Tag: internet

"We are surrounded by the lonely all the time"

Her experience of being alone in New York City inspired writer and artist Olivia Laing to explore the notion of loneliness and its intersection with art. In her book “The Lonely City”, she unravels the past of several artists and the impact isolation had on their work.

Reading your book “The Lonely City”, I couldn’t help but think that loneliness is hard to pin down in a specific place…
Loneliness is not bound to a specific place, that’s true. And it isn’t at all the same thing as solitude. Solitude means you are physically alone while loneliness is a longing for more intimacy than you have. That’s why it can happen just as easily in a crowd, among friends, or even in a relationship.
You have described loneliness as something that emerges in all kinds of conditions: Being an outcast, being stigmatized – or even someone unable to overcome a language barrier. Is the city just a canvas for loneliness, then?
You can be lonely anywhere and under any kind of circumstance. But urban environments can intensify loneliness. When you are in a city, you are surrounded by other people. But you also have an experience of being physically separated from them while seeing them all around you. That is especially true in cities like New York, where the population is so dense and so many people live in apartments.

Olivia Laing is the author of "To the River", "Echo Spring" and, most recently, "The Lonely City". She lives in the U.K. (Photo by Mike Sim)

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River”, “Echo Spring” and, most recently, “The Lonely City”. She lives in the U.K. (Photo by Mike Sim)

They are close but out of grasp.
At the same time, you are subject to a lot of peoples’ gazes, you are visible to them. I think that really intensifies the experience of loneliness: feeling hyper-exposed, and feeling shame around the social taboo that is loneliness. Urban environments intensify loneliness in quite a particular and interesting way.
Is that what you mean when you write: “The possibilities of connection are defeated by the dehumanizing apparatus of urban life”?
Yes, but I’m also referring to the internet and social media. Just because there’s a density of people, doesn’t mean it necessarily facilitates connections between them.
Because everyone on the internet posts the best things that happen to them, making everyone else feel like they are missing out?
I feel like there is a sort of pressure to perform these perfect lives, to show very tightly curated images – “my wonderful brunch with my friends” or “the great thing I went to last night”. Social media becomes a highly pressured, highly competitive space. And if you are feeling like you are failing socially, that can be very intimidating and make you feel worse.
In your book, you describe how Andy Warhol, who was socially awkward around people, discovered that he could use machines as an intermediary. Especially his tape recorder, with which he filled the space between him and others. Do you recognize that logic in our online behavior?
Absolutely. Warhol was such a precursor of the internet age: in many ways the avatar of the 21st century. I began reading about him, and how he was using tape recorders and Polaroid cameras to both draw people to him and to keep them away. And then I looked up from my research, looked around me, and everybody was holding on to their charismatic little machines. Today, people sit on the subway, swiping through Tinder without talking, or looking at the people around them.
I wonder, then, if the behavior we all elicit is something that came about in the 21st century or whether those machines are just pandering to the neuroses we all have anyway.
I don’t know! But I wonder whether the reason that this aspect of Warhol’s behavior hasn’t been written about so much is because it has only really become clear to us in the 21st century what he was doing – because now we are doing it too, and so it is recognizable to us.
He had a particular kind of loneliness: He was famous and at the same time, people didn’t quite get him…
He made a wonderfully rich life around himself – working and social life – but he always seemed removed from it. And he talked about himself as one removed from it. Even though he clearly had friends, clearly had people he was close to. But there was an emotional space around him that felt familiar. I think a lot of people experience that kind of alienation without really knowing quite how to fulfill it.

“Isolation is often political rather than habitual.”

