warehouse warehouse

Two stories about digital loneliness and a short history of anxiety

By Orit Gat
Using the internet in Old Havana

I’m off the internet. My email auto response reads, “I am traveling to Cuba until June 25, 2016, where I will have very limited access to the internet, and where I’ll be writing about access to the internet.” I went to Cuba with an artist to research the newly introduced public wifi spots in Havana, to see how people use the internet for the first time in 2016. What I discovered was largely a desire to connect. I saw people crying in public squares, talking to families for the first time in years. Most of the people around me were on Facebook, even if they were online infrequently, liking days-old photographs, looking at profiles that weren’t updated in weeks.

I was in Cuba for only ten days but I’ve never felt lonelier. On one of those days, sitting outside a hotel in Havana using their internet connection, I glanced at the news quickly and read about Tim Peake, the British astronaut who came back from space that June after spending six months in the International Space Station. “It will take Peake a few days to learn to walk again,” I read and thought that everything about isolation would touch me personally because I was having a kind of internet withdrawal. At night, when I would go to bed in a rented room in Havana, grabbing a book to read until I fall asleep felt different from reading in bed in New York, with my phone next to me glowing with connection to the rest of the world. Offline, I thought there is a special kind of loneliness to digital isolation. Because it should have felt like a natural state of affairs, because to not be connected 24/7 feels like it would be more habitual than to receive work emails at 3am. What seems a cautionary tale was simply a newfound awareness to what was already happening: as our personal relationships are mediated via technology, we cannot replace the feeling of being available, of people being available to us. And it brought to mind another form of loneliness: the loneliness of someone who was always connected.

In my images folder—that one that we all keep on our computers, with collected photos from the internet, kept contextless and searched for odd reasons—is one screengrab I keep returning to: Jennifer Ringley of Jennicam, holding a piece of paper in front of the cam that covers her right eye. Her left is directed straight at the camera. The paper reads, I FEEL SO LONELY. Ringley was lonely though she was watched by thousands of people. She also became a symbol of something she wasn’t: the first camgirl, Ringley was a college student when she devised a programming exercise to see if she could build a site that would automatically take a photograph from her webcam and upload it to her site every 15 minutes. It became a sensation. For seven years, internet users watched Ringley’s empty dorm room, watched her asleep in her bed, watched as she packed up after college and moved to DC then Sacramento, watched her read and watched her work, watched her alone and in company. It was an experiment in connection that challenged every received notion about human curiosity, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and what it means to know someone. [read on]

When the big Other has left

I look at Ringley’s I FEEL SO LONELY photo. A single image from countless images Jennicam produced. Then it was called “lifecasting”—a life lived in public, cast across the web to see what might happen. Now, after personal blogs came and went and social media changed everything about self presentation, this idea of lifecasting seems almost quaint: Isn’t that what we all do? I look at that one image and think not only of Ringley’s trailblazing, but also of her loneliness. Are the people watching your livecam an audience or followers? The latter is, of course, a word that changed meaning much later, with Instagram and Twitter. Ringley’s loneliness feels true and honest in a way that no Instagram post does today. It feels innocent.

What happened to the internet? There’s a sweetness to our using it to connect to one another, but with the years, this desire for interaction is tinged with anxiety. There was an optimism to the early internet—though it wasn’t all that innocent, of course, and the days of A/S/L in chatrooms are to this day discussed among some women as defining their sexuality in terms their young selves were not able to comprehend—brought about a strong sense of optimism. In 2005, Kevin Kelly—one of the first to write about the internet or what we now call “internet culture,” who believes he might have been the first person in the world to be hired for a job over email—wrote an article for Wired magazine, which he founded, titled “We Are the Web.” It celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Netscape’s Public Offering, as a landmark in the history of the internet. Subtitle: “The Netscape IPO wasn’t really about dot-commerce. At its heart was a new cultural force based on mass collaboration. Blogs, Wikipedia, open source, peer-to-peer – behold the power of the people.” Kelly charts the developments of the internet in the ten years between 1995 and 2005, then imagines 2015. It’s an amazing piece of hopefulness: “This view is spookily godlike. You can switch your gaze of a spot in the world from map to satellite to 3-D just by clicking. Recall the past? It’s there. Or listen to the daily complaints and travails of almost anyone who blogs (and doesn’t everyone?). I doubt angels have a better view of humanity. But if we have learned anything in the past decade, it is the plausibility of the impossible.”

