Mediamatic Magazine vol. 8#2/3 Adilkno 1 Jan 1995

Electronic Loneliness

Change the world; stay home. This is the adage of the social ergonomists who have distilled a polity out of the user-friendliness of consumer electronics. Having definitively finished pondering possible societies, people fancy that there is a reservoir of diligent self-regulation to be tapped in the private sphere


Electronic Loneliness -

Post-sociologists disguised as trend tasters are projecting all their reborn enthusiasm onto the home. Their concern is directed at the army of out-of-action white- and blue-collar workers, who will be taken out of their state of anomie and unproductivity thanks to home terminals. Individual enthusiasm for techno-gadgetry is being transformed into the hope of a new economic élan. It turns out that installing new media in your own home provokes a labour situation. The combination of data highway and enhanced television will inevitably lead to the return of cottage industry in the form of virtual looms. The countryside will bloom again, traffic jams disappear, the environment will be spared and the family restored. And in all reasonableness, who wouldn't want that?

In the age of the shop floor, the open-plan office, the canteen and the meeting room, a political work climate still existed. One could still speak of spatially proximate and visible hierarchical relationships within a technically integrated division of labour. Engagement in material production fostered a compelling solidarity. This laid fertile ground for the corporate dreams of the 20th century, from Fordism and Taylorism to Japanese management and New Age. Labour unions ensured the pacification of always-latent labour unrest. After World War II in the West there thus arose a configuration which guaranteed a manageable social dynamic. Until the perpetual restructuring finally resulted in empty factories. Passion for socialism and communism disappeared just as soundlessly. The social question thus shifted from the factory gates to people's front doors. The home has thereby become the object of fantasy for political economists and other social visionaries.

Those who take early retirement are no longer motivatible and are de facto written off. This grey mass belongs to the industrial past, is using up the last of the welfare state's money and is otherwise left alone. But these were the people who consciously dedicated themselves to home furnishing. The post-war generations discovered the home as leisure object and mirror of the ego. Remodelling and renovation became the way they filled their lives, and their relationship therapy (an open kitchen in an open marriage). It all came down to the order of purchase and correct arrangement of refrigerator, stereo, living room furniture, floor lamp, motorcycle, lawnmower, blinds and washing machine. Means of communication occupied a privileged place: the car for outside and the television for inside. The house was a recovery centre where you got what was coming to you: a sheltered space where family ideals were practised. The fatal turn came with the delayed insight that people were working on a realised utopia which was impossible to stand for long. The complete collection of comforts became dead capital. The social function of the familial reception room died out and made place for an active and temporary arrangement of support functions geared towards the individual. The excess of dusty knickknacks has made way for a strictly selected mix of sterile objects. A combination of stylized and functional ambience ensures the house is ready to be turned into a workplace.

Visions of home tele-work are on a par with wishful imaginings about robots, artificial intelligence and transplant organs. There is an appeal to a coming stage of development, as yet unknown but imaginable. Working at a home terminal creates a work situation lacking in all the traditional attributes (physical exertion, collegiality, change of place, noise and dirt). Everything which used to make work a nuisance now seems to have disappeared. The work at (industrial-age) machines of a few vouchsafes the prosperity of the many who stay home. But the internalised urge to work cannot bear this apparent idleness, which is scarcely discernible in unemployment statistics. A feeling of urgency must be created, the feeling that unless we all do something about it, everything will end posthaste in decadence, crime and entropy. There is delight that the masses will once again have something to do and can once again be kept on a leash. At home we are experiencing a science-fiction invasion: the spaceship is ensconcing itself in the living room and the feeling of being on a virtual trip through space imposes itself.

With video games, toll numbers, interactive media and home shopping people have been put in the mood and acquired the tactile skills to work for money at a distance. But the decision makers still have to be warmed up to equip the tele-sector with a technical as well as an ideological infrastructure. They can be helped by the articulation of an act of will that we will, together yet individually, create a positive perspective on economic activity. An axiom of self-realisation has been slapped onto telework in passing: you're only someone if you're in business. No activity, no identity. Pepped up, in shape and evaluated for performance, the individualised mass must be brought into a state of readiness for digital piecework.

Telework is not an institution, but a constitution, a mental frame in which the new work effort can move. Psychic, to begin with: what used to be called immobility is now the point of departure for delivering labour performance. Isolation must thus be conditioned. The individual is shut up in a niche, at one with the network. One is urged to keep one's mind on the screen, for there is nothing else. There will be no flourishing family life, no workplace adultery. And even the promised outlet of virtual sex has come to a dead end. All we're left with is the bill. Since chance meetings have been banished, dating services bring us videos and careful matching and screening techniques to line up our wishes with a tailored selection. But once the stage of visitation rights is reached, the all-too-human imperfections come to light, and become acute obstacles before the adventure is even underway. By and large, the other we choose is unbearable. The other's always-lacking gloss and perfection create a social footing of boredom and apathy. Communication is stifled, and the tele-beings stay invisible and meaningless to each other. Martin Buber, where are you?

Electronic loneliness cannot be expressed in metaphysical or psychiatric terms. It is not a melancholy depth, but an artificial surface. Desolation is a fatal production factor, a trap people fall into through reckless thinking and belief in mirages. Only organised tourism is still seen as a solution. One builds up a collection of psycho-physical experiences, of meditation, repentance, exhaustion, ecstasy, fasting, pilgrimages for heroic assistance. But these sensations yield no answers in the extremely personal confrontation with the machine. Pulling the plug on the Net is suicide. There is no future without the Net; alternative scenarios no longer circulate. Nothing seems to stand in the way of the advance of enclosures. The age of despair is definitively behind us. Get serious. Sentiment has landed up in the archaeological layers of consciousness (in an age in which the history of mentality is being written). The Net as ideal treadmill for self-styled identities will create no revolutionary situations, nor bring the world to an end. Cybernetic emptiness need not be filled, nor will it ever be full (of desire, abhorrence or unrest). Until telematic energy finally disappears into the flatland of silence in the face of blinking commands.

translation Laura Martz