The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity
By Stephen MarcheOctober 15, 2018
— Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication, 1974
1.) RECENTLY MY SON visited a Holocaust Museum where a program called New Dimensions in Testimony provided a hologram of an Auschwitz survivor. The unreal man would answer any question the children asked about the horrors of history. The kids loved it because they could ask anything. “Do you hate the Germans?” “Do you still believe in God?” “What was the worst thing that happened?” My son explained that the students never would have been able to ask those questions of a real person because it would have been embarrassing. This is the angel of the future. It has no flesh, so you can be truly intimate with it.
2.) I am a hybrid, of the halfway generation, neither a digital nor an analog native. My intimate life has coincided, almost exactly, with the arrival of digital connectivity. My wife was born the same month that Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf published A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication describing the TCP/IP, which defined the connections that made the internet possible. I can remember the unpacking of the first personal computer in my family home, the eerie lizard-eye green of its primitive screen. I can remember the first email I sent, the first online form I filled out. Technology is the subject of nearly every collective memory I can recall: Where were you when you got your first smartphone? What was the first purchase you made on Amazon? Remember MySpace?
Since my boyhood, the rise of digital connectivity has transformed every human interaction, from buying a sandwich to anal sex. The period has coincided with a crisis of intimacy. A recent survey of 20,000 Americans found that almost half suffered from loneliness, which now qualifies as a chronic public health problem. Narcissism, a related condition, has been rising over 30 years of clinical studies and has become so widespread and so fundamental to all aspects of culture that the question is whether it can properly be identified as a pathology any longer. Social capital, in every form, is in steep decline. Political solidarity is diminishing and fragmentation of all kinds is rising. The borders of ourselves are closing. The borders of our countries are closing.
3.) Everybody knows that technology has changed us, on our most intimate levels. Nobody really wants to face the specifics of how. Technologists have a blind spot when it comes to their effects on intimacy. Since you can’t quantify it, what does it matter? The great analysts of human intimacy are equally blind when it comes to registering the subtle interruptions of the machines. Alice Munro’s short stories, widely considered the most intimate portraits of domestic life in the period between the 1970s and the 2010s (smack dab in the middle of the grand technological disruption), never mention a computer. It seems too silly, too negligible, a distraction from the real business of intimate life, which is family and sex. And there is another problem: if you mentioned a smartphone in a short story about intimate life, the subject of that story would be the smartphone. The technology would swallow all other meaning in fiction just as it does in real life.
The failure to deal with the intimate implications of digital connectivity leads to widespread mistakes. It is a general assumption, and not just among old people, that the rise of digital connectivity has led to a decline in intimacy. The ethereal nature of digital connection — its ephemerality, its facelessness — stands in counterpoint to the fleshiness and materiality of the analog. The download is not the same as the album, Netflix is not the same as the movie house, Tinder is not romance, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. Technology is, at best, a trade-off of intimacy for convenience — that’s the general idea.
The problem with the general idea is that it doesn’t reflect reality. The digital world is soaked in intimacy. I am among the youngest persons alive who has not shared naked pictures of himself with his partners. Facebook and Instagram are massive, interconnected displays of intimate scenarios: family vacations, graduations, 90th birthday teas, Christmas morning with the boxes unwrapped, everybody’s family out in the open. There’s Birthtube. There are unprecedented masses of pornography of the most graphic nature. Digital connectivity has fundamentally altered as ancient an intimate practice as masturbation. Masturbation used to be a work of memory and imagination, a dreamlike reconstitution of the erotic considerations of the everyday. Now it is a search through images cataloged in permutations and combinations of the total existing sum of externalized desire contained in a series of databases.
Conversations on social media are almost entirely personal in nature. Every Twitter or Facebook discussion inevitably descends from an external subject — organic farming, video games, poetry — to interpersonal griping: “your tone is insulting” or “who do you think you are?” Politics on the internet indulges a hatred for the other side that’s unprecedented in its intimacy and ferocity. “Those people are scum” and “I hate your guts” are the principal political messages of the era of digital connectivity.
Again, my position in time gives me a peculiar perspective. I remember when an entire news cycle tried to reckon with the meaning of George H. W. Bush checking his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton. It’s hard to believe, I know, but that’s what politics used to be like. A gesture as mild as checking your watch would be construed as some kind of insight into the life-perspective of a presidential candidate. In the era of Facebook and Twitter and 4chan, a president comparing porn stars he’s sleeping with to his daughter passes by barely noticed. We have been overwhelmed by revelations of an intimate nature. There is nothing but intimacy left.
Or, rather, there is no more and no less intimacy now than there was during the analog era; the intimacy has been transferred to another format. Human beings are intimate creatures. After entering a world of impersonal connection, human beings cannot help but respond by rendering every interaction as personal as possible. Faced with a civilization based on the Uniform Resource Locations, we express ourselves in lust and hunger and violence. Sitting in front of infinitely interchangeable and accessible screens, each of us stupidly needs to feel special, and will do what it takes.
