Digital culture is material culture, but it’s easy to imagine otherwise. Digital media seems to suggest immateriality, as does the language we use to talk about it: virtual reality, cyberspace, the cloud. Likewise, we are tempted to imagine that our use of digital media puts us in a state of disembodiment. There’s something to this, but the language of disembodiment is not the best way to describe what’s going on. After all, we never actually leave our bodies when we use digital media. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as a different mode of embodiment—one characterized by telepresence, a condition in which our immediate experience is not confined to the physical location of our bodies.
In a discussion that has nothing to do with technology, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote about a tendency to become “forgetful of our bodies.” Perhaps that’s a good way of putting this tendency to assume that digital culture is immaterial and disembodied. We never leave our bodies when we are immersed in digitally mediated experiences, but we might be tempted to disregard our flesh and its significance.
MacIntyre mentions this forgetfulness in a book titled Dependent Rational Animals. In it he argues that this forgetfulness of the body leads us to ignore how thoroughly dependent we are as creatures, especially in childhood and old age but also under countless other circumstances throughout our lives. As the title suggests, MacIntyre was interested in putting this dependence at the center of how we think about what it means to be human, and thus at the center of our thinking about the virtues to which we ought to aspire.
As I thought about this and how digital media seems to encourage the myth of immateriality and disembodiment, it occurred to me that this might be an interesting clue as to the source of the worst elements of our digital public spaces
To forget the body is to forget our dependence, our frailty, our limitations. To forget these is also to forget the value, indeed the necessity of humility, generosity, care, patience, and mercy. These and other like them are what MacIntyre called “the virtues of acknowledged dependence,” and they were, in his view, grounded in a recognition of our limitations and weaknesses as embodied creatures. If digital culture tempts us to forget our bodies, then it may also be prompting us to act as if we were self-sufficient beings with little reason to care or expect to be cared for by another.
Jerry Seinfeld recently published a book titled Is This Anything? Apparently this is how comedians ask whether there’s any potential in a joke they’re working on. I thought about that as I drafted this uncharacteristically brief post (under 500 words!). So, I ask you, is this anything? By which I mean, do you find any value in it as a reader? Would you want more short reflections of this sort coming in with a bit more frequency alongside the longer installments, or would you rather I stick to the longer essay format and keep it to two or three emails a month? It occurred to me, too, that “Is this anything?” is a good title for what this format could be: not a joke, but a line of thought, offered in the same spirit, to see if, as a good friend of mine likes to say, it does any work for you. Thoughts? I’d be glad to hear them. Hit reply, and let me know. Also, given the brevity of the post, I opted not to provide an audio version, but, if that would still be helpful to some of you moving forward, please let me know.