Eye to Eye
"Is This Anything?"
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. It’s been awhile, but I occasionally publish a post in a recurring series I call “Is This Anything?” You can read more about the genesis of the format at the end of this post, but basically it is one rough idea for your consideration in 500 words, give or take. Of course, I cheated on the word count with footnotes!
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I’ve been mostly off Twitter of late, and happily so. I’ve joked that Substack’s Notes has been like a nicotine patch to help me quit. But I do occasionally pop in to check on messages and be generally reminded of what a deranged space it is. Today, I happened to log on while Apple’s Developer’s Conference was underway, and one of the first things I saw was this tweet by Joe Bernstein featuring a screenshot from the video introducing the company’s new VR headset:
I don’t think I can improve on Bernstein’s delivery here, but it immediately prompted a further thought, which began with the realization that this scene presents us with just one instance of a recurring pattern.
In short, it suggested the possibility that the worst thing about the age of digital media will turn out to be how hard it became to look one another in the eye.
Sometime in the mid-90s, the social critic Ivan Illich came on a radio talkshow with his friends Carl Mitcham, a philosopher of technology, and Jerry Brown, who was between terms as governor of California.
“Today,” Illich explained at one point during the conversation, “my main concern is in which way […] technology has devastated the road from one to the other, to friendship.”
Curiously, as Illich returned to this thought throughout the conversation, it became clear that one vital road to the other, to friendship, ran from my eyes to yours. Illich riffed on the etymology of the word pupil and how it pointed to the image of oneself we can sometimes catch in the watery blackness at the center of another’s eye.
“It is from your eye that I find myself,” Illich argues. “It is you making me the gift of that which Ivan is for you … I cannot come to be fully human unless I have received myself as a gift and accepted myself as a gift of somebody who has, well today we say distorted me the way you distorted me by loving me.”
But already in the early mid-90s, long before the advent of smartphones, Zoom, and widely available VR headsets, Illich feared that the proliferation of screens1 was occluding the road to friendship that ran from eye to eye.2
The gaze of another is a gift, but it is admittedly a demanding gift that entails a measure of vulnerability. For this reason it is so easy to take all the exits on the road that leads from eye to eye offered by our screens. But when we consider how much depends on it—on the loving gaze of a parent for a newborn child; on the patient, quiet gaze of a friend in a time of sorrow; on the gaze between strangers that honors and affirms the existence of the other—we might see why Illich argued that the task before us is to resist whatever threatens (or promises) to remove “the thou which you are and from whose gaze, whose pupilla in the eye, I receive myself.”
Illich used the word screens expansively, and, while I agree, as it is often remarked in these contexts, that not all screens are equal, I think he was right to be critical of the way our gaze was being directed and determined by the screen as a master metaphor for human vision.
In a disturbing acknowledgment of this fact, Apple also revealed that their headsets would project an image of the user’s eyes onto the outside of the headset if others were in the vicinity. It suggests the possibility of two people sitting inches apart from one another but seeing only a representation of each other’s eyes projected on the screen of a device that supposedly enhanced their experience. My response: