I had an odd encounter last night. I was walking down Tottenham Court Road way, not particularly heading anywhere and not particularly doing anything, when a man stopped me in the middle of the street. Naturally I assumed I was about to be either propositioned or mugged; he was an enormous hulk of a man, and I was a woman alone. I stopped anyway for some reason (Greetings, Herr Thanatos, & welcome) and he shook my hand. “It’s ok”, he explained, noting my obvious anxiety, “I’m a writer.”
Naturally I quirked an eyebrow and said “Aren’t we all?”
– at which he laughed, and protested: “No, I’m being serious.”
He said he was writing a book about how modern society and technology are making us alienated, and how we miss the fleeting connