iReal: Does Real Life Still Matter?

With each passing year we are spending more and more of our lives online.  Living online does not mean living in a ‘virtual reality’ or ‘virtual world.’  It means that while we’re still living in the real world, we experience it organized for us by electronic networks like Facebook, which are displayed on digital screens.

The difference between the world experienced through our eyes and the world experienced through our screen is an important and increasingly problematic one.

I’m walking down the street in a poorer part of the city. My eyes see a teenager looking cautiously around as he completes a drug deal, a cold young mother struggling to push her stroller across an unploughed sidewalk and a gaunt, elderly man standing in a long, snaking line at the church food bank.  I did not ask to see the nervous teenager, the shivering mother, or the hungry old man. Rather, the neighbourhood intruded into my vision like an unwanted guest.

My experience is far different as I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed.  My eyes scan the links, comments and status updates which appear in real time. But what I see is what I chose to “like” and posts by those who I have accepted to be my ‘friend.’  What I encounter on Facebook is not real community, intruding like an unwanted guest, but rather the updates that my selected network of friends and interests have decided to share.

You and I would both see the same teenage drug dealer, the same cold mother, the same hungry men on the street; but online, we have a different newsfeed depending on who our Facebook friends are.  Each user’s digital newsfeed is unique, but the newsfeed our eyes provide is—at least potentially—an intersubjective and common one.

If one of my Facebook friends is bothering me by complaining about the situation in the Middle East, or suicide bombings in Somalia, or that she has been laid off due to the recession, I can simply click ‘hide user.’  Never again shall I hear about Avigdor Lieberman or Al-Shaabab.  When the world is organized and displayed before me on my digital screen, I have more choice over what that world looks like.

I have more control over the world when it is organized and displayed before me on my digital screen.  I have more choice over what the world is for me.  I could go on to say that this is evocative of the postmodern loss of metanarrative or post-Fordist customizability or rampant subjective relativism, but this sort of theory is unnecessary.  We don’t need to look far to understand some of the disturbing effects of what I describe as our iculture

In the days following the now notorious G20 summit in Toronto, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were chock full of angry commentary about the police brutality.  Imagine my surprise when a Toronto Star poll demonstrated that 73 per cent of Torontonians believed police treatment of protesters was justified during the G20 summit.  iReal instead of the Real.

Skype your university age, cosmopolitan, friends living in downtown Toronto and ask them if, judging by their Facebook newsfeeds, they could have predicted that right-winger Rob Ford would become mayor with a whopping 47.1 per cent of the vote.  It didn’t seem possible, not according my iReal world.  Where did the 383,501 vote strong ‘Ford Nation’ come from?  They were out there, but my networked eyes don’t see them.

As each of us increasingly lives through our own personalized networks, it is of the utmost importance that we do not lapse into some trendy argument espousing that the ‘real world’ and ‘digital-networked world’ are identical with one another.  They aren’t. Nor are the ‘real world’ and the ‘digital-networked world’ opposites. Both present our surroundings to us in different ways.  In one case, the Real is available to all of us; in the other case the iReal is available on a customizable, case by case basis.

The contemporary hullabaloo over customizing and controlling what you want to see betrays a dark side. The eclipse of real, ocular, experience by online, digital, experience would result in a situation where all the unwelcome qualities of our world don’t make it to our newsfeeds and are ignored.   The tragedy is that the real world, the world we do not ‘add’ or ‘like’, is festering while the iReal, displayed on our Facebook ‘newsfeeds’, so often allows us to believe that nothing is amiss.

(This article originally appeared in The Dalhousie Gazette, November 2010)

About Dustin Cohen

Dustin Cohen would, in an earlier era, have been referred to as a cultural pessimist. He doesn't usually go with the flow and wishes he lived in a remote, drafty, castle somewhere in France. Other PP posts by Dustin can be found [here] & You can read his blog [here]