Crossposted to The Infernal Machine - After John Durham Peters came to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture to talk about his new book The Marvelous Clouds, the editors at the Infernal Machine invited me to comment on some of the themes in his book.
Etching from La clef de la science, explication des phénomènes de tous les jours par Brewer et Moigno (1889). Via Wikimedia Commons.
Media are elemental. And like the elements, they’re essential to our everyday practices, so much so that we often take them for granted. But sometimes, like when there’s a drought or a flood, the elements take on a charge and something makes us sit up and take notice of them. When there’s a dangerous lack of an element or an overabundance, we’re forced to take stock of the element’s essential qualities, its importance to our own lives, and the resources needed to cope with changing conditions.
We seem to be in the midst of a flood of media meant to foster intimacy and social connection. Social networking sites and free text messaging services are providing more ways to meet, “poke,” stalk, and stay in touch with people from all the different stages of our lives. These practices are even embedded in the ways many of us find love. In a recent Pew study, more than half of American teenagers reported “digitally flirting” with someone to communicate their romantic intentions. The widespread adoption of these technologies by teenagers have led some scholars, such as Sherry Turkle, to worry that “superficial” forms of intimacy will degrade their capacities for empathy and understanding. In the midst of this flood, critics such as Turkle are raising concerns about the quality of the water.
Peters provides an explanation of why teenagers might be drawn to this kind of interaction in the first place:
People prefer being telepresent via Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging not because the software provides the ‘feeling’ of ‘sitting the face to face,’ but rather because it doesn’t provide it at all. Text-only communication lightens social anxieties.
In a stage of life when it often seems that their own bodies are working against us, telepresence is an attractive solution for some teenagers. The bodily (dis)functions that often undermined our best efforts at confident and cool comportment are eliminated in text-only communication. But teenagers’ use of these technologies can’t only be explained by their individual strategies to reduce the anxieties of teenager-hood. As Peters suggests, digital media invite us to consider the roles they play in our “habitats,” meaning the wider contexts in which we struggle and form relationships.
Over the past several decades, the habitats of American teenagers have been characterized, as psychologist Cindi Katz and media scholar danah boyd have noted, by the individualization of risks surrounding their failures or successes in increasingly competitive markets for higher education and jobs, and shrinking amounts of time and space for them to interact with one another outside of adult supervision. As their anxieties about their futures mount, teenagers have decreasing amounts of private spaces to sort through those issues with their friends.
Of course, some teenagers have the resources to withstand the floodwaters. Their lives are like well-appointed gardens, studded with carefully selected plants, and drainage systems that allow them to be resilient in the face of changing conditions. Meanwhile, low-income teens on the economic margins of society, who often face intensified levels of surveillance by both state institutions and police, as well as their parents and teachers, scramble to stem the damage caused by the run-off, without the resources or support to survive the storm.
Understanding the elemental nature of media forces us to consider not only the quality of the “water” that we swim in, but the resources available to deal with its negative consequences. Some teenagers will be prepared to absorb the risks of swimming. Others will be left to sink or swim.