The Internet As A Libidinal Space
1—Michael Douglas, out the car now
How should we construct our spatial notions of the internet? Primarily, it would seem that the online world is an infinite sprawl, an endless open expanse. But even within that boundless continuum, online space has it's own geography, it's own geometry, and it's own dimensionality. What these are and how they govern our movements is not straight-forward. It's a non-euclidean, largely psychic non-place, akin to a telephone conversation. It can be anonymous and transient, ever-changing: waypoints online are in continuous motion, more like an ocean than solid ground. Rarely is a webpage identical day-to-day, year-on-year. As you keep clicking past memes of cats, embedded video, abandoned shopping carts, pop-up windows, how do you stay orientated? We become carless drivers. How long does it take to walk across America? How long does it take to walk across America on Google Street View?
To consider the internet in these terms may be dumb, but stay with me for a minute as it could be an important undertaking. We are spatial creatures: so many of the ways we conceive the world are localised, site-specific and dependent on physical orientation. So what of taking this spatial reasoning online? One problem here is that the internet is not its corporeal extent. It is a conglomerated cultural phenomena, not a singular place. There are many internets. So perhaps this problem should be repositioned as a problem of relation and engagement. You can easily move through a space and you can easily live out your time in it, but how can you engage, critically or productively, with something that you do not comprehend the physicality of?
In Too Much World, the artist Hito Steyerl discusses the internet as an almost Bataillean economy of surplus, one that must itself reckon with the incredible pressures it exerts against the already permeable membrane of its own enclosure. Steyerl suggests that it is not the movement of ourselves into online environments that is dehumanising, but the movement of the internet into our offline realm, as it moves to colonise our world outside the browser. This is a direct mirroring of other post-modern trajectories: of realism into hyper-reality; of experience-as-representation becoming representation-as-experience. But at the same time, traditional politics fails to penetrate into the internet's territory.
Contemporary internet discourse would seem at a similar loss, finding it hard to move beyond poetic imagery used to conceptualise the web, failing to break the threshold of metaphor. But perhaps this illuminates a layer to the web's logic: as metaphor; as a virtual space of Deleuzian possibility. In a semiotic sense, the web is nothing but a set of signifiers hyperlinked together, lacking physical counterpart. This is true, but ironically tells us next to nothing about being present online. From a materialist perspective, the internet is interconnected banks of servers, nodes and protocols, and the web is nothing beyond the content to which these mechanisms facilitate access. This too is true, but does not resolve the problems we find with our spatial awareness online. Where are we?
If the internet is to be viewed as a realm of informatic expanse, we need to focus on the logic that abstracts between two disparate realities: an abstraction that governs any and all translations between physical space, and web presence. Is seeking such a logic an absurd notion? In desperately wanting some spatial context to grasp, the desire may raise more questions that it answers. But cmon, we need to find some framework for critique: to understand the break between our conception of the internet as structured content and the structure itself; between the limitless vastness of this cultural phenomena and the huge, but very much finite, network of hardware that holds it. In short, we'll need to face the dream-logic of our world online head-on.
2—Why did you film clouds?
Could we film the internet? Where would we begin? In media res - but where would we stand the lights, position the microphones? The browser both takes care of the mise-en-scene while assuming the leading role. How would you structure the narrative? The denouement comes when, after endlessly scrolling Tumblr for 84 minutes, you look up to realise you have missed the credits and that you are just sat in a dark room.
In the first act of Tarkovsky's 1972 masterpiece Solaris, a returning visitor from the Solaric ocean surface presents an investigative body with an account of his uncanny hallucinations. His testimony is detailed and sincere, but upon replaying the film he made of his experiences we see only clouds - pure abstraction. "Is that it?" asks one of the bureaucrats. The cosmonaut's own disappointment is real: "I wasn't expecting this". A number of rational responses can be proposed for the discrepancy between the film and the cosmonaut's own account. Maybe there is a conspiracy: the reels were switched, the film is fake news; maybe the planet's electromagnetic fields corrupted the tape. But as we find, the problem was not with the planet's atmosphere or the camera's fidelity but that the cosmonaut himself was sadly fooled into believing in his own desire.
