Media

Is Your Daily Life Enslaved by the Electronic World?

Our modern obsession with technology is changing the way we relate to others -- and the way we view ourselves.
Future historians may very well look back at the beginning of the 21st century as an era in which the human mind developed into a split screen, with one eye on real space and the other ogling the electronic mirror.

This morning on a crowded bus I counted six people within my immediate view, texting, talking on the cell phone, checking e-mail, listening to iPods. In other words, they were trying to keep the bus from being their only space, their only reality. And what was I doing? I recorded what I observed in my laptop, of course.

If modern technology has been created to enhance our daily lives, something has dramatically shifted: More and more, our daily lives are enslaved to the electronic world.

This can sometimes be very troubling. On March 30, 2008, a group of teenagers in Florida lured one of their own peers to one of the girl's homes and videotaped her beating. With one girl behind the camera to record the episode, and two boys guarding the door, the rest mercilessly beat the young woman into a concussion. It was for a dual purpose: to "punish" the victim for allegedly "trash talking" about them on MySpace, and to post the footage on YouTube. The most telling line during the beating was when the young woman behind the camera yelled out: "There's only 17 seconds left. Make it good."

Seventeen seconds left, that is, in a 10-minute slot -- the maximum time one can post a video segment on YouTube. The time frame and the incident prompted a colleague of mine to quip, "Well, Warhol was only off by five minutes."

Otherwise, Andy Warhol was frighteningly prophetic. A future in which everyone can be famous for about 10 minutes has indeed arrived. We have all become actors. We begin to believe that we are not fully ourselves, that we are not viable in the new system, unless we make some sort of electronic imprint, some sort of projection of ourselves, in the virtual world. Diaries, once locked away and hidden, have now gone electronic in the form of blogs and vlogs.

On CNN a few days ago splashed a typical story that spoke volumes of our modern impulses: "Wife Brings Drama of Divorce to YouTube." Private lives are increasingly translated into a public space, oftentimes turning intensely personal dramas into perplexing global phenomena.

What makes the incident in Florida unusual, however, is not the violent acts themselves -- girl fights have been well reported, after all -- but that the girls' actions were dictated not by a pure act of revenge but by a kind of exhibitionism rarely seen before. Stranger still is that increasingly the electronic world dictates exactly how an action should be carried out. The gang beating of the young woman, for instance, increased as the 10-minute segment neared its end. Did their beating lose steam, I wonder, when the camera stopped rolling?

This modern mindset has given psychologists and anthropologists enough material to study what they call the "disinhibitive effect" on the Internet. Road rage is quickly giving into Net wrath. A generation raised on video games can become invincible when their actions are meant to be broadcast. Like actors who are trained to lose their reservations on stage, many now take daring risks for the virtual world -- nevermind that they might have repercussions in the real one. They show all, or do something enormously bizarre or violent to garner lots of hits, lots of eyeballs. Our sense of existence is interrelated with that of the electronic ether a la Matrix: I broadcast, therefore I am.

Last year, Hollywood celebrated the 40th anniversary of the movie "Bonnie and Clyde." It's the story of a couple who became the first celebrity criminals of modern times, whose deeds of derring-do -- robberies during the Depression era and violent death -- rendered them into mythological figures. During their saga, Bonnie wrote poetry that she sent to the media, while Clyde wrote letters of praise for the Ford Motor Company's "dandy" car, which turned into instant advertisements.

There's a pivotal scene in the movie that seems to foretell something about our modern day obsession with myth-making, and its incestuous relationship to the media. The couple steals a newspaper to read about their exploits. As they are being chased by the police, they argue over the fairness of the article's reporting, more concerned with their image in the media than with their reality.

Of course, these days you don't have to be a cross-country robber to be a celebrity. We are living in what Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine has called the "age of microcelebrity." Thompson asserts that "people are developing interesting social skills to adapt to microfame. We're learning how to live in front of a crowd."

As a result Buddhist teachings on mindfulness could very well be on the retreat. How can we be fully "here and now," how do we keep our ego in check, when we keep ogling the electronic mirror and watching ourselves gavotte? In our deep yearning to be noticed, and to reach some kind of immortality, we are increasingly making fools of ourselves.