The Invisible Fence: The Limits of Freedom Online
The Internet. It seems infinite. Has anyone seen every webpage in existence? Are there any limits in terms of the ways in which it can be developed?
A quick glance suggests that the possibilities are endless. But are they really? Does the Internet really offer us endless opportunities and new frontiers of freedom?
In its earliest form, the Internet was mostly text-based (Nakamura 1). However, even in this form—perhaps especially in this form—it was considered a potential utopia. It was considered a place where people could make their thoughts public without necessarily being judged upon their identity.
Recent publications challenge the true extent of the voice that the Internet allows its users. Jodi Dean calls its supposed openness to all voices a “fantasy of democracy,” a “fantasy of participation” (24, 30). She bases this on an argument that although the Internet circulates our messages, it does not guarantee that they will be received (20). Nonetheless, she believes this placates people and directs their attention away from true political struggles and organization (40). In her words “technology covers our impotence and supports a vision of ourselves as active political participants” (36).
Despite the logic of her argument, there is some evidence that it is not completely true. Near the end of her article, she is forced to recognize the success of MoveOn’s virtual sit-ins (46). More recently, there also have been virtual protests related to the conflict in Egypt—although they are too recent to determine the outcome of, it is clear that they are attracting a good deal of attention and uniting many people. (Of course, Egypt also raises other questions of who really controls our access to the Internet). Given such examples, can we really conclude that the Internet is becoming so overcome with voices that we cannot pick out the big issues and respond to them in some way?
Virtual responses and their ultimate effects aside, isn’t it enough that we feel compelled to get our voice out online? If we continue to do it, it must be doing something for us. Is it not enough that it sometimes just fulfills this need to get out thoughts. Do our words always need to lead to political action for them to be relevant? Even if they are just making us happy, aren’t they accomplishing something?
When considering this issue of voice it is important to consider that in recent years, the Internet has been changing. Specifically, it has come to depend more and more on graphics than on just text (Nakamura 1). Lisa Nakamura takes this into consideration as she debates how much freedom it allows us. She notes that there has been “disagreement over just how empowering digital interactivity may be” (15). She goes on to provide arguments for both sides as she explains the ways in which graphics allow for the collaborative production of “digital images of the body in the context of racial and gender identity formation” since new representations deal with and renegotiate these categories (1).
However, Nakamura’s argument ends on a more positive note than Dean’s. Despite her obvious reservations, she explains that the Internet is “interactive” and “empowering” (14). She also makes it clear that even though women and minorities may not experience the Internet in the same ways as the majority, their experience can get turned into differential forms of access which allow them to redefine it (15). Furthermore, she claims that creativity allows people to overcome majority opinions. For example, she explains that avatars are “easily obtained and customized” (30). She also ends her introduction on the note that the Internet arouses and enables “the passion for claiming identities” (35).
While I like Nakamura’s general assertions about avatars, I cannot help but think that she glosses some important issues related to them. First of all, when things get put into a visual form, less is left to the imagination. To understand this, one needs to only consider books in comparison to movies. Have you ever read a book and later seen an adaptation of it that was nothing like your vision? In some ways, the movie form forces you to see the book from another’s vantage point.
A similar effect occurs when it comes to avatars. Putting an imagined avatar into pixels leaves less to the imagination. This is particularly the case when one is not in control of the design software. In this case, one is stuck with the options thought up by another creator. Consider the fact that when you register for a screenname or begin to create a new avatar that you typically only get to pick between male or female genders (and when it comes to the latter in video games, options are even more limited). Additionally, there tends to be fewer minority avatar options. Therefore, even if we decide to explore new frontiers and lifestyles unlike our offline lives, we might not have as much wiggle room as we would expect.
In both its text and graphic states, the Internet both allows for and limits freedom. As the Internet grows and changes, what the future holds is uncertain. Perhaps, a completely new interface will arise that will allow for more perfect freedom. Until that happens, maybe we should be less concerned about the political issues and more concerned about the quality of individual user experiences.
Dean, Jodi. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of
Minneapolis Press, 2007. Print.
