THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Notes on Connection

by Patrick McMenamin

published December 5, 2014


 

Technology—and more relevantly, those who make/use it—very much wants to work within a language of disruption. Tech has always defined breaks in eras—the printing press, the steam engine, the Internet—but the modern invocation of “disruptive innovation” goes one step further, self-consciously trying to begin and end eras for the sake of continuous motion. Yet the impulse to disrupt comes equally from the fact that there’s a system connected enough to be disturbed, that the waves of a new product’s splash can ripple across the psychosocial board. At the same time, most new tech that claims disruption also claims to herald a new era of connection, of refiguring or further linking the world’s processes. Disrupting the act of connection in order to connect. Watch as these systems of play feed back on each other, unplugging and replugging as devices accumulate. Connection as an era.

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While having lunch with friends in my kitchen one day, I remembered that late this past summer, I had been sitting in a park with a friend when the Google Maps car drove by. I pulled up the image on my laptop and passed it quickly around. Another time at lunch, I asked a different set of friends to show me their childhood homes on Street View. My friend navigated down the street to show me how close her house was to the entrance of a trail through a redwood forest. I was told that my friend’s old roommate used to traverse long distances in the continental US entirely within Street View. If you face non-street items on Maps, it offers you a flat rectangular plane running parallel to the street. As you move along the street to face different sections of this photographic barrier, Google Maps throws out the back half of your perception in a blurred jitter to square your perspective on another part of the planar wall. The background’s disorienting shifts enable fluidity in foreground motion as I come to face a brief moment from late this summer. The surface offered in the end can be zoomed in upon, registered and reckoned with even as its faces are blurred. But the shift of even small calibrating movements in the background feels to me like an uprooting, a doubly flattened form of vertigo.

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2013’s #Accelerate Manifesto, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, made the kind of disruptive splash within leftist wordpress circles uniquely possible in the hyper-educated blogosphere. Their basic argument is that neoliberalism has slowed technology’s development and possibility by constricting it within the value and exchange demands of capitalism. Once freed from these demands, technology could develop into an interlocking web of systems and people, capable not only of a central “Plan” of governance dictated efficiently by “The Network” of people, but also of extending the individual human. Williams and Srnicek see technology’s freedom—think ‘80s sci-fi, with all devices connected and feeding back on each other—as “unfastening our horizons toward the universal possibilities of the Outside,” technologies becoming the vehicles and appendages of “selfmastery.” Technologies stop acting as external surfaces we bring ourselves to—carrying mental space into how we interact with our phones—but extensions of our mental space itself. They understand that what we do, the technologies we use, changes us, our actions contained by the “platforms” available to us. At the center, though, is still the self to be extended, mastered in its total opening to the “Outside.” Emptying the center to find the Network. Pure possibility, floating systems of connection, responsive to any needs that may arise—the self as Network.

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Literature that addresses traumatic events—everything from mass murders to personal loss—often tries to preserve the sanctity of the event by creating a network of hints around its description, never fully squaring to face the event itself. This is in part a matter of ethics, of not imposing narrative exigencies upon something incomprehensible, of allowing the event to remain whole in uncharted, associative space. These texts often adopt the euphemistic language of obituaries—referring to suicide as “a sudden death” or only describing the minor changes accidently precipitated by mass horror—even as they try to communicate a desire to get past euphemism. They build an absent center, create and enact the desire to reach it. The network of hints they offer multiplies in reading, where each individual reader is challenged to try to access the absent center, at the same time as the text ethically questions her desire to do so. For this reason, these texts are often profoundly unsettling. They deny the desire they create, sharing with a network of readers the desperateness that accompanies the need to make meaning from a tragedy. Distance and omission as communication, sanctity in the shared ritual of search.

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In May, one of my closest friends from high school committed suicide. I spent most of the summer in a place of near-total panic about the possibilities of connecting with others. A lot of this centered on the ways I could fine-tune my internal system to facilitate connection, if I could build internal technologies to construct myself outwards, open myself more fully to help or connect with others. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to navigate the surface hints of others to guess at or approach their cores. I thought there was a way to make myself Outside and accessible enough to be open to all connection, to be entirely “there” for everyone in any situation, even if only by the guesswork of surface hints. On a camping trip with friends, I tried to explain this to them. I failed to make this in any way communicable and they tried to tell me how intuitive, how dynamically simple, love and connection really were (yes, we were around a campfire). For a long time, my failure seemed like part of the problem.

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I once read (somewhere deep in music-related parts of the Internet that I’ve now forgotten) that the most subversive type of music to be made today was ambient, repetitive, and/or drone music because of the focusing power of this type of music. That the foregrounded sounds and textures cut through a distraction heavy culture to force the listener to focus on and reckon with the sounds to the point where a space of free, dissociative thought opens up. At the time, I found this remark really compelling (my habit of listening to this in/out of sleep playing heavily into my acceptance of the focus-freedom link), that total sublimation in shifting, feedbacking sounds brought about the free play of thought. Now, though, I think the real power of this music lies in its promise to do so, that it requires the listener to meet it on its own terms, to do the work of free thought and sublimation. To me, this is also why this music remains the hardest to critique: its power in the work and belief of the individual along with the shifting suggestibility of the music itself.

