2. Reality Bites: Thoughts on feeeels
As the World Wide Web enters its fourth decade, it is tempting to believe that the world is, in fact, flat. Not in the ways that conspiracy-theorists would argue (an ice wall contains the world’s oceans and landmasses in the form of a glorified circular pool), but in how the internet has compressed space, time, and human experience in previously inconceivable ways. The formerly tangible — news, money, letters, photos — move through space with new fluidity and at unprecedented speeds, as if all physical barriers have been leveled.
This perceived flatness, however, ignores the inescapable materiality of the internet. The misnomer “cloud” deceives, tempting us to believe that the sky’s apparent absence of infrastructure means that the internet is actually immaterial. But if we look, we can find physical traces of it in obscure spaces — beneath ground and sea, at remote windowless data centers, and in satellites barely perceptible to the human eye. To think about the Web as material is to conjure a complex physical system, undoing the convenient illusion of an invisible, impartial, and autonomous digital landscape. Where one used to have to “see it to believe it,” this newfound confusion between physical and virtual space has made the litmus test for reality more layered and complex. Considering material culture as central to our ever-changing (dimensional) world plants us firmly back in a reality that the internet has done such an excellent job of obscuring. Next time the internet goes out, imagine a shark unwittingly gnawing on a fiber optic cable, and the entire “cloud” concept lying dead in the water.
Can You Feel It?
feeeels examines the margins between the material world and its immaterial representations. We focus each issue of this publication on one tactile adjective related to the sense of touch. By assigning tactile metaphors to nebulous concepts, we can associate the immediacy of touch with subjects that are often difficult to parse and impossible to hold in our hands. Though we may abstractly describe these extrusions as slimey, sharp, squishy, or slippery, it takes no more than a sinking feeling in one’s stomach to understand the metaphorical resonance of “sharp.” These are words you often feel even when you only hear them.
Though touch is just one of five human sensations, we feel that it is the most powerfully intimate, relying on physical proximity in ways that are completely at odds with our current digital culture. We take care, however, not to frame the importance of touch in a digital world as a nostalgic longing for the pre-digital (we’re not looking to write this note with a typewriter). Rather, we wish to use tactility as a lens through which we might intimately address issues facing our overwhelming cultural present.
Technology has been “flattening” the world for millennia, bringing us “closer” together through tools of communication that, as they inspire efficiency, also obfuscate their human labor and environmental consequences. In 1991, Geographer David Harvey, citing Karl Marx’s post-Industrial Revolution observation, notes that “progress entails the conquest of space, the tearing-down of all spacial barriers and the ultimate ‘annihilation of space through time.’”01 Digitality is merely the most recent catalyst turned cause for anxiety.
We can’t always trust what we see on the internet or hear on the news. Tactility, by contrast, inspires confidence in our experiences. The inherently interactive nature of physically feeling something offers a connection we crave, one that is often substituted with avatars and virtual interactions in the digital space. And so, we invite you to consider again the physical — one tactile metaphor at a time.
01. Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Pengiun Classics 1993, quoted in Graeber, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Wiley-Blackwell 1991.
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