Sunday, April 23, 2017

Core Post 5: The Web

Reading Tara McPherson’s “Reload: Liveness, Mobility and the Web” was a totally uncanny experience. The article is so dated, and so not dated. Continual references to ‘the Web’ (and not ‘the internet’) and mentions of Friends, the Power Rangers, My Yahoo, Internet Explorer, AOL, and Netscape transport us to an internet that I barely remember and hardly knew. But jokes aside, she points out a number of ideological issues that have only grown more pertinent in the past 10+ years. For instance, while she recognizes that the possibility of a TV network-like system of control over internet access “may sound far-fetched,” concerns today over net neutrality respond to a similar (though importantly different) trend of corporatizing the internet. Likewise, her warning about search engines’ structured neutrality resonates today, as many of us accept Google’s algorithm as something of a natural law. I must admit I was surprised by the affinities between TV theory and computing, which now seem clear. In particular, importing Feuer into a phenomenology of web surfing enables us to recognize the deceptive work of liveness as an ideology masquerading as ontology. I’m really compelled by this formulation, as it seems like a number of the internet’s promises—participation, interactivity, democratization—operate on this register of ideology masquerading as ontology. For example, these promises are embodied in the cursor, “an expression of our movement and our will” that produces an illusion of liveness and immediacy through real-time feedback and direct manipulation—mechanisms that are surprisingly analog (or at least similes for analog processes). The volition described in Tara’s phenomenology is animated in a ‘scan-and-search’ modality where a “fear of missing… propels us elsewhere… into what feels like a navigable space that responds to our desire” (204). In other words, the internet solicits fomo (fear of missing out), a distinctly though not exclusively millennial disposition. As someone who suffers from crippling fomo, I’m now realizing that my penchant for accumulating tabs upon tabs, opening a new one every time I encounter an interesting article or link, results precisely from this desire to sustain the momentum of surfing without missing out on anything. This is to say that unlike other instances of fomo, web-fomo does not require an either/or choice and enables us to hoard as many tabs as we please (current count: 43). I’m not sure where to begin in theorizing this tab-mania—at once a function of fomo, surfing’s momentum, archive fever, and perpetual deferral—but it feels characteristic of a particular type of web-browsing subjectivity that I would like to get to the bottom of. I also wonder, in the 10+ years since this article was published, how today we might reflect on Tara’s optimistic concluding gesture to the future. The internet’s modalities of personalization and (illusory) choice clearly continue to mirror the tactics of neoliberal subjectification. Do they also activate something more liberatory?

1 comment:

  1. Your comments about the cursor have got me thinking about a phenomenology of web browsing through a smart phone, where the cursor is replaced by the more (or less?) tactile motion of a thumb swipe. On my phone, I am not subjected to continually-amassing tabs but rather to a morass of apps. (I recently deleted and re-organized many of them, making my iPhone screen look completely rejuvenated and yet unfamiliar.) How does our experience of the web change when our interface is smaller due to screen size and more direct due to the use of dedicated apps? Does replacing our cursor with our thumb give us more or less immediacy to the content? For me, despite the phenomenological advantages of using a physical digit to navigate online space, I feel so clumsy.