In Solaris, unconscious libidinal desire manifests itself to each of the doomed crew members orbiting above the fluid planet. They are slowly driven mad by the material manifestations of their subconscious, by apparitions of dwarfs, daughters and dead lovers. Each of them investigate and wrestle with personal demons. Each violent attempt to remove or destroy their phantoms is ultimately futile, and so is denied the moral gravity of violence, and the horror of real loss is replaced with a horror of recursion and return.
As Žižek discusses, the diegetic logic of Solaris lies in a very male fantasy of otherness, being an Id machine that presents the female as an empty projection of the protagonist's own traumatised, self-absorbed psyche, and incomplete memories. Cinema has long been understood as a medium that facilitates fantasies and desires, that plays out dream logics through an affective audio-visual materiality. A virtual space, cinema uses its proximity with reality as a method to regurgitate the problems of reality back out in a reductive purity that is just as problematic. The material reality of what is recorded is only ever a partial explanation for the power of cinema. You can visit the locations, meet the actors, but this will never lead you through into the film's world. The film's integrity cannot be punctured.
Is the internet any different?
3—The internet is a self-atomising machine
To approach the internet from an analytical, rational perspective misses something vital. It fails to address why the internet is now so embedded in our lives. To look at it as a series of protocols and operations, to look only to the technology on which it runs will never truly help you to understand the psychological mechanisms which compel Facebook users so readily upload personal data, nor account for the utter lack of public backlash against the ongoing revelations of NSA surveillance. To begin to unpick such a bizarre phenomenon as daily web use, let's consider the web as a libidinal machine. For both users and developers, it is a space of unbridled potential through which desire runs riot. And this provides it with the power it wields to trap us.
One need only look to journalism to find the carnage of this trap. For a long time now, newspapers have given up on hard truth in favour of a narrative they are writing. But with web-publishing and the crowd-sourced 'conversation' of Twitter et al., the narrative now writes itself. The past decade has shown a media landscape of escalating leads that are, on closer examination, leading themselves. The news now runs on the same impetus as the tension-driven fingers on an Ouija board, or the mass anarchic bacchanalia of Twitch Plays Pokemon. One could see hope in this, but only if (like a good libertarian) you think that life can understood simply within the structure of a game, that all reality could fit just as easily into the confines of a 1990's 16-bit computer game for kids.
There is a sentiment that pervades every hackathon and props up every tech start-up: that through technology, all is possible. That creation is boundless. But this is the sort of facile base of an ideology that births a constant paradox. It both demands the results of ongoing scientific research whilst denying the confines of scientifically verifiable material reality. It requires that scientific discovery continue, but demands that physical reality be inexhaustible and limitlessly new. It posits many claims toward a truly revolutionary ambition, whilst actively maintaining the structures of power - be this through the purchase and implementation of military-funded research, the venture capital funding model of any given start-up, or the destruction of workers rights in the creation of the sharing economy. It is a farce. So much of the tech industry, dominated as it is by white male egos, is a trapped in a fantasy that uses the potentiality of virtual spaces as a proxy for the expansion its own libidinal energy. And in doing so it neutralises any real potential there may be.
As for users, if fears and stories surrounding the rising political significance of the alt-right are to be believed, then the fabled internet troll is going to spill over into the real world just as Steyerl predicted. Gamergate did much to show the violent power of male ego online, and behind every death threat Anita Sarkeesian received, was a real-life sender acting out his violent fantasies with the same impunity with which Kris Kelvin repeatedly murders his wife. The true horror of this online violence is the power with which it reinforces itself, as each attack morphs into a form of Freudian wish-fulfilment to be screencapped and shared on 4chan. The logic of the internet is that of the virtual, where the reality of otherness disintegrates, leaving only the self - a network of selves, each seeing the other with no more agency than a twitter bot. It is a psychic space that lacks repercussion. Online, we are alone with our desire.