What happened to the plausibility of the impossible? When Nicholas Carr claimed in a famous article for the Atlantic (and then a book titled The Shallows) that “google is making us stupid” because when reading online we cannot mentally map, because searching online means we do not retain information as we used to, it seemed convincing. (I think about how my password for almost every website includes the phone number of the house I grew up in. I think about how few phone numbers I remember now.) And that was 2008—so quickly after Kelly’s Godlike view of humanity. There have been so many articles and books in the years after Kelly’s peak buoyancy about the network’s effects on us that it’s almost become given knowledge: science writers and technology critics who all rushed to speculate about how and what the network might spoil our day to day lives, our comprehension, our friendships, our ability to relate. And though not all of these doomsday accounts should be taken too literally—chances are that even in a decade or five people will still write fiction even if they can’t remember phone numbers, and we’ll all be, for example, better viewers of photography and in lieu of memory skills we’ll develop very advanced skills in assessing information (no more fake news!)—we are allowing technology ever closer to our homes and interpersonal relationships. The commercials for Amazon Echo largely take place at home, in a family setting (“Alexa, order more flour,” asks a mother baking cake with her daughter and “Alexa, add anniversary to my calendar, a year from today,” says a young man as he’s tying a bowtie), which rely on conservative heteronormative situations to standardize this technology entering our most intimate relationships.

Charlie Brooker, creator of the Channel 4-then-Netflix-produced drama Black Mirror, described his creation as a show that takes place in the “area between delight and discomfort.” It is hard not to be amazed by technology, not to participate with evident delight. And then, on the same screens we read about the NSA and WikiLeaks, we cover the cameras built into our laptops, we chart how we once looked up a product and then were bombarded by advertisements for it for months. To participate in the network has shifted from one of the most significant intellectual projects known to man to a network governed by economic and national interests which are inaccessible to the users that are its target. [read on]

As we speculate about the future of technology, we should think about our present state as a fascinating stage in our relationship to it: not a neither here nor there, just a moment before Black Mirror, which is set in a nondescript near-future where technology is omnipresent and ominous. You can tell everything about a society from the way it reflects its own future, and ours has shifted immensely from the hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers of Back to the Future to the grim, gray palette of Black Mirror.

One last thing about loneliness: for over ten years, a thread lasted on one of the forums on the site moviecodec.com, usually used for discussing digital video formats. “I am lonely, will anyone speak to me?” was its title and the first post was, “please will anyone speak to about anything to me.” For the next ten years, that thread grew to over 2000 pages, with people joining in and commenting, and many just watching. For many years, that post, now a famous internet phenomenon, topped the Google results for “I am lonely,” which means that people accessed it for the simplest reason—that they were looking for help, and without even thinking about it did what is habitual, what is easy: type a search query without expecting a solution, really. As a way of something preoccupied them. And then they found this post, and its nearness and simplicity and unexpected circumstances. It’s another moment of optimism: a sign that even if technology does not always suit our—human—needs, we somehow make do.

Orit Gat is a writer based in London and New York whose writing on contemporary art and digital culture has appeared in frieze, e-flux journal, The White Review (where she’s a contributing editor), ArtReview, Art Agenda, Flash Art, The Art Newspaper, Mousse, The Brooklyn Rail, Art in America, Metropolis M, Spike Art Quarterly, Camera Austria, Review 31, Momus, and LEAP. She is a winner of the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant in the short-form writing category (2015) and was a finalist for the Absolut Art Writing Award (2017).