Every day, while walking home after a long day’s work, I watch the lights shimmer out from the insides of skyscrapers. Down below on the streets of Manhattan, the mood is filled with revelries that follow a public hanging. Bars are filled with after-office gossip and romance. The drunken roar of automobiles and the shriek of ambulances making their way through traffic are everywhere. These scenes of everyday life that I see — superficial in its empiricism, commonplace in details — have, over the years, become the grounds from which my understandings of New York emerged.
But over the last few months, along the very same streets that I walk, the city authorities have replaced old payphone cubicles on the sidewalks with 10 ft tall kiosks that carry 55-inch digital screens across 1,300 locations. These digital obelisks continuously stream information about the city, cultural history of New York, vintage photographs, weather warnings, and an unending cornucopia of quiz and facts (“New Yorkers bite 10 times more people than sharks do worldwide”). The screens keep the passers-by entertained, informed, and occasionally even wistful for a quieter, older New York.
Before long, I noticed that as I walked past them, instead of “seeing” the world around me, my eyes inadvertently stared at this stream of images and text. Like an addict looking for his next hit, I kept a watchful eye for the next question or factoid that streamed in. With these screens on every second or third intersection, the multiplicities of sounds and sights, trifles and terrors of the ‘real’ world were replaced by an archipelago of lonely byte-sized facts.
By now, the world over, many human lives revolve around flitting between electronic screens: from telephones in hands, computer screens at work, televisions and hand-held devices in homes. To say nothing of the similar paraphernalia in the hands of spouses, peers and friends. Add to all this, an increasing number of electronic screens that proliferate in our public spaces — at airports, railways, digital billboards. We are awash in the afterglow of screens we have surrendered to.
To ask if this explosion of devices is good or bad for humans is besides the point. Instead, the question we ought to ask — perhaps, the only question we can ask— is, what does it mean for our minds to be surrounded by these devices that continually stream information? Over centuries, humans observed and had invented means to extract repetitions and commonalities from a world that was full of differences and variations. Conversely, humans developed protocols and methods to insinuate and construct subtle differences when faced with the regularities of life. In both cases — the discovery of repetition and the invention of difference — the world we saw and touched was an infinite dimensional object that allowed for a variety of readings.
Reality or simulation?
But now, the world that arrives into our consciousness is mediated by economics, manicured by aesthetes, and monitored by the state. What we experience as reality — structured representations and programmed content — is increasingly indistinguishable from a simulation. Our traditionally evolved vocabularies to parse differences and repetitions are of little use. The rules of these new simulated worlds that arrive through our screens are, by construction, designed to ensure that divergences amplify into differences and regularities fossilise into orthodoxies. Thanks to the grammar of these mediums, our engagement on various platforms has little use for crossovers, admixtures, or liminal spaces. For those who fail to master this new syntax lies rejection, then exile and eventually the digital equivalent of non-existence.The result of this steady transformation of how we recognise what constitutes the world is that fundamental units of social coexistence — ideas such as fact, truth, reality — have been uprooted from the cognitive infrastructure in which they traditionally resided. In These Truths, her excellent new history of the United States, Jill Lepore writes that in the centuries following the Magna Carta in 1215, “a new doctrine of evidence and new method of inquiry eventually led to the idea that an observed or witnessed act or thing — the substance, the matter, of fact — is the basis of truth”. When printing and mass literacy arrived, these new fangled ideas called ‘facts’ proliferated to become the basis of constructing reality. Our languages, intuitions, and institutions began to organise around the idea of learning to identify and appraise facts.
But now, with our screens and their omnipresent glow steadily pouring claims about the world, by scholar and everyman alike, most of us don’t have energies to parse truth from near truths. The result is weariness and a regression to the familiar and comforting. As the old world of belief and tradition vanishes, we discover that the post-Enlightenment dream of holding up a mirror to social realities propped up by facts and reason has yielded to a wilderness of broken mirrors.