Recently I saw Tim Hecker—one of my favorite drone/ambient artists—do a Q&A. What struck me about the Q&A was how instinctually personal he described his creative process as (repeated comments along the lines of “I have to make music or I’d go insane”) alongside an almost willed self-importance about what he was doing. The promise of free spaces of connection acting as a kind of faith, each listener (or creator) projecting into these spaces instinctually. How this must be a blinded projection, one that ignores its own movement—what comes off as self-importance really being a desperate faith.

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While technologies of communication furnish the possibilities of our interpersonal existence, there remains the work—the free discursive play—of how we think about them. If we are to think of them as extensions of internal technologies, the expansion of internal positioning to make us more accessible, we perhaps start to understand how intricately woven the promises of connected technology are. Yet, we risk thinking of connection in abstract terms, as creating ourselves as Outside independent of actually talking to people or glancing over at what our neighbor looks to be plugging away at. If we are to separate our thinking from the technologies we use (even as we understand this to be impossible, a willed faith), to start to think of technologies as surfaces navigated rather than networked extensions, we start to foreground the work we must do to adapt, adjust, share. A separation that makes it clear how much one’s work is merely an attempt, an effort toward the Outside—the real absent center—as a starting place of connection, conversation, understanding. That we can understand our own efforts as a series of hints toward this center, look over at our neighbor who also looks up and outward, wave, create a network of trying, of desire.

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I find myself very interested in the idea of writing as a surface of connection, that it becomes the external source upon which people can start to talk about a whole range of issues. A point of stillness that can be grabbed onto and grappled with, even as those doing the grabbing and the locations of said grabbing seems to shift constantly. This follows from the idea that to bring out fears, concerns, or joys directly dead ends in a recursive solipsism that’ll either scare away the small group of people you’re standing with in a house party’s kitchen or be too intimidatingly large that you stare back speechless and shifting. Art, writing, even the weather then become technologies of connection, taken on to suit internal temperaments—“taste”—and relevant shared social values. These technologies respond in their irregularities to shape new spaces, shift us internally, set different terms, but only once they are approached and shared. They require the work of interest, openness. I learned most of the minimal baseline tech knowledge I have from my friend, who worked for a software company in San Francisco. The last thing I sent him before his death was an Indy article I had written about youth and connection in Silicon Valley.

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In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about the year following her husband’s death and her daughter’s life-threatening medical problems, she turns to everything from medical texts to etiquette books to poetry to make sense of her grief (she also holds nothing back, as if personal tragedy needed to eliminate its own sanctity to become communicable). At one point she turns to a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them.” That same line from Eliot rattled around my head for the majority of this past summer. Making connections, drawing out feedback. For Didion, the fragments of knowledge surrounding her husband’s death nearly overwhelmed her in her desire to reconstruct, to revive him. It seems notable here to mention that for most of this summer, when I thought about connection and internal technologies, I didn’t think the words could connect or help, but save. Didion eventually comes to realize that these fragments cannot really be understood as such. That they cannot be brought together into some greater whole, that this is too much to ask or perhaps just violates the basic logic of shoring—where single things wash up, seemingly at random, at the whim of the tides.

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No matter how complicated, responsive, or echoing, surfaces and technologies of connection are ultimately just that, liable to break down, requiring attentive maintenance and care that cannot be expected of everyone at all times. These have broken down for me at various points in my own life: there have been times when I cannot bring myself to care about art, much less communicating with others; points where even an abstract theoretical distance seems unapproachable. I still have a hard time believing connection writ large solves anything, if it is really worth pursuing—even if asymptotically, through its hints—or if there might be other models that better approximate the expansion/bounds of selfhood. Connection may merely be a frame handed down, its absent center decreed by previous technologies we no longer find relevant or even interesting. The navigation between depths of self and surfaces of technology can never be smooth, accurate, or immediate. There’s an equation here that I often find myself guilty of: that if the depths of self cannot be brought out in toto upon shared spaces, they are better left unexpressed, whole in their sacred complexity. But technology, like anything else, moves, it shifts and adapts over time, less in an exaggerated series of disruptions than as an undulating wave, driven by human work. People work similarly, through a steady drip of self that occurs over time, often inadvertently. Routine, banal daily comments gradually sharing and reshaping interior worlds. A fluid expansion merely as a result of presence, belief in this unspoken, accepted.

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As a model of memory or writing, a “web,” while linking its component parts, also allows each its unique spatial location, drawing lines between locations but resisting the urge to subsume events or utterances within a larger narrative. Webs open up possibilities of further connections, the identification of further centers and nodes of meaning. But written webs are still read linearly, their webness only revealed in the act of reading (like any good text, they teach you the terms it should be read on, they feedback). Their goal is to impel belief, to construct the text so as to push the reader out of the text’s construction. To subsume its own component parts, to save them for the reader. To expand dimensionally, leaving as many handholds and absent centers as it can. To multiply sanctity to reach beliefs. Webs try to do the impossible, they try to suspend what all desire and normal habit would combine. They pass this along to the reader as an act of faith, work withheld to be shared, talked about. They are desperate.