This is not an article

The surrealist painter Henri Magritte anticipated our immersion in the unreal world of the internet.
Zac Alstin | Jul 16 2012 | comment  



Every hour you spend on the Net is actually an hour spent staring, transfixed, at the screen of a computer or mobile phone. I’m no doctor – not even in philosophy – but I guarantee that this cannot be good for you.

One year ago, in an attempt to overcome the physical ill-effects of intense daily sitting-and-staring, I converted my office into a ‘standing work-station’. My colleagues looked on with equal parts bemusement and wearied resignation as I placed a coffee table on top of my desk, thereupon to rest the keyboard, and hoisted the computer screen to its now precarious position atop a nearby bookshelf.  

Initial results were promising: a decrease in lower-back pain, an improvement in upper-back posture, and a vague sense of having accomplished something. But the reality is that whether sitting or standing, the unnatural effort of focusing for protracted periods on the backlit intricacies of my computer screen continued to daunt me.

Draw an X on your wall, and stare at it intently for several hours straight; that’s half the problem right there. Anyone would struggle to maintain such a feat of concentration. But the internet charms us, lures us in, and keeps our attention constantly on the move within the bounds of that glowing display. The secret is: we think it’s real.

In 1929 a Belgian artist named René Magritte produced an oil painting of a pipe, with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ or ‘This is not a pipe’ written beneath it. Titled ‘The Treachery of Images’, Magritte’s painting made the seemingly unnecessary point that a painting of a pipe is not, after all, an actual pipe:

“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I'd have been lying!”

Magritte’s pipe may not have been real, but he was clearly smoking something.

Yet the Belgian had a point. You know the cliché moment in a movie where a time-traveller or primitive sees a television for the first time and thinks there are tiny people trapped inside it? That’s us on the internet – or rather, us on computers in general.

Think about it: a computer is only an electronic device with a graphic display, yet we treat it like an extension of our own world, containing a variety of objects. We peer into the screen as though, like Alice, we can discern an entire world through the looking glass. The computer has folders and files, programs, pictures, movies, games, and text. With the internet, all of this is magnified to a global domain inhabited by web sites, emails, malware, online stores, the virtual presence of other humans, as well as online counterparts to all the things we store locally on our own devices.

Like Alice, in Through the Looking-Glass, we think these things actually exist, when they are really only the functions of the computer on our desk, on our laps, or, increasingly, in our hands:

'Now, if you'll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I'll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there's the room you can see through the glass—that's just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair—all but the bit behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see THAT bit! I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never CAN tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too—but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I've held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room."

The point is that none of this stuff actually exists; only the appearance of it exists. As with Magritte’s pipe these things are representations only. They are not discrete objects, but merely permutations in an electronic substratum, interactive reflections in a very complex looking-glass. When you download a file, no file is actually transmitted; only the instructions your device requires to replicate that electronic phantasm, whether it be text, video, image, or whatever.

Take the most simple example: text. My computer does not contain text. There is no text in my computer. What we have instead – what you are reading now – is the appearance of text, reproduced on your own device, according to the instructions it has retrieved from remote servers. Those instructions have merely configured the screen of your device to put forth the appearance of text. Real ‘text’ refers, as in past ages, to a written account. But to ‘write’ is to score, to scratch, to draw the figure of; it is a real action, ending in a discrete object. An ebook is not a text, nor is it written. It is a clever, intricate, faithful electronic phantasm that only exists as a function of a device.

This may sound pedantic and strange, and it is. But it is also important. In the past, when you heard someone’s voice on the telephone, at some point you must have learned that their voice didn’t literally travel along the telephone wire, but was converted into a signal, and converted back to sound waves at your end, by your own telephone handset. In other words, when you hear someone’s voice on the telephone, you aren’t truly hearing their voice – merely a faithful reproduction or mimicry of their voice. But for all intents and purposes we treat it as their voice, and our concept and our language reflect the pragmatic purpose rather than the complex reality.

When we stare at clouds, we begin by saying “that one looks like a dog” and “this one surely resembles Ernest Hemingway!”; before long, we are saying “that one’s a rabbit” and “there’s Picasso’s depiction of the bombing of Guernica!” We let the truth slip away for the sake of ease and brevity, confident that nothing is really lost in the translation from ‘looks like’ to ‘is’.

But what if something is lost? Not in clouds or simple technologies like telephones and television, but in the complex, interactive world or appearance of a world that adorns the screens of our many modern devices. What we lose in the ever increasing engagement with our marvellous screens is the appropriate distinction of reality, of real objects. Your computer screen is a real object, as are the many components that coordinate it. But this article is not a real object, these words are not real objects, the files, folders, videos, games, none of them are real objects. When you open a window, you aren’t opening any real window, yet your eyes are fixed upon it nonetheless.

This is so important because we human beings are real objects – not phantasms, an appearance, or a representation. We are real beings that require other real things to keep us happy, healthy, and sane. We are incredible creatures eminently suited to full immersion in a world of tangible, sensible, actual-factual existing things. We are not, as it happens, designed to stare transfixed at a glowing panel on the desk, hunched in some quite awkward, unnatural posture, our eyes searching and scanning minute variations of an LCD display with the intensity and persistence reserved for the hunt in some bygone era.

The genius absurdity of the digital age is that our interactive devices: computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets, are able to form so many and varied meaningful representations and appearances that we fall into the trap of treating these appearances as though they are real objects. Not only do we end up spending long hours fixed in unnatural concentration, but the whole time our sense of reality is subtly shifted and undermined. The line between the real world and the virtual world is blurred, and the blurring is a function of our pragmatic conceptual framework.

I may say: “I go to the MercatorNet website”, but nothing really goes anywhere. Rather, my computer receives instructions from the MercatorNet host server, and according to those instructions it alters its display output, giving me the appearance of a well crafted and brilliantly edited news and opinion website. But à la Magritte: Ceci n’est pas un site web.

The language and architecture of our computer technology has purposefully mirrored real life objects, from the creation of directories and folder hierarchies right at the beginning, to the way a page scrolls up and down when you run your finger along the touch-screen (except that there is no page, and it doesn’t really scroll). We have fashioned computers this way for ease of navigation and use. We have shaped them to suit us, but in the process we have adopted the insidious mental habit of treating appearances like real objects. We increasingly view our devices not as self-contained machines, but as portals or windows to a hidden world.

I’m betting this will change; not because unknown authors complain of metaphysical nausea, but because the lowering cost and increasing power of computer technology will make the existing models of computer interface redundant. For example, in 2004 a program named Google Desktop allowed users to search their own local machines for files, emails, music, videos, pictures, and so on, as easily as we now search online. Why bother clicking through the virtual maze of folders and subfolders when a simple search would locate the relevant files directly?

Google Desktop was discontinued in 2011, mainly because its functions had been adopted by more recent operating systems, or superseded by increased consumer uptake of online storage and applications. Using Windows 7, you don’t have to remember where you put Conan the Barbarian: The Musical; you can just start typing it in the search bar and Windows will find it in a few seconds.

The decreasing cost of technology means that individuals own multiple devices suited to different functions. Perhaps in the future it will make sense to have a cheap device dedicated to typing up your long-winded essays, another specifically for reading, another for communication, yet another for watching videos and listening to music, all of them connected to your personal online storage. Each device, by being specialised and purpose-driven, could do away with the confusing and mentally draining illusion of a virtual world full of virtual objects. Never again will you drag a folder to the recycle bin and click ‘empty’. To paraphrase the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism: There is no folder, there is no recycle bin, virtual objects have no independent existence; what is there to be emptied?

In the meantime, it must suffice to have an explanation (albeit an esoteric one) for the strange and discomforting internet malaise suffered by this author and hopefully at least one of his readers. The logical solution is to take frequent breaks, spend more time appreciating real objects, and try not to think too much about that virtual world.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia. During his recent holidays, he paid a visit to the real world and liked it. 



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