In an era of fake news, email overload, and cyber-bullying, a UNLV prof’s timely book asks us to resist the techno-flood
It’s fun to test a college professor. After reading a few chapters from Simon Gottschalk’s new book, The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times (Routledge), I emailed him late on a Friday to see if he’d walk the talk. Would he instantly reply (F)? Or would he wait until Monday (A-plus) and resist our culture’s “increasingly pervasive and mandatory interaction with terminals”? After all, according to the UNLV sociology professor, to fully be alive and human, we should avoid adjusting to “terminal logic.”
Well, he aced my informal exam.
Gottschalk has studied the social and psychological impact of our increasingly online lives for several years. His thoughts on the subject of our computer-mediated moments are gathered in a book that hinges on the double meaning of the word terminal, which means “access point” (desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, watches, etc.) and also “end of life.” As he notes in his introduction, scholars who study technology’s impact on society are increasingly reaching a similar conclusion: “We cannot realistically continue along the trajectories we are currently racing along. If we do, we will bring about the terminal phase in the life of the planet and of humanity.” Gottschalk recently sat down, face-to-face, to talk about what it means to be alive in — and to survive — our hypermodern times.
Your book examines how we are transformed through interaction with computer terminals, and your conclusion is dour. Did you feel any emotional catharsis in highlighting humanity’s tragic embrace of terminal logic?
I’ve been reading about it and researching it and writing about it for such a long time that it was only cathartic when I finished the book, because it took me so long. A lot of the time, when I talk with everyday people — my dentist, my chiropractor, friends at the store — and they ask me what I’m doing, I mention my ideas, and what I notice is everyone has a story in their everyday lives that confirms what I’ve learned. And I mean nonacademic people from completely different quarters, who live completely different lives than we do in Las Vegas — I ’m talking about places like France, Belgium, Israel. The way they tend to react is this: My book makes sense to them because they see themselves and their experiences in The Terminal Self.
Let’s discuss one of your ideas, namely that we shouldn’t surrender to the expectation of instant accessibility.
The reason I wrote the book is to hopefully raise awareness about what we’ve normalized and what we take for granted, and to remind ourselves that the mind-blowing conditions in which we live are extremely recent in human history. The phone is a party at our fingertips, but we pay a price. I’m trying not to surrender. I want to control my time and space boundaries. The fact that technology functions on demand doesn’t mean people do. Sure, anyone has the capability of contacting me Saturday night at 11, but don’t expect me to be available and accessible. What technologies bring about is the expectation of constant instant accessibility, and that’s madness. No one can live like that. I have a student doing her dissertation on how graduate students prefer to communicate when learning about academic deadlines and activities. Even though we as professors communicate with students more and more online, it doesn’t seem to work. My student’s task is to find out what works and what students want to see and what turns them away. As I wrote in my book, on an average day, during the spring semester of last year, at 9 a.m., I had received 75 emails. And it’s estimated that the average American worker spends 23 percent of the day just managing email. So if we don’t resist, the flow of information will only increase. We should resist, not because it’s annoying or overwhelming or taking too much time, but because constant communication with faceless others is affecting us in deeper, more profound ways.
Come on, surely, you weren’t always this cautionary about being online. There’s still so much digital utopianism out there. Were you ever on board with the belief in the internet’s liberating, equalizing potential?
It wasn’t unbridled optimism, but the closest I got to optimism was when I conducted research in the social virtual space known as Second Life years ago. Back then, Second Life was booming. Everybody was jumping in. The Swedish embassy, Yale and Harvard, and the Democratic Party were establishing virtual representation in Second Life. You could even enroll in courses at Cornell University in Second Life. And yes, it had so much virtual promise, but you could easily see how it could end up becoming a virtual playground for people who had the means and the knowledge. So I was optimistic, but I also saw it could go the other way and become nothing, or nothing liberating. Because I network with the institutes that study online behavior, such as the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project — they interview me for their yearly report — I learned that respondents are, on balance, equally optimistic and pessimistic. The research report lately suggests, however, that people are growing more pessimistic about the internet. So the tone of the book is influenced by my own psychological understanding, and by what I see experts do and think and what researchers find.
What do you think of France’s efforts to ban business emails on the weekends and holidays?
I think it’s awesome. There is a firm in Germany where, if you send a work-related email after hours, it automatically bounces back, telling you that their employees are not just out of office, but that the message you sent will not be delivered. If it’s absolutely urgent, there’s a number you can call. But here’s my own example: Even if I don’t respond to my emails over the weekend, by Monday morning I’ve accumulated more than 20 emails in my inbox that require a response. That’s not fair. Instead, why not consider how much our lives would improve if we thought about existing in a time where we can’t send emails after-hours? Imagine you’re my graduate student and you’re on a romantic date and you’re about to settle into dinner. Then I send you an email saying to please review the exam that I plan to give on Monday. How would it make you feel? You wouldn’t like it, of course. On my syllabi I tell my students: “I’m off the grid during these times, so don’t even try emailing me after hours.”
I feel after reading your book that you feel terminals are like guns insofar as they really aren’t neutral. They’re not just tools.
Terminals are not neutral. They mediate what makes us most human, which is communication and interaction. You don’t have a choice. To accomplish anything, you need to access a terminal. You want to find a job, you want to book a plane or concert ticket, then you need a terminal. Very simple functions, where before you only needed a wallet and your physical presence, now require terminals. We have to sync our mind to terminal logic. Our minds are digested by software. The research suggests that, when we access the internet and interact with terminals, even for just a short time, it quickly changes the structure of our brains, and we really don’t know the extent to which it affects us. But I’m sure that it does. So what is the cost?
Well, we can see the cost all around us. Look at how people behave on Twitter. Look at the public shaming we conduct in the name of social justice or in the process of Making America Great Again.
Online, you can be invisible and anonymous, which lends itself to antisocial behavior. You can transmit any passing desire or emotion without assessing how you sound to someone else. You are disinhibited, and part of growing up is learning to inhibit your impulses. But this is really the premise of “instanteity,” or living in an instant culture that offers everything you want when you want it, as long as it’s virtual. In that way, too, it infantilizes. The internet doesn’t require us to do much. It gives us the answer before we type it. It figures out ahead of us what will please us. That way of life nurtures an infantile mindset.
It’s weird to see so many people I know, who used to claim they cherished free speech, now shrilly calling for internet censorship. It’s like they’ve regressed.
The internet is a poor medium to debate issues. Hostility flares up really quickly online. Topics can be very contentious and problematic, but they’re also, as someone I know calls them, machine-generated scandals. The terminal is really effective in spreading an emotional contagion. Everyone attacks a person who says something wrong. And so many mistakes stem from miscues. We forget about the unique power the terminal gives us, the omnipresence. We forget that this particular condition is completely new in society. It’s a tremendous amount of power, and we don’t manage it well. It’s a child’s game to learn how to use a terminal, but it takes incredible maturity to know how to use terminals properly so we can manage the consequences. What we write can become embarrassingly public. We communicate, but what we communicate in a particular moment, which we believe exists only in that moment, becomes locked, frozen, retrieved, recontextualized. That’s a disconnect, the experience of immediacy and permanence, intimacy and mass distribution.
How do we start to repair this?
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says that only in face-to-face communication can we experience the humanity of another person. A human face needs our assistance. When we see a human face, we feel a sense of responsibility to help. Empathy tends to disappear at the terminal, where we find it easier to quickly humiliate or disgrace someone else.