Friday, October 23, 2009

In the Country of the Blind...

In a culture of visual and information overload, does one close one's eyes and detach, or does one peer and squint all the more intently? It depends, of course, as a couple of recent Web tidbits remind me. At Salon, a letter writer asks Cary Tennis whether he is culpable as a "blog stalker" for anonymously following a family's apparently fairly intimate but not yet exclusive website. The writer's scruples are an example of increasingly unheard of discretion.

When I first became interested in blogs a couple of years ago I went through a period of browsing countless sites, often chosen at random, just to sample the astonishing diversity out there. It felt a bit as I imagine a bird might feel that is able to coast on updrafts, although this bird would possess supernatural sight and hearing, able to openly eavesdrop on passersby below.

As Cary Tennis noted in his answer, some websites are so open--or in some cases so shameless--that propriety suggests that one should avert one's gaze, as one would from a passionate couple in the park. But this is no ethical obligation, rather mere politeness. One can make a case that if people desire total privacy, they should stay in. In the open, gestures are observed and conversations are overheard, often with delectable curiosity. Similarly, anyone writing an open blog is asking for readers, some of them potentially randomly and scandalously inquisitive.

A quick dash to the dictionary reminds me that "voyeur" has an unsavory connotation, which is a bit surprising. Obviously general "curiosity" is widely commended (except among cats), but we really don't have a positive term for curiosity applying specifically to the interpersonal realm. After all, no one wants to be "nosy" or "prying" either. And yet much of what therapists do is a kind of well-intentioned voyeurism, sheer attention to the Other in ways that would seem inappropriate in many settings.

Some of the charm of personal blogs is owing to the mere sense of plenitude and excess. In an age of inane reality television, 24/7 news, and spam, who needs blogs anyway? It seems to me that blogs are one thing that make the Internet a massive metropolis, always a click away. Blogs afford an often unintentional and unaffectedly sincere look at passersby in the digital city; they are most informative when they don't know (whom) they are informing.

If the blog browser is the flaneur "taking it all in" on a busy city street, then there is the contrary tendency to filter out extraneous crap and control access to the answer, or at least an answer one cares about. In an Atlantic Monthly piece Jamais Cascio discusses the growing power and specificity of "augmented reality."

In a philosophical sense of course we never take in reality in an unprejudiced way; there is no escaping preconceptions altogether. And in some cases one doesn't want to--if a (formerly) Red State rube like me strolls through Manhattan, it is good to have access to a guide book of some kind that tells me what I'm looking at. But there is the danger of touring the guidebook and not the city.

"Augmented reality" is the increasing capacity of phones and other devices to superimpose upon one's real-world surroundings a kind of filter that both comments on those surroundings and screens out aspects deemed undesirable beforehand. It favors control over serendipity. And again, one can't see and hear everything; it is necessary to choose. However, it behooves one to choose the method-of-choosing (the reality filter(s)) most wisely. Maybe that's what wisdom is.

If information today is an open fire hydrant, does one retreat inside a poncho, or play in the shower, or slap a hose on, perhaps to spray someone? It depends on one's goals at the time and on how comfortable the surroundings are.

In environments of information scarcity, the challenges are education and opportunity, but in environments of information excess, the challenges are prioritization and motivation.


Josh Strike said...

Have you read "Hell" by Henri Barbusse? He wrote it around 1920, I think. It's an amazing book -- actually one of the greatest looks at the internal dynamics of human relationships I've ever seen -- and it's all about viewing them as a voyeur, from the outside looking in. He sort of foreshadows modernism by recognizing that the more you observe a subject, the more that observation changes both you and what you're looking at. Ultimately, if you want to have a life, you walk away from the peephole and go out in the street and live, or you cease to exist as an individual. Maybe our whole society is slowly coming to that conclusion.

Novalis said...

I hadn't heard of that one, but I like the sound of it--one can only come to know the self through the Other(s). One needs psychological and moral reference points, and points not set exclusively by oneself.