In your book, you quote the psychologist Robert Weiss: “Loneliness cannot be overcome by willpower alone”. Maybe all these people are trying to do something about their loneliness, working against it as much as they can, but the real tragedy is that they cannot get out of it, no matter how hard they try.
It is also a question of what that gap around you provokes: how it stimulates creativity and the production of art. That the sort of sense of longing to communicate, and knowing that nobody understands you or speaks your language drives the production of art.
Because it is a way to pop the bubble?
Yes. It’s a way to make something like a communication device, especially if you worry that your own words, or your own body won’t be found attractive. You make new objects and put them into the world, objects that are attractive or desirable or that resolve things you are struggling with in your own emotional life.
You often talk about loneliness being a vicious circle, something that is hard to get out of. And while these artists didn’t break free from it, they still did manage to create something.
Absolutely. In the beginning of the book, I have another quote from Robert Weiss “Loneliness is a disease wholly without redeeming features.” I didn’t believe that a state that pretty much all humans can and most humans have experienced at some point in their lives can be without redeeming features. To me, one of the things that was redeeming is the way in which loneliness intersects with and drives creativity.
It lead you on the journey of researching artists and eventually writing this book. You fell into the rabbit hole…
As soon as I started to begin the research, I became so captivated by and interested in the topic. It unlocked the potential of loneliness. It was also very healing, starting to understand the different ways in which people become isolated and the way it is so often political rather than habitual. It was very connecting.
In the book, you talk a lot about the artist David Wojnarowicz. He and the gay community he was a part of used their sexuality as an outlet for loneliness, a shortcut to intimacy.
We’re often fed a story about monogamous romance, about how love is the cure for loneliness – which I think is bullshit. So I was interested in people who were having fairly anonymous, fairly adventurous sex in public places and how much that touched them, how much meeting a stranger could be a cure for loneliness. I wanted to open up as many possibilities as I could about different ways that loneliness can be meaningful, or can be handled.
You write “the dream of sex is to be liberated from the prison of the body by the body itself”. I recognize that by the behavior we see today, where a myriad of hook-up apps has enabled city dwellers to have fairly anonymous sex.
But it is different because today it is mediated by a machine. I don’t think I am that nostalgic in the book, but perhaps I do have some nostalgia for the idea of cruising, of being able to go to one of these places where people met to have sex… There, you are deep in the fabric of the city itself, rather than the city of the internet – which is not as satisfying a place.
Back then, men could go cruising in abandoned docks in New York City…
It was a remarkable space. But when AIDS appeared those places just closed down. The people who were writing in the 1970s about the possibilities of connections through anonymous sex were really silenced in the 1980s – for understandable reasons – but as David Wojnarowicz rightfully said: “It isn’t having sex with a lot of people that causes AIDS, it’s not having safe sex.”
In an article in the New Yorker, you have talked about a very different aspect of sexuality, namely that a woman can never be alone like a man, since she will always be objectified.
It’s really hard to be as anonymous in a city as Wojnarowicz was: prowling around and being the person who is doing the looking. As a woman, you are always aware of yourself being looked at, whether that’s as an appealing sexual object, or as a failed sexual object. That pressure is always there – and I found that very frustrating and difficult at the time.
Thinking it through to the end, men and women must have a very different experience of loneliness.
I think they do, and it was hard for me to wrestle with. I have complicated feelings about my own gender anyway, but the experience that woman characters have in the book, like Jo Hopper (the wife of artist Edward Hopper) or Valerie Solanas (the activist and writer, who is remembered as being the woman who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol), the loneliness they are experiencing is that they are artists who never find audiences, never find anyone interested in their work. For me, as a woman artist, that is a very live terror.
Edward Hopper used his wife as the model for every female character in his paintings, but then changed them into something she wasn’t – long-legged blondes. She was enough to be his model but only if he transformed her in the painting.
…and at the same time stopping her from painting. She is trapped in the paint of his canvasses, and the more I think about it, the more disturbing it becomes.
Interestingly, in this musing on loneliness, you cite many characters who have gone through horrifying personal experiences. Is that something you picked out, or does abuse necessarily entail loneliness?
I think that people who come from a background of trauma often have that as a source of loneliness in their lives. That’s true of me and that’s probably why I am drawn to this kind of subject. And why Wojnarowicz is so central in the book. My childhood didn’t have the violence that he experienced, but there was a lot of emotional chaos that I recognized. It’s funny, you’re drawn to subjects without necessarily knowing all the details of their biographies. And as it emerges, you see why you’re so drawn to them.

“Loneliness teaches us solidarity.”