The content of the internet is always in rebellion against its form. The form is smooth universality. The content is the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
4.) The contradiction between form and content was apparent in the very foundations of the system, evident in the document that made it all possible. The definition of a connection in A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication is “exclusively in the sense of an association between two or more entities without regard to a path.” The unspeakable power and hard limitations of the age of digital connectivity are right there, right at the beginning. “Without regard to a path,” all information can be connected. The connections will, however, be “without regard to a path.” The achievement is the disaster. The advantage is the flaw. The feature is the bug. Equality of information is, by definition, the antithesis of intimacy.
Vint Cerf, co-author of the TCP/IP, famously wears three-piece suits. The man strides through the Silicon Valley world of sauce-stained hoodies in the most formal attire available. It’s a good metaphor for the internet itself: his formality, his protocol, his ideal of uniform accessibility made possible the sewer of contempt and rage that is the internet, as well as the lonely self-regarding viciousness of social media, the opiated anomie and the phosphorescent mania that constitute the actual experience of going online.
5.) The basic contradiction is as simple as it is desperate: the sharing of private experience has never been more widespread while empathy, the ability to recognize the meaning of another’s private experience, has never been more rare. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein confronted exactly this problem, of the meaning of intimacy and the intimacy of meaning. “The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else,” he wrote. “The assumption would thus be possible — though unverifiable — that one section of mankind had one sensation of red and another section another.” Wittgenstein thought it was unverifiable, but the internet has verified it. Is the dress blue or gold? Do you hear Yanni or Laurel?
The connection of the TCP/IP promises universality of reference; it does not promise shared sensation. And shared sensation is the essence of intimacy — the conviction that I feel what another or others are feeling, and another or others feel what I’m feeling. It’s the desperate human question: Do you feel what I feel? Is the little tremor in my heart meaningful to others? Wittgenstein posed this pathetically needy, essentially human question in his famous parable of the beetle in the box:
Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! — Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle.” No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. — Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box.
How extravagant an allegory this once seemed! I remember when I read it at university. It seemed borderline preposterous to imagine that people — outside of psychopaths or Nazis or other monsters — could not recognize another’s pain. (In that debate in which George H. W. Bush checked his watch, Bill Clinton introduced the phrase of the ’90s: “I feel your pain.”)
Now, anyone who has been online in any capacity for any length of time understands the beetle in the box problem instinctively. The incipient political catastrophe in the United States can be summed up in a phrase: nobody believes the other’s pain is real. Nobody believes the other’s pain is meaningful; nobody recognizes anybody else’s pain. It is the central problem of internet-provoked outrage and loathing, the hyper-partisanship that turns on so many hinges. Nobody is willing to accept the other’s description of their feelings. The whole world of digital connectivity is a bunch of beetles in a bunch of boxes, strung together by wires.
6.) In our state of jumbled brokenness, of intimacy without empathy, fostered by the era of digital connectivity, we have returned to magic, to the primordial fear of contact. It was recently reported that the new sexual harassment policies at Netflix explicitly forbid gazes that last longer than five seconds — the power of the gaze has returned, the power of the evil eye. Language has taken on the direct force of spells once again — words can conjure evil, they can do harm. We have recharged sex with so much meaning that people are having less of it. The debates that take place online are mostly not debates at all, not in the sense of an exchange of ideas. They are accusations of blasphemy and indulgences in the pleasures of blasphemy. The current moment has been described as “post-truth,” which is a misnomer. The problem is that everyone has their truth and nobody admits doubt. There is no shortage of totalizing moral clarity in the world. Indeed, there’s a glut. I see my beetle and nobody else’s.
7.) Traditionally, art has been the place where we see what others see, where we feel what others feel. In the era of digital connectivity, the artist has taken on a sacred status that would have been inconceivable in any other era, exactly because the point of artists in the era of digital connectivity is to provide audiences with intimacy. Artists are to represent, in their being, our political hopes and, in their taste, our lifestyle aspirations. Artists who are bad people are to have their works banished. History complicates the iconoclasm, of course. If you were to walk through the halls of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and try to pick out the works of all the pedophiles and rapists and murderers, could you do it? How much beauty would you lose if you did? Needless to say, the point of the iconoclasm is not to investigate the human difficulties of the past but to create a new figuration — the artist as social avatar, a figure of shared sensations and values. Because we feel we know who they are now, artists, not their works, are the connection we crave.
The difference between poets and Instapoets makes for an excellent register of the transition. I know nothing about the personal life of John Berryman. I don’t know if he was gay or straight. I have no idea what he looks like or what his taste in clothes are. I do know that he wrote, “[T]he natural world makes sense: cats hate water and love fish.” I also know that I have thought about that line several times a month for most of my adulthood. It is furniture in my inner life, always being pushed around. Rupi Kaur, I could instantly identify on the street. I have seen a picture of her in which she shows what appears to be menstrual blood on her clothing. I cannot, offhand, remember anything she’s written.
