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.
I think the real challenge with digitally mediated interactions, especially with strangers, isn't so much forgetting our own embodiment but that of others. If we're communicating with people we know, we at least have a memory of them and their bodies in time and space. But if we're communicating with strangers on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, we lack that memory. The database for facial expressions, voice inflections, characteristic gestures, etc is empty. Their typed words that appear on the screen before us, then, become the only data that we can respond to. The words easily "become" the person. Disembodiment applies not to us but to our experience of the words in a post or a comment or a tweet. I guess that's what emboldens or enables people to type the most insane things at one another. Video (like Zoom), on the other hand, can help us overcome that forgetfulness of a stranger's embodiment, as those of us who can see are able to visualize the faces and bodies of the ones we're speaking to.
I’d say this is something, yes. (Is that the right way to respond to the question?) I’m glad for your long writing, but I also really appreciate short reflections like this one. Thank you.