The more I think about it, the more I see that the experience of being lonely is a very general experience, even if we think the people in the building across from us are living perfect lives. But there are so many people who carry a great burden of loneliness because of their background or identity, because they are being stigmatized or excluded in some way.
In the book I focus on the stigma of AIDS as a source of loneliness, but of course stigma is something that happens to so many people. The homeless, for example, sitting on the sidewalk, watching people walk by evading their eyes, hour after hour, day after day. What must that experience be like? An enormous, paralyzing loneliness. That no one will acknowledge your humanity is incredibly isolating. So I think we are surrounded by the lonely all the time, and we are not aware of them. We put them to the peripheries of our vision and it is so important that we don’t.
Because we are exacerbating the loneliness they are feeling?
Loneliness isn’t something an individual person can resolve. It is something we are all responsible for and we all need to think about the ways we are causing the loneliness of others, as well as working on our own loneliness.
That being particularly the fact that we tend to cast the misfits out or stigmatize them?
We just casually stigmatize and dehumanize people, even by small things like a lack of willingness to make eye contact with people who we think are different, or less than us. It creates loneliness in our cities and it creates loneliness in our cultures.
What you are saying is that this being a subconscious activity, we need to consciously counteract it?
If loneliness teaches us anything, it teaches us that kindness and solidarity with others matters far more than trying to pursue individual happiness, which is transient anyway. We make a better world if we use our own loneliness to think about the many, many other lonely people around us.
You do mention that loneliness has an unexpected upside: A clarity of vision that comes with a heightened sense of self-awareness.
There is a kind of openness that comes when you strip away the shame, which is the most painful and damaging aspect of loneliness. Once that’s gone, you see that loneliness is a kind of longing , an intense but not necessarily a bad feeling. For me, once I became more comfortable with it, once I stopped being so ashamed, I found that loneliness made me very receptive. I became very open to art, very open to seeing the city life around me. That kind of acuity of vision was powerful.

Walled Garden

With Kwangmyong, North Korea has built its very own version of the internet. A carbon copy, physically sequestered.

You have heard about the “Great Firewall of China”, that epitome of modern censorship: Thanks to an intricate system of digital blockades, great swathes of the internet cannot be accessed from the Peoples’ Republic – and entire social networks are known vanish from the Chinese internet, if the censors deem them sensitive.
It’s such a curious case because it manages to be modern and anachronistic at the same time, a medium made up of connections, with digital barriers between them. And as fitting as its nickname is, the image of a wall doesn’t actually hold up: Both the Chinese and foreign visitors keep circumventing the blockade. When artist and prominent dissident Ai Weiwei was under house arrest, he quietly maintained Twitter and Instagram accounts – never mind that both platforms had long been blocked by censors. It turns out that maintaining a virtual border is just as difficult as preventing people from crossing a physical one.
In North Korea, the world’s most isolated country, the approach to information purity is even more drastic – and chances are that you haven’t heard of it. Since 2000, the hermit kingdom has been maintaining its very own version of the internet: Kwangmyong. Roughly translated as “Walled Garden”, it is a network entirely disconnected from the World Wide Web and accessible only from the country itself. As opposed to the Chinese internet, it doesn’t even feign connectedness – this is the DPRK’s own, personal net, a derivative existing in a vacuum.
To be fair, the idea of an internal network isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Most large corporations use so-called intranets for internal communications and for sharing information not meant for the public eye. But Kwangmyong exceeds them all in ambition: This is an intranet on national scale, one that includes all popular forms of communication in a coherent, politically-cleansed whole. There are web pages, there is e-mail, a social network and a “digital library”. But not only is it an imitation of the real thing, its content is often straight-up copied from the real net, after having been filtered and scrubbed off its offending content. A clean, wholesome propaganda machine.

Borders can be erected digitally just as well as physically

Due to the air gap between Kwangmyong and the real net, we have no way of seeing it. But those who have, come down with a drastic verdict: The blog northkoreatech.org describes it as looking like the internet from the early 90s. And the few screenshots that exist make you wonder whether to laugh about its clumsiness or cry about the fact that this is all that’s available to a population of 40 million.
Since 2013, foreigners have been able to use a mobile broadband network in the country. It has resulted in an outpouring of images from North Korea (with #everydaydprk being a popular hashtag on Instagram), but hasn’t changed anything for North Koreans: They remain cut off from the global net and have to rely on Kwangmyong – if it is even available to them. North Korea, where the majority of the population works in the military or agriculture, is a far cry from its geographic neighbor, the highly technical South, which has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world.
Along the 38th parallel snakes the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a 250km long and 4km wide border between the two countries. Long one of the tensest frontiers between countries, it remains one of the most fortified borders in the world, with large troop continents on both sides. It is the most physical reminder that the 20th century war between the two Koreas never formally ended. But in considering Kwangmyong, one is equally reminded that in the 21st century, borders can be erected digitally just as well as physically. The “Walled Garde”, then, turns from yet another nutty story about North Korea and the breathtaking extend of its dictatorship into a pertinent tale: If modern borders are digital, the dream of a truly global network remains just that – a dream. And while other governments hardly go as far as the DPRK, the idea of digital censorship remains uncanny.
To see where it leads, you don’t even have to go back to China: South Korea, technically developed as it may be, not only blocks propaganda from the North but also internet pornography.