Nakamura, Lisa. Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism &
Left Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
Sample Blog 2
If I Die Young…Update My Facebook Status
Since my short hiatus from blogging, I had a bit of trouble thinking of something worthwhile to talk about this week…that is until my cell phone rang. My default ringtone is currently The Band Perry’s hit single, “If I Die Young.” (For those of you who have not heard it, I suggest you YouTube it, though the music video is fairly plain). This may seem rather trivial, but it brought to mind a news article that I recently had to read for class, Rob Walker’s “Cyberspace When You’re Dead.” The article questions what happens to all of the personal information and works that we have floating around the internet once we die. Considering that each year the elderly population has more exposure to technology and is, thus, more likely to leave a virtual footprint, this question has growing significance.
Nonetheless, the question of what happens to our Internet footprint is largely ignored. Walker suggests that this is partially because as humans, we do not like to question our own mortality. Although the morbidity of the topic is obvious, this does not seem like the best explanation. What to do about people’s technological habits once they die has come up a lot before, just not necessarily when it comes to the Internet. For example, I remember browsing through a technology magazine about four years ago and coming across an article about a man being buried with his cell phone. His family’s rationale behind this had something to do with his love of technology and the simple fact that he always seemed to be on his cell phone. This is not an isolated case. In my attempt to rediscover this article through Google, I found many similar stories—the funniest of which had to be “Man gets buried with cell phone, still gets incessant calls from his wife” (http://m.gizmodo.com/5115670/man-buried-with-cellphone-still-gets-incessant-calls-from-his-wife). There you have it folks! Cell phones have become the 21st century’s grave goods.
Given that the Internet—and the need to stay constantly wired into it in some form or another—has become so important to people, it seems like what to do with the deceased’s blogs, tweets, and Facebook pages should be a point of concern. This is very much a current issue because it is not only the elderly who pass away. Some people do die young, and these young people are generally tech-savvy and likely to have some online account that their death will leave abandoned. I personally witnessed this issue two years ago, when a girl who I went to high school with was tragically killed in a car accident. She spent a couple of days on life support in a nearby hospital before she was publicly declared dead. However, one of my family’s close friends works in the hospital and told me what had happened before the media leaked the news, and subsequently, before most of my high school class found out. I had this on my mind the next time that I logged onto Facebook. As a result, I soon found myself looking through her wall posts and photographs. A morbid idea? Yes, and a very painful one. Nonetheless, I just could not get over the strangeness of knowing a Facebook user, someone I could still digitally visit, who had passed away. Walker touches on the idea of using digital media as a way to memorialize those who have left a mark on the Internet before passing on, but he does not get across the clear sense of strangeness that I felt.
Although he mentions that advertisements and spam may begin to mar memorial sites, Walker also overlooks just how contentious things can get. Going back to my example, after sifting through the webpage, I thought it would be cathartic to post a memorial status. A number of my friends followed suit once they came across the status in their news feed. Even though these were not even posts to the profile, they caused an uproar. Other people we had gone to school with refused to acknowledge her death because the media had yet to confirm it. Despite our honest intentions, they felt as though we were leaving hate messages and trying to send negative wishes. Thus, a few simple status updates set off a drawn-out Facebook battle which ended in bitterness and a good deal of unfriending. As petty as this may sound, it was very stressful. The emotions and sensitivity that are connected to the loss of an Internet user need to be thoroughly considered as more companies and websites develop policies about what to do with what is left behind. Not only is this new ground, it is clearly not an easy task.
I think that this gets at the actual reasons why dealing with the deceased’s virtual footprint has not become a bigger issue today. It seems natural that virtual creations and identities should follow people to their graves or get allocated to their relatives like more mundane pieces of property. However, it must be understood that the former are much more complicated than the latter. There are not unprecedented legal issues with the latter. Moreover, they are not involved with this issue of the mass accessibility of the property. Even when it comes to the example of cell phones—even those still being paid for by living family members—large numbers of people are not able to access and respond to one another’s messages. They are not able to tread on one another’s raw emotions or affect one another’s image of the dead in quite the same way as mass, interactive forms of communication are able to.
If I die young, I don’t care if you update my Facebook…but my friends might.