This essay is part of the monthly Collective Culture column.
Written by: Bobbi Adair
Edited by: Jazmin Batey
Photo: Cho Gi Seok
After over a year in a pandemic that necessitated an uninterrupted Internet connection, the fear of resocializing drapes around me like a thin veil. From the possibility of re-entering office spaces, to awkward offline run-ins in the streets that we supposedly couldn’t wait to get back to, a large part of me would rather just avoid it in favour of “digital intimacy”. At this point, I’m sure that the technologies that sustained my relationships also decreased my desire to interact physically. As if the rate at which many of us were becoming anti-social wasn’t enough, the pandemic increased that introversion. At the slightest hint of re-entering the social world, I’ve retreated even further into my new normal: screens. A large piece of me wants to maintain my social distance after taking solace in the blurred spaces where the digital and the intimate meet. My realization of this newfound anxiety, of needing to be “resocialized”, made me question how comforting and effective having my existence tied to the Internet actually was. Was some of my humanity extracted during my digitization; am I more of a jaded automaton than I thought I was if I have to relearn how to have a face-to-face conversation or accept a hug? Or, did the digital reconstruction of my socialization and communication skills lead me to new online communities and solidify relationships I valued highly offline? The obvious answer here is both. Nonetheless, the tech philosopher in us all requires a moment to process whether the technologies that are changing us are truly supporting the human condition of feeling present, seen and heard, or enhancing an antisocial future post-quarantine.
I recently sent an email to the wrong address. The recipient replied “Bobbi, I am not the drone you are looking for,” and that response has sat with me ever since. A subtle acknowledgment of our transformation into humanoids, expected to think and act like the artificial technologies we currently exist within. Aside from the invasion of my work life into my mental and private living spaces, there is no warmth or intimacy in an email connection; just an expectation of inhuman levels of efficiency by way of an instant answer. At the same time, the thought of returning to an office space makes me apprehensive that the same levels of anxious efficiency I had at home will now be expected in-person…
In one of my favourite books,The Internet Does Not Exist, Jonan Hadjithomas says one of those obvious things that doesn’t really resonate loudly enough until you’re living it:
The internet is exactly the place where you share time, but you don’t share space…you are at the same time reduced to a place: your laptop, your mobile, anything like this, where you can be localized.
In a time when being bound to one place is confining enough, the only way we could “travel” across time and space is through the Internet. Reality has become artificial. Personally, the banality of being online for work and entertainment feels inescapable. After many people faced the reality of working-from-home, or in isolated spaces, our financial survival relied on the Internet. Coming from the world of digital advertising, the existing relationship between the Internet and I was not foreign. Still, the anticipation that came along with every ping of an email left unanswered or an instant message I received, was a new shadow that haunted me far past 6pm, and sometimes on the weekend. Like Cal Newport states in “Email is Making Us Miserable”, “…explaining to your brain that the neglected interactions reflected by your overfilled inbox have little to do with the health of your relationships doesn’t seem to prevent a corresponding sense of background anxiety.” It turns out, I am a person, not a network router, and the repeated exposure to high information-communication technologies did not improve the human condition by making me more efficient or more aligned with my colleagues. I could not mentally disconnect and for once, the Internet was making me miserable.
Still, I am in no way technophobic. If anything I’ve embraced the pitfalls and strangely beautiful eccentricities that can be found in the singularity. Dubbing my own Internet persona Bobbi Digital – inspired by RZA’s Bobby Digital alter-ego – I have found online spaces where creative expression, education and communal ideation merge. I realized at a young age that there was always a community in some corner of the Internet that somehow alleviated my feelings of isolation, and where drones like myself found a sense of validation and a “home”. From the early days of Vibe.To – exclusive to Toronto natives – , Blackplanet.com – self-explanatory – and even Blackberry Messenger (BBM); to “finstas” – fake instagram accounts where you do not feel the need to “perform” online – , Tumblr blogs, niche fanfiction sites and even Soundcloud, the Internet has always been my favourite monstrosity. It is sublimely unnatural, yet as comforting as finding one friend in a class of hundreds at school.
Despite all the feeds I have scrolled through and sites I have uploaded bits of myself to, I realized quickly that intimacy is not something that can be mass produced the way social technologies advertise – it requires a level of exclusivity. The idea of mass producing intimacy already negates the purity of the connection connoted. By chance, these data-mining technologies have worked in our favour by facilitating micro-communities that take shape around shared experiences, shared memes and shared grief. Within these digital spaces I was able to form memories, gain the mutual understanding I sought out and maintain connections that began offline. Even throughout the pandemic there have been technologies and platforms that have soared in popularity specifically because they seem to take into consideration its users innate need for something more meaningful than an Instagram picture or tweet.
Though it has since gained, lost and regained popularity, invite-only app Clubhouse found its way to the forefront of most social media by combining exclusivity, an appeal to a different human sensory organ – namely our ears – and small spaces within the platform called “rooms”. In a time when we long for “digital intimacy” that isn’t mediated by artificial filters or edits, Clubhouse’s voice-only platform prizes itself on facilitating human conversations in real time. These semi-natural conversations are mediated by technology instead of altered to suit the technology’s character limit, style or code. Some of the most interesting online conversations I had began in “rooms” of 2-3 people that expanded based on the topics instead of what our digital profile looked like. Though many of these connections dwindled as quickly as they began, like my interest for the app once the “rooms” grew overcrowded, they served their purpose in satisfying my need for what felt like an intimate connection at the time. But even on an app like this, the act of speaking as opposed to typing my thoughts, feelings and rebuttals created an unexplainable anxiety, akin to stage fright, knowing that real humans were listening to every cadence in my voice. In search of the intimacy I craved, I also discovered, or re-discovered, the vulnerability I had been hiding from in my digital oasis. Much like my anxiety around returning to the world stage offline, my unnatural comfort in existing behind a screen was called to the forefront of my mind as I often opted to listen in on conversations instead of joining them.
Despite my love for the Internet, it is much too simple to conclude that our exponential reliance on it during quarantine is to blame for the fear some of us* (*read: me) share in re-socializing. As Lovink states, “In the online context, the social requires our constant involvement, in the form of clicking. We need to make the actual link. Machines will not make the vital connections for us, no matter how much we delegate.”
Regardless of whether technology has done more to add to my anxiety, inhibit my humanity or enhance my ability to connect to others, it is not the Internet that I fear most. Really it is the idea of stepping back into the world without the mask of an Internet profile to hide my innately human fear of a world in constant flux. Unlike the machines we’ve grown highly reliant on, our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual equilibrium requires careful maintenance and self-checks to prevent malfunction. As in all things, our constant search for balance comes with an acceptance that with each tool that mediates our existence and interactions, comes new learned behaviours. With each change that we grow accustomed to, another opportunity to learn more about our own evolution also arises.
About the Author:
Often referring to herself as a temperamental Taurus, Bobbi is twenty-something and tired on most days; currently occupying space as a Black woman in advertising and creative brand strategy in Toronto. Bobbi expresses her dreams, fears, experiences and most irksome musings about race, technology and popular culture as a member of the Collective Culture writing team. She also dabbles as a writing coordinator, making use of her teaching assistant experience and general love of weaving words.
If you’re looking for her, find her here: @_bobbidigital .