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17 July 2015

The internet is not a single entity – it’s a whole new way of living

Psychoanalyst Josh Cohen untangles our complex "ways of being" in an overwhelmingly digital world.

By Josh Cohen

The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World
Laurence Scott
William Heinemann, 248pp, £20

In an inspired episode of Graham Linehan’s sitcom The IT Crowd, Roy and Moss, the tech geeks based in the bowels of the company building, convince their gloriously clueless manager, Jen, that a bog-standard wireless router is The Internet. She duly unveils the flashing black box at a shareholders’ meeting, announcing, “The Internet!” with a magician’s flourish – the punchline being that, instead of laughing her out of the room, the assembled owners erupt in a collective gasp of wonder: There it is! The Internet!

Much commentary on the internet, even when better informed, is prone to the same illusion. It points to the net as though one could speak of it from the outside as one phenomenon among others, a Bad or Good Thing, either corroding or liberating our brains, relationships and communities. We too often speak of the internet as a discrete entity we can take or leave, rather than the environment in which we think and feel.

One of the many virtues of Laurence Scott’s probing and elegant meditation on the digital world’s “ways of being” is that he conveys a sense of online life as a mode of daily existence, rather than a bounded space we can enter or exit at will. This renders him suitably wary of the “Demon of Melodramatic Prophecy”, that tendency of books on contemporary phenomena to market themselves with apocalyptic warnings or messianic good tidings of the near future (you know the kind of thing – How the Internet Is Making Innovative Geniuses/Gormless Cretins of Us All). “Every book”, Scott suggests, “has at least one demon who threatens to make its vision less interesting” – in this case, the temptation to find some final verdict, a flattening of the essential ambiguity of the digital world.

Although Martin Heidegger is nowhere explicitly named in The Four-Dimensional Human (Scott may prefer not to invoke unrepentant Nazis, to which one can only say fair play), the book seems to follow the German philosopher’s critique, in his 1954 essay “Die Frage nach der Technik”, of the superficial conception of technology as the historical accretion of machines. Technology, Heidegger posits, is rather the mode through which humanity discloses its very Being; it is, he writes, “no mere means”, but “a way of revealing”.

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Although he has plenty to say about the ways in which our various devices insinuate themselves into our bodily and psychic lives, Scott is much more interested in the digital world’s “ways of revealing” everyday experience than in hard technical analysis or airy futurological speculation. Relevant here is a more specific allusion to Heidegger discernible in the penultimate chapter title: “The Cabin in the Woods”. The romantic image gilding the cover (the remote chiaroscuro dwelling, crowned by a watermelon-pink Google location marker) evokes Heidegger’s hut in the Black Forest mountains. This is the site of true “dwelling” and an emblem of the patient task of thinking “Being as such” – for Heidegger, Being is something one does not “think about”, but simply “thinks” – shorn of its contingent social or psychological colourings.

Scott is alive to the many resonances of the phrase “cabin in the woods”, but its “four-dimensional” significance is brought out by the knowing 2012 schlock horror flick of that title, in which five American college kids hole up in an off-grid forest getaway, only to discover they have “unknowingly journeyed into the centre of surveillance”. The cabin turns out to be the site of a murderous ritual sacrifice monitored and controlled by the evil workers of a hi-tech facility. So much for thinking Being in the profound solitude of the Schwarzwald.

Scott derives his “fourth dimension” not from cutting-edge technology of the present but from literary texts of the 20th century, notably The Inheritors, a novel co-authored by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The fourth dimension here is “an unrealised, unrealisable infinity of space” folded imperceptibly into our standard three dimensions. This once-fanciful sci-fi scenario is now the air that we breathe. Not long ago, the cabin in the woods signified the dream of “pure, isolated habitation”, located at vast physical and imaginative distance from our quotidian reality.

But in the age of location services the gap between the near and the remote collapses, and with it the fantasy of total escape:

The more we come to think of a quintessential house as being lit not just by lamps at the window but by the oblong glows of assorted devices, by the half-hidden flicker of the router

under the table, the less a house on a hill will be able to accommodate our dreams of solitude.