Kenneth Goldsmith on the end of the Internet

The internet seems endless. But is it really? A conversation with American poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith.

Will the Internet end?
There is an old hacker joke, a website that says “You have reached the very last page of the Internet. We hope you have enjoyed your browsing. Now turn off your computer and go outside.” So there is an end and it was made in the very early days of the Internet.
But the joke only works because the Internet is endless.
You have to understand that the List end of the Internet has been discussed and debated since the very inception of the net. The joke is of course an allusion to the Internet being finite. I think that once an infinite system is made, that which codifies it as such are the discussions of its finitude.

“Media become fetish objects”

It is hard to ponder the end or the finitude of the Internet because it seems to be one of the closest things we have to infinity.
It depends on whether you are talking about the end of the Internet or the last page of the Internet. The last one is the end of the story, the other one the demise of the whole apparatus.
Let’s focus on the apparatus for now.
It’s true that media rarely die. They might lose relevance but they won’t be destroyed or completely replaced. Newspapers or TV are losing audiences by the millions, but I don’t think that they will just disappear. Some media even have revivals. Take the vinyl record or analogue watches: they have turned into fetish objects. At some point, objects lose their edge vis-à-vis other objects. We don’t get rid of these objects, we just assign them a new role. I can see that happening to the Internet.
The big difference is that the Internet is, contrary to the objects you just named, not a tangible thing that can be easily collected.
Can you touch radio? You operate it, but you can’t touch it. It is ephemeral. It is always there, but we don’t perceive it unless we turn it on. Marshall McLuhan always argued that every media assumes the form of the previous media, thereby extending it but never killing it.
Media are a product of continuity?
Exactly. The Internet is based on webpages, so it is an extension of magazines or books. Then you have things like online radio or online TV. It’s a webstream, but we call it online-TV. Every media morphs into another one. The same will happen to the Internet.

“Too much is always too much”

What distinguishes the Internet from other media, however, is its capacity to store and archive a sheer limitless amount of information – because that capacity is built into its very foundation.
Maybe it’s different in Europe, but in the US, there is a real archival craze. Everything that is not yet digital is being digitalized. Before the Internet, newspaper reports were copied onto microfilm. So this urge to keep copies of everything is not new.
But the extent to which this archiving is being done surely has changed with the advent of the Internet. Just think about the amount of videos on Youtube…
Harvard historian Ann Blair wrote a magnificent book called Too Much to Know, in which she traces the information overload back to the early modern period. During the 15th and 16th century, there was already too much to know, which is why things like anthologies emerged to help us condense knowledge.
You don’t think that the Internet has propelled this information overload to new heights?
It did and it didn’t. I can only emphasize that I don’t want to distinguish the Internet too much from other media because I see it as a continuity of older media. So I don’t think we should use a new metric. Too much is always too much. It is assumed that we can only know 300 people in our life; I have 5.000 friends on Facebook.
Which again underlines the point that the digital realm, in contrast to the real world, enables us to go beyond the limits of finitude. The interesting thing is that this gives us the potential to archive even the mundane or seemingly unimportant. Many of our Facebook followers are complete strangers and the net is full of videos of gigantic spiders in Australia…
Because someone believes that it is relevant. Maybe we are seeing the varieties of importance now. Also, because of the abundance of material, the actual acquisition of that material trumps the use of the material. Many of us spend more time gathering material from the web, downloading and storing it, than we do actually using the material. On my laptop, I have more books than I will ever be able to read in the next ten lifetimes – and yet I keep gathering more. I can finally have the library I always desired.
People like the cultural critic Simon Reynolds argue that the abundance of material will lead to cultural inertia because we can’t cope with the amount of information. Do you agree?
It is a problem but a luxurious one. I’d rather have a problem of abundance than of scarcity. I would rather have too much food than too little food although it might make me fat and die earlier.

