Steampunk... and beyond:The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets Dune. I'm still a sucker for PBS Mystery (a guilty pleasure)...

    Ultimately, all of it represents still points in time where a ragged mind might rest...

  6. Thanks for your comments Dia. I think the problems of different interests trying to control the web, the rise of little internet self-promoting narcissists (not all individuals online are nice idealists), and the ragged minds are all one and the same. I notice Cyberspace erodes attention and peace of mind. I've been listening to claire de lune for days:

  7. A very insightful article. Your thoughts are informative and helpful. Thanks for posting.