Ever have that feeling that despite taking more photos, “having” more music, being more “connected” to people than ever before, that it’s all just a smoke screen? That the things you “have” and are “connected” to, the “communities” of which you are apart online, could all up and disappear in a heart-beat? And do you ever feel the gnawing anxiety that comes along with that realisation?
I think that feeling comes down to one thing – the internet has no mechanism. There’s nothing that rubs up against another thing. There’s nothing physical that sits in your room and just is. Look at the language of today’s internet – “the cloud” “seamless integration” – and it conjures up smooth as silk, unencumbered access to everything that’s important to you. So why do many people feel more lonely and isolated than ever?
Mechanisms are important: on a simple level, it’s a reason why vinyl has seen a massive resurgance in popularity in recent years. But on a deeper level, every method by which we, as humans, truly connect with each other has been mechanical up to now – language itself is a mechanical shaping of air from our lungs – our tongue, teeth and lips are the machine. The language of linguistics – “bi-labial fricatives” “dental plosives” – describe mechanical processes. Writing, the performance of music, sculpture – they all involve the scraping of one material on another.
There’s a very good reason why we’d feel compelled to move away from mechanisms – why the internet’s myriad offers of “seamlessness” and “connection” are so attractive. Mechanisms wear down. Mechanism break. Mechanisms are inherently imperfect. And mechanisms eventually have to be replaced. The internet offers something that will exist almost permanently, that need never be lost, precisely because it has no mechanical parts that will break and insofar as it does, those parts can be easily replaced without any interruption to service.
But some part of us knows that anything of real value comes from friction – from rubbing up against life, from scraping and trying and losing and not being selfie-perfect. Yeah, we’ll always try and secure the future – life insurance, mortgages, savings funds for our kids. We’re easily seduced by the idea that we can go through life far enough under the radar in some sort of stealth-mode, if we just keep telling the world that everything’s fine, that life will pass us by and we’ll be spared any suffering. This is something the no-mechanism internet offers.
Maybe the key to getting rid of that gnawing anxiety is this: the relationships and things that live and exist in your life are better off because they are part of mechanisms. They will wear down, they will scrape and tear at each other, there will be long periods where the friction caused by being alive will have no resolution, where pain and uncertainty are simply part of life. But in the end, those worn, scraped and damaged things will have existed. They will have occupied that spot on your wall, on your shelf, in your life, even after they’re gone. There’s a real comfort in that transcience – and here’s a part of us that just knows that’s a better outcome than a seamless eternity.