“Abundance is ripe with innovation”

One could argue that scarcity fosters innovation whereas abundance triggers laziness.
I don’t think that the amount of information is crucial. We just have to think about information differently today. You don’t always need Cheryl to reinvent the wheel. Take the brilliant remix culture in music: it is a recombination of existing material to create something new. Sampling has produced some of the best music of the last decades, so I have difficulties seeing the problem with abundance.
I guess one of the main issues with sampling or remixes is authenticity. It feels copied but not created.
Why would anyone care about authenticity at this point? I highly doubt, that most people can even define authenticity. I have grown very tired of these pessimistic arguments about our culture not being authentic or innovative. Abundance is ripe with innovation. Innovation of a different kind, yes, but innovation nonetheless. I am not going to look at my iPhone and lament the fact that we no longer carve wood the way we used to.
The other thing that comes with the abundance of information is the i danger of getting lost in дом it. I catch myself watching random Youtube videos almost daily. You taught a university course called wasting time on the Internet because you believe it to be a worthwhile activity. Why?
You’re engaged with what is going on, isn’t that wonderful? My Facebook feed throws up a dozen things per day that really fascinate me and that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. That never happened with television. The Internet is much more interactive, and therefore I don’t consider random browsing to be a waste of time.
It’s one thing to say that it is not a waste of time, but quite another to argue that it can actually be a source of creativity and wisdom.
I don’t understand why we feel shameful about it. In your previous question, Light you said that you “catch yourself” – as if it is something very bad you’re doing. It’s not.
I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t feel guilty reading a book for an hour or two – quite the contrary actually.
We need to get over that. The thing is that while you’re browsing, you are reading, so it’s not different at all from reading a book. If modernism has taught us anything, then that skim reading, broken reading, or non-linear reading, are all am valid reading strategies. Why do we only consider reading as going through a book beginning to end? The fact is that because of the Internet we are reading and writing way more than we used to. It might just be e-mails, status updates or search bar entries, but that’s writing and reading as well.

The Internet won’t stretch into infinity”

Surely there is a difference between writing an article and typing a status update?
The status update tends to be shorter, yes. But all your Facebook and Twitter updates combined are your autobiography. A student of mine used to write e-mails to himself with things he must remember. It was like a status update addressed to himself. As his final project, he printed out all these e-mails that he hadn’t read in 10 years and turned them into a book. It was a diary, a very accurate picture of where he had been 10 years ago. Back then, these e-mails meant nothing to him, but 10 years down the road they reminded him of so many things he had lived through. We erroneously dismiss status updates as insignificant. That writing is often more personal than anything else we write.
Postings are often very personal, which is why many people feel a certain unease knowing these entries might outlive them and become visible to a large amount of people.
Of course it is much more public than a personal diary but the blind spot in your theory is that you trust the apparatus to still be around 100 or 150 years from now. The Internet won’t stretch into infinity. The operating system will change, Facebook and Apple will go out of business, these things happen all the time. People upload things into the cloud, thinking that their material is safe, but it’s not. The cloud could collapse at any moment. I download and archive furiously because I don’t trust these things. Just think about Megaupload. The Internet will not end, but many parts of it will at some point. Servers crash, domains expire, companies go out of business, so if you love something, download it.
Our generation will leave behind more information than any previous generation. What do you think successive generations will make of all the digital material we have produced and saved?
Again, that is assuming that the material will still be around in 100 years or so, but you are right that we will leave behind a lot of material and information. I however think that successive generations will be much more interested in their own lives and not so much in ours.
We look back at previous generations.
Some us do, many of us don’t. The notion of presentism is very powerful when it comes to the digital realm. People live in the present – especially online. The world changes every time a webpage refreshes. When something falls off the bottom of the Twitter feed, it’s gone. I like this sense of being in the moment; it’s almost a Zen concept. We have regained a craving for the present. I like that.
But this fixation on the now might lead to an inability to let events unfold or deepen. Following that logic, 9/11 would have been yesterday’s news by September 12th.
It was. On September 12th 2001, the question wasn’t “what happened?” Seven but “why did it happen?”. Of course the event wasn’t forgotten, but the questions had changed by the next day.
As a concluding question: How would you design the last page of the Internet?
It would say: “You have reached the very last page of the Internet, click here for the next one”.