People are Estranged

I wonder what Jim Morrison’s MySpace page would have looked like, had he been the member of an LA troupe growing its audience by word of mouth, mp3′s of Riders on the Storm breaking on Venice beach as surfers catch wave upon wave of The Doors’ hit tunes… Would have gone for that Jesus look? Would we have heard out-takes of Phil’s keyboard intros? Drug trip journal entries about bewildered Native Americans plonked roadside in an eerie re-staging of a car crash someplace between Barstow and the next Whiskey Bar? Who would have shot that Mojave mescaline pilgrimage to be posted on Youtube? Oliver Stone or just a buddy? And would Jim have petitioned the Lord with prayer on his home page? Or might a testimonial have done just as nicely?
People are estranged, our relations estranged. But thanks to communication technologies, we can have relations with strangers and still get things done. If there is something these tools bring to communication, it is that they provide a shared experience that substitutes for the real thing. They supply some amount of trust and confidence, a way forward in the interaction, and an activity, or transaction to engage in. The technologies that connect us supply connectivity, and while we may not get to know one another while using them, we do successfully buy, sell, chat, download, share, vote, rate, recommend, and otherwise communicate.
Modern society lifted social relations from their traditional foundations. Where traditional society was oriented towards reproducing social hierarchies, assigning people the power that belonged to their position, modern society liberated the person from position. Modernity is the radical disembedding of tradition as an organization of social relations: we are today what we can do, not where we came from or which family we belong to. In short, tradition replaced by function.
As modernism progressed, now becoming post-modernism (if you believe in the academic chronology of these things), our technologies have made social relations and organizations ever more flat and even. The arrival of the network, as real deal and as metaphor, has been possible only because we have more communication. More means of communication, more possibilities for communication, more modes of communication. Interactions with strangers are possible only because we have become an estranged society capable of a much more differentiated repertoire of interactions (in form and content) than ever before. We can engage with each other for the exchange of stock tips, product reviews, movie recs, first dates, ride shares, learning, even therapy sessions, medical consultations, and some conduct of warfare without knowing each other. Communication tools and forms of interaction, because they offer a differentiated range of synchronous and asynchronous modes of connection and information exchange, make it possible for strangers to have productive relations. Relations are possible because technology preserves distance between people even while providing the means for communicating acrosss that distance. There was a time, not long ago, when the arrival of a stranger in town was cause for alarm, or a sheriff at high noon, or some other Western. And then along came the train…
Society, in other words, absorbs the technical differentiation of communication. Human relations change, and social forms and relations change also. There was a time when critical theorists would have called this the “colonization” of the lifeworld, the subordination of human relations to instrumental market logics of production and consumption. A time when the spread of technologies and techniques among society, erasing lines between work and home, productivity and leisure, would have caused some to thrust signs into the air begging us to not “fold, spindle, or mutilate…” Clearly things are not as black and white as they were on the steps of Sproul Hall in that Berkeley of the 60s. The Doors of perception have opened the doors of communication. But it makes me wonder, how estranged people can get, when you’re an e-stranger.

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