I can’t usually watch more than two minutes of a televised debate without fast forwarding or switching off altogether, but I was completely hooked by all 100 minutes of the ‘Are We Making Monsters?’ debate at ENO with Will Self, Claire Fox, Norman Lebrecht and composer Nico Muhly.
The occasion was a build-up event for Muhly’s opera Two Boys which premieres at ENO this Friday (24th June). The opera is based around a true story of a teenage stabbing in which the internet, social media and multiple fictional online personalities played a central role.
I found it fascinating precisely because there is so much we can’t know here, and the issues are enormous, deep and wide-ranging. To hear the social, moral & psychological implications of Grindr discussed by such luminaries is deeply satisfying and funny. Time and again, I found myself switching sides as the speakers (particularly Claire Fox) disagreed with each other with compelling arguments.
There is one argument in all of it that I just don’t buy, however, and that is this conceptual division of individuals into what Will Self initially called the ‘pre-net’ and ‘post-net’ generation. An audience member finally pointed out that it’s more common to speak of ‘internet native’ and ‘internet immigrant’. I’m more accustomed to the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ to describe people who were born with or without the presence of the internet.
I have never bought this idea as being particularly helpful or true. As a tutor, I spent a lot of my time struggling to teach ‘digital natives’ how to be one, not always with a great deal of success. I, and some others of my (pre-internet) generation, are at times more tuned in to the possibilities and affordances of the online world than people who grew up with it. No-one is compelled to use the internet all the time for all the things it can do, and the divisions, as far as I’m concerned, are not along age-lines, but between people who do and people who don’t do stuff with it. People who don’t make use of something like Zotero for academic work – to take one example – don’t do so not because of their age, but because they are lazy and/or they don’t need to do so in order to eat (lucky them). Or it’s simply that they can’t, because they don’t have the money, the broadband access, the hardware and the education. Try telling an impoverished child in an area where the council has closed the library that they’re part of the ‘net generation’.
I sometimes tend to the same kind of pessimism about the internet as Will Self, but in the end, that wouldn’t make any sense. The only reason that I know what he thinks about the subject is because I saw the debate on the web, using my iPhone not as some device to interact with others virtually, but as a small television. The only reason I knew about the debate is because I follow Dickon Edwards on Twitter, and he posted a link to the debate. The debate itself was occasioned by an art-form that I largely detest (opera). I got a flyer through the post, and promptly threw it away. Via the web, I got to hear a bit of Muhly’s music, see him in person, learn more about the opera, get engaged by the debate, and now I’ve bought tickets to see it.
The idea that there is an online world ‘out there’ that is separate, disengaged from the physical one is part of the problem of the debate. When Will Self heard the word ‘internet native’ he said something like ‘aha – so it’s a territory’. I don’t believe it is, even if people use the metaphor in casual speech. Because I don’t think it’s a territory, I also don’t think it’s capable of having ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’. Perhaps it’s this metaphor that causes people to become internet xenophobes in the first place.
Postscript: As chance would have it – and thanks to Dickon Edwards again for the tip – the Guardian reports on Facebook Fatigue. Perhaps we’re over it already.
See also: 30 minute podcast/interview with Craig Lucas (librettist of Two Boys) and Nico Muhly from the Independent, with Edward Seckerson. Wonderful stuff, and more great insights on the world of the online.