The book is full of such artfully concentrated imaginative descriptions. Notice how, in delineating the router’s dissolution of the boundary between the house and the world outside, Scott conjures the transition from the lamplight’s 20th-century solitude into the glowing device’s 21st-century sociality.

More than a mere display of erudition, Scott’s forays into literary and philosophical texts from Sophocles to Walter Benjamin are a rebuke to a crude technological determinism that thinks of the fourth dimension as a creation of our own age. They remind us that the derangement of space-time now being realised by the digital world has always lurked at the outer edges of the imagination. The “digital perversity” whereby the deafening noise of social media is at once a “terrible silence” is anticipated by Dionysus: “His trademark entrance on to an Arcadian scene involves blaring pandemonium, but crucially it is from within this noisy ecstasy that a terrible silence petrifies any mortal present.” With such uncanny intrusions of the ancient into the present, the book niftily performs its central conceit.

One of the many rich ironies of 4D life is that its merciless dissolution of spatial and temporal boundaries intensifies our nostalgia for a sentimentally pristine past. Exhibit A here is the Oakland-based firm Digital Detox, which offers a tailored escape from networked life in the form of Camp Grounded, where adult participants “shed their digital selves to re-create an idealised vision of summer-camp innocence”, complete with “woodworking, pickling, analogue photography and archery”.

But such intricately planned artifice, Scott argues, can only aggravate the predicament it is meant to relieve by confirming the irretrievability of our personal and historical pasts: “As is common with simulations, Camp Grounded has the form of a simile with none of the novelty: your food will be like your childhood food; you will live like the Scouts you used to be.” The escapist simulations of the 4D world are a notably egregious instance of the impoverishment of language, constricting rather than expanding our imaginative breathing space.

And yet it seems that increasing ­numbers of us are calling out from the abyss of the digital void, yearning for the impossible recovery of a three-dimensional world and its reliable differentiations between here and there, now and then. The internet was born in anarchic visions of shedding the constrictions of personal embodiment. “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us,” the internet activist John Perry Barlow wrote in 1996, envisioning the dizzying proliferation of our online identities.

But the history that subsequently unfolded was rather less utopian. As the internet morphed into a vast consumerist playground, ever greater numbers of us came to be seduced into quantifying our online selves, reducing ourselves to the sum of data we could trade for access to goods and services. It is far easier, Scott suggests, to sell stuff to “contained, knowable people” with “an online history of consistent, amiable personhood”, and it turns out that we like being sold stuff sufficiently well to oblige the vendors. As Scott has it in another fine aperçu, “Digital life, for all its ethereality, is in the business of making things matter.” It brings to mind another contemporary crime against speech, those corporate granola boxes and juice cartons that address us as their bantering chums. In reducing us to instances of generic amiability, the digital world subjects us to the same sort of shrinking operation we perform on it, cutting it back to a finite, knowable quantity (as in the flashing black box of that episode of The IT Crowd).

Herein lies the governing paradox of our 4D “ways of being” as it emerges from under Scott’s sharp and lyrical gaze. We experience the digital world as at once a sublimely unnavigable landscape that decentres our world, and as a reassuringly personalised domain that recentres it. The 4D world is neither liberating nor imprisoning, but holds both possibilities within itself.

The Four-Dimensional Human is finally less a commentary on the digital world than a meditation on the many ways our technologies serve as spectral emanations of our inner lives in all their contradictory richness. Beyond the lovely precision of its diction and companionable voice, it is notable for its courage to write from inside the ambiguities and confusions of online life, to resist the easy pleasures of summary judgement. Not that this entails bland even-handedness: there is much lamentation here, albeit a wry lamentation that avoids the hectoring exhortation to do or not do something, that refuses to proffer either one of the seductive but utterly false delusions that there is some easy way out of the digital world or some ideal way of living in it.

Josh Cohen is the author of “The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark” (Granta)

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