Whether it’s fake news or the states of distraction and anxiety associated with excessive time spent glued to screens, many are concerned that the sheer pervasiveness of digital media in our everyday lives is undermining politics, well-being and even what it means to be authentically human. But against all our instincts, what if living the good life isn’t about resisting the distractions and depravities of contemporary digital life, but embracing them?
It’s not as perverse as it sounds. There’s a school of philosophy that likes to point out that none of us exist as self-contained identities that go out into the world and interact with other people and things. We are in a constant state of becoming: ‘we’ only exist through those interactions we find ourselves doing before we’ve even had a chance to think about it. We do this using whatever resources we find to hand, using things as tools and also learning how to look at, make sense of and talk about stuff by trial and error and learning from others. How we do all this may be good or bad, but the point is that there’s no way we can extract ourselves from all that activity in order to size it up: what’s at stake in the way we come to do things in everyday life is revealed only in the doing.
That can sound like fatalism, as though we just have to accept what we find ourselves doing in whatever world we’re thrown into, but we’re also hardwired to make that world familiar and to take responsibility for our place in it. Likewise, it can sound like the past doesn’t matter, only the now, which would make it difficult to criticise the way our world is rapidly changing. But the past is always part of how we experience the present, just not as an unsullied state of grace that we need to rediscover.
We worry that while we’re better connected than ever our relations with mediated others are ersatz or trite virtue-signalling – but what if fleeting, ephemeral engagement is a better way of understanding our co-existence with others than deep reflection? Similarly, we fret that digital surveillance is fundamentally eroding ethical principles like autonomy and privacy – but what if there is no prior self to be defended against external forces? We express concern that the rise of identity politics has led to a new politics in which how people feel trumps all other reasoning – but what if the way someone feels isn’t seen as an individual inner state but an external, collective resource for sizing up and responding to the countless encounters of everyday life?
The truth is that we’re too quick to call out what digital life is doing to us, and too reluctant to pay attention to the possibilities that digital habits and meanderings open up. The failure to recognise the full horror of suffering witnessed on the run as we prod and swipe at our screens is not an ethical failure, and nor is each instance of data mining a threat to the integrity of our very selves. The spontaneous yet fickle formation of interest groups online might lack the dedication and determination of seriously minded political activism, and might seem driven more by the experience than the outcome of engagement, but the things that emerge out of these digital constellations are no less political. Political principles are not internal qualities, hard won and carefully honed, that we go about applying to the world as we find it; our principles only come into existence as we go about doing stuff, much of it pretty mundane and improvised.
What are the practical implications of this way of looking at the march of the digital into every nook and cranny of everyday life? For starters, in policy terms it means that we should probably pay less attention to digital content and more to how it’s experienced: what people do with it, rather than what it does to them. This applies to digital literacy initiatives, too: it’s likely less important to worry about how aware people are of the workings of algorithms than to ask what they do with and through those algorithms. It means defending the right to digital curiosity and spontaneous interaction, without fretting about whether it’s authentic and thoughtful or superficial and self-serving. Like all forms of improvisation, people need to be taught the basics of living digital life improvisationally, but what they make of it after that doesn’t deserve to be treated with scorn or suspicion. As the philosophers have it, gazing distractedly from one thing to another and gossiping away with others to pass the time is no less real than careful reflection on the profundity of the human condition. The question is to ask what comes of it all, and if we don’t like it, what happens if we try out other things as we move about through our increasingly digital world.
The whole point of living an ethical life is about what becomes of the ways we live in motion, grasping at knowledge and experience as we go, not randomly but rhythmically, drawing on collective repertoires that are of the world rather than us. This, finally, is what allows us to see that the ordinary stuff we get up to in our everyday digital lives is pregnant with the political.
Tim Markham is Professor of Journalism and Media at Birkbeck, University of London. His new book, Digital Life, is now available from Polity.