Not that one type of poet is better than the other. They both reflect, in their audiences, the craving for intimacy. But they are different intimacies. One is lingual and analog. The other is imagistic and digital. One is the past. The other is the future.
8.) A few days ago, I had great trouble identifying a painting I was sure I had seen somewhere. It was a kind of parody of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, where instead of rising from the lush Mediterranean the goddess of love was rising from a sea of garbage. Venus was a porn star in this image I was looking for. All the other figures in the image were pop-culture references. One of them might have been Chewbacca, I thought. I spent almost half a day on Google trying to find this tantalizing image. It sounded like something a young Koons might have made, or maybe Takashi Murakami, or, stretching a bit, Chris Ofili. I couldn’t find anything even close, no matter how I searched or where. These moments, when Google fails, when the internet does not have the information you require, are so frustrating precisely because they’re so rare, because you know the information is out there and the fault must be yours. Slowly, it began to dawn on me. This painting I was scouring the internet for did not exist. No one had painted it. It was my own image. I had assumed that my imagination was already an archived artifact in a database.
9.) Another advantage to being a member of the halfway generation is that I am able to remember all the times when computers were supposed to replace people and did not. Only a few months ago, Google claimed that its artificial assistant had passed the Turing test; people couldn’t tell they were talking to a computer. Once upon a time, this eventuality would have been considered humanity-ending. The moment was greeted with a shrug. The same shrug greeted Deep Blue’s victory over Kasparov, I recall. There was this huge build-up — Are Computers Replacing Us? — then, once it happened, everybody went on playing chess and otherwise being human. Same with Go.
Each of these computational marvels matters more in anticipation than in achievement. Why? Because the machines don’t get more human each time they conquer some realm of activity; rather, the activity they conquer gets less human. One of the great gifts of technological development of the past 40 years is that it has shown how little intelligence, as we usually describe it, is worth. IQ is strictly for suckers. Crowds used to gather to watch prodigies perform seemingly impossible feats of arithmetic. Now anyone with a phone can do the same. We once vaunted our pride through what turned out to be a biomechanical function. When an algorithm produces a hit pop song, and it will, we’ll know that a hit song is formulaic, which we know now, just as we knew that chess was ultimately just a series of calculations.
When you live your life on computers, it is exactly what isn’t computable, what isn’t formulaic, what isn’t algorithmic, that is human. Just as, in another era, what was human was what no beast possessed. In an era slick with information, clever beyond belief, intelligent beyond the fantasies of our ancestors, our understanding of what constitutes a person is as primitive as it has ever been. This is not a new situation, or not unique to the condition of digital connectivity. The soul has always been a mystery. It escapes any explanation. What is holy in us, what is human in us, is unknowable, secret even to ourselves. The secret name has always been the name that matters.
10.) The crisis of intimacy is not some accident, some coincidence with the rise of smartphones and social media. It is so hard to see the specific outlines of the relation, and not just because of the standard difficulties of establishing the true meaning of statistics. Who can see their own distortion clearly? Amara’s Law, which states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run, is true of human fate in general. In history, as in our intimate lives, the decisions we don’t consider are the ones with the most profound consequences. A mother’s off-handed remark. A party attended at the last minute. These shape us in ways paralyzing to contemplate. Kranzberg’s Law — “Technology is neither good nor bad, neither is it neutral” — has the good sense to acknowledge the inevitability of misunderstanding. It’s why time is the ultimate twist ending. It’s why the consequences of technology are never what anyone thinks they are.
11.) There is a story circulating, on the internet of course, about a new practice used by the German Secret Service. For documents of the very highest classification of secrecy, the agents use typewriters and file them in cabinets. They have come to the conclusion that anything digital is inherently compromised. What they want to keep to themselves, what really matters, they keep analog.
12.) The crisis of intimacy emerges directly from the structures of digital connectivity themselves, and not merely from their misapplication. There is no hope in better management. All plans for fixing the internet are a misunderstanding of the fundamental vision of connection that makes the whole thing possible. Nothing any digital technology company could do, other than to stop making digital technology, would assuage the inescapable brokenness of our condition. The connections of the internet are originally and inherently “without regard to a path,” and mere human beings, on screen or off, are in infinite need of paths.
We’re going to have to find those paths elsewhere than technology. A secret name is not the same as an anonymous avatar. In a world of total information, the essence of the human will become what is not information, and the essence of intimacy will be in sharing what cannot be shared over the networks. Secret names have always stood at the center of what is holy. The ancient Egyptian universal god Ra had a sacred name, a secret name. When Moses asked God who He was, the answer came back “I am I am.” Without secrets, there can be no revelation.
As the various venues of digital connectivity become the whole of the public realm, the public realm will be a collection of alienations, a bunch of beetles in a bunch of boxes. In an all-sharing world, what we don’t share will define us. The secret will be irrelevant because it is not on the network. It will be the part of us that matters.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and an essayist.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and an essayist.
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