Life in the Meta
Following a few bored hours browsing Facebook – traversing an endless labyrinth of digital photos, lists of movies, books, tv shows, blogs and distributed snippets of conversation – I wondered about our attitude towards privacy. There’s no denying we’re more open with our interests, our photographs and writings – in essence, our meta data.
No longer are we content to cherish a memory of a sunrise on the beach, the fading smile of a long lost friend, a favorite passage in a dusty torn paperback. Instead we must publish it on the net, push it out into a social network. We flaunt our meta data and it defines us.
The phenomenon extends past Facebook and Myspace. Our society is increasingly defined by layers of abstraction. The visceral events of our lives are constantly abstracted by the systems and technology that surround us.
I remember as a kid I would disappear into the woods behind my house for hours. I would get lost in the deep forest, wandering into an overgrown Christmas tree farm, building forts out of sticks and rusted sheet metal, finding razor sharp hunting arrows and the eviscerated guts of deer. I would build fires, melt plastic action figures, construct makeshift flamethrowers with cans of WD-40. Rutting around the creek bed for frogs, catching minnows with a fishing hook and wonder bread, getting bitten my harmless garter snakes. These were visceral events, defining moments – potentially dangerous, sometimes painful. And all are increasingly frowned upon by today’s culture of over-protectiveness. In the name of safety and order, everything visceral is being coated with a protective layer.
This extends beyond the realm of physical safety and medicine to:
Work – White collar jobs consist of manipulating abstracted data.
Entertainment – Sports are remixed through technology, endlessly replayed and analyzed. Fiction and film is manufactured, constructed from market survey and algorithm.
Travel – Getting lost is becoming impossible, more knowledge can be gleaned outside of a place than in it, gps, mapping software, route finding, commercial flights lead us all to the same places without any adventure.
Warfare – strategic objectives are abstracted through remote drones and laser-guided airstrikes. The nihilistic violence of carbombings and IEDs- are desensitized through newsfilters.
Business – Selling and banking is done with digitized money, our wealth sits abstracted in the market not backed with any physical standard, billions are made daily through pure mathematical manipulation of data.
To offset this mediated lifestyle we medicate ourselves with an abundance of media. We are consumers of stories in myriad forms. The most popular are interactive drama (American Idol with audience participation), long running serials (Lost, Sopranos, 24), and franchises (blockbusters, sequels, high profile IP). All are well integrated with advertising, refined with product placement and pacing to match a demographic.
Back to the social networks. We begin to define our lives by what media we consume, experiences we manufacture for ourselves. We’re defined by our favorite movies and bands, popular cities we have seen, the media we create – pictures taken, songs performed, journals written.
Visceral moments fall by the wayside if they can’t be captured in a high concept slogan or posted in a jpg. What use is the bungee jump, the mountaintop, the canyon kayak run or the sunset if you didn’t capture it on camera?
So what is lost? Visceral moments are no longer enough in themselves – they must be acquired like collectables, a pack of trading cards – meta elements to post to blogs, scrapbooks, websites. There is a hint of competition behind social networks, the urge to post shots of the most exotic travel location, the most brilliant quotes, the most eclectic list of books/music/films/shows. We become our meta data.
Perhaps in this mediated world, the herd will coalesce into a well-oiled, networked machine. But the human urge for the visceral will not subside. Pushed under the slick press of packaging, it will become repressed, perhaps animalistic and unrefined, until it erupts. Without normal visceral outlets to mediate behavior – society’s ails will consist of colossal overindulgence in visceral vices – extreme senseless violence, drug use, pornographic promiscuity, addictions of all flavors – and they will only be amplified by the meta elements we’ve acquired romanticizing such things.
What then? Rebel against social networks, the Facebooks, the Myspaces, the blogs and personalized narcissistic sites? Not exactly. Instead, set aside that stack of media to consume and seek out the visceral – go climb that mountain or take that roadtrip. And if you forget the digital camera and laptop – all the better.