Digital Presence

Screengrab from


I’ve enjoyed a couple of articles in New York recently, so I picked up a copy at a newsagent’s in Penn Station. There’s an article there by Andrew Sullivan, “I used to be a Human Being”. It’s a good piece, and could stand as an exemplum of millenarian ideas about the digital mediation of presence. In fact, it is an omnibus of them: distraction as modern sickness-unto-death; digital presence as inauthentic, analogue presence as authentic; digitally mediated life as a shadow on the cave wall, analogue life as true being, the thing itself; too-much-to-know information overload vs. salience and detail, and so on.

The profound familiarity of these sentiments should give us pause. In the epigraph above, Tamara Kneese rather misconstrues what Heidegger means by “Cybernetics”; Heidegger is not making an ontological remark about institutional funding streams. Instead he is offering an epistemological take on the future forms of philosophy. (It is possible that Tamara Kneese is making a joke here, expecting us to know this context and offering an ironic riff.) As he elaborated twelve years earlier in “Question Concerning Technology“, technology is a product that produces and this production renders  old epistemic frameworks obsolete. Technology does not mask being and truth; it has transformed it.

So what are we to make of Sullivan’s jeremiad-cum-cri de coeur? I respect Sullivan tremendously as a disciplined and — in his way — rigorous producer of content. I remember reading The Daily Dish as a teenager and finding that if nothing else, it was a pleasure to disagree with him. The place Sullivan’s piece takes in the tradition of hangwringing about media shift – going back to the Phaedrus – makes me more inclined to take it as symptomatic only of the fact that there is a lot of media shift going on, rather than as bearing any probative value about media shift itself. Sullivan’s worries about media are not meaningfully distinct from those of King Thamus. The comparison with the Phaedrus is illuminating because of the specific anxiety about authority that Thamus evinces: Thamus criticises Theuth, the inventor of writing as a bad father who would lead his children astray, as a bad leader whose disciples would be errant and untrustworthy.

When a new way to mediate presence – writing, painting, drama, cinema, telepresence – comes along, it becomes a pariah for all our anxieties about presence itself. Sullivan’s piece is in this way profoundly ideological. The straw man in his article is not digitality but the analogue itself: the unquestioned bedrocks are that surely embodiment is an unmixed phenomenal state, that surely conversation is unmediated interaction, surely lunch without cellphone fosters a real true white-hot connection.

Listen, Mr. Sullivan, and anyone else inclined to join the deep ranks those memoirists for whom the-information-superhighway-ruined-my-life. With history of Western philosophy as my witness, I am here to tell you that these propositions are a little problematic. But to shift the question from presence itself to its freshly mediated forms offers us the comfort of reifying the traditional answers to questions that in other contexts offer us little reassurance: what am I? where am I? how do I connect to this person right in front of me? The answer Sullivan offers is a rousing not through my cellphone! not through Twitter! not through blogs!. And perhaps not. But neither will silent retreat, mindfulness, yoga, nor cellphone-free-lunches render you unto thing-in-itselfness.

The perennial appeal of these pieces is their small-c conservatism. A rejection of new mediation is a rejection of new social stratifications. A rejection of new mediation is a rejection of the redistribution of power that newly mediated presences would bring about. And therefore a rejection of new mediation is an endorsement of existing hegemonies.

Ten thousand tech blogs will evangelise about the wonders of new forms of mediation. Many of those arguments will be questionable at best. And I too found Google Glass annoying and alarming. I’m not saying I’m an uncomplicated booster for all new mediations of presence. But I’d like to reprise two arguments here in conclusion.

  1. Digital presence can be (emphasis on the comparative) safer presence for discriminated-against groups. Non-cis-gendered people or those of minority ethnicities, for example, can find in digitally mediated presences a way to exist with much less everyday suffering.
  2. Digitally mediated presence offers, in its freedom, a kind of authenticity to its users. Memes, gifs, kawaii stickers, emojis — new forms make new kinds of content possible. New kinds of content make more strange and more nuanced kinds of self-expression available. The liberality of digital presence permits a phantasmagoric kind of self-fashioning with a set of bandwidths not available to analogue presence.

My father’s family has an in-joke whose origins are lost, or irrelevant. When my father is in the middle of a really good dinner, he’ll sometimes raise his glass of red wine above his head and cry out in a thick but plausible Scottish accent, It’s nearly the end of everything! We all drink to it, but we carry on eating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: