When we began this week with Second Life, I immediately thought of Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher and technology theorist who had some challenging claims about virtual reality. I’d never had the chance to read much about him, except I knew that he might have largely influenced THE MATRIX SERIES. So what more interest does one need?
The article I read turned out to be extremely relevant to this week’s topic and my own essay: Andrew Koch’s “Cyber Citizen or Cyborg Citizen: Baudrillard, Political Agency, and the Commons in Virtual Politics.” Okay, that’s a mouthful. Overall, Koch follows the thinking of Baudrillard (who was influenced/read McLuhan) and states that the internet, despite its utopian promises for political liberation and democratic participation, actually reinforces “social isolation,” “political fragmentation,” and distracts people from the “real” impetus of social change, i.e. economic and social frustration.
His main argument is that virtual reality does not provide an adequate substitue of political space—a space that democracy demands. Instead, the internet gives us an overload of information and data bits which “reinforces the structure of passive political agents through one-way communication.” This seems quite debatable. Does the internet truly give us 1-way communication? Koch continues that it is simply a user, who is often a corporate/profit-minded individual, uploading data (through a limiting ‘enframement’ system, i.e. binary, that limits the method of communication) for a viewer who cannot geniunely interact and explore it. At its worst, it allows for “governments to disseminate copious information to rationalize all policies.”
Following McLuhan (or so the author claims…), Baudrillard believed that the medium changed the subjectivity of the user. The critics of virtual reality claim that it “diminishes the value of human subjectivity itself…meaning is lost within the networks of communication.” Like Levinson has stated innumerable times—the value of the internet is always directly related to the change it causes in the real world. Yet, so Baudrillard claims, the internet and virtual reality replace “deliberation with immediacy” (see Zizek), and immerses/distracts the individual in a “fabricated world of simulation” which instead “makes the ‘real’ conform to the simulation.’
I’ve raised this question a few times: can the internet’s utopia of free participation and congregation translate into reality? The article we read a few weeks ago told the story of thousands of fans meeting in a cramped space and resulting in a riot. Does the internet, besides its “orgy of superfluous information,” give us the illusion of transcending space and time? Like Peter Sloterdijk also claims, we reproduce our subjectivity based on the relationship with another medium—for him, even books act as simulated experiences with real faces.
Lastly, Koch claims that the Internet “deideologizes” (funny word) us. It gives us an “opinion poll” instead of geniune, human-to-human interaction. Thus, we get bombarded with “‘objective data,’ probability theory, rational choice ontology, and an expansion of consumerism as the singular path of humanity, and to think otherwise is ‘irrational.'” The “symbolic dimension of language is lost,” and we are left passive recepticles of biased data, politically fragmented, and objectified as binary code.
Geeeeeze, that’s some heavy and negative stuff. I honestly don’t buy it all at this point. I agree that the internet can’t fully replace interfacial, or real, interactions (at least not until we are fully “plugged into” the system like the Matrix haha), but this article seems to assume that humans are likely to all interact and compartmentalize the internet in the same way. And, again, what about trolls? Can there be a value in internet activity which undermines the generally held attitude towards social media? Can trolls serve as a paradigm for the relativity/subjectivity that is irreducicble in any internet/social media analysis? Maybe I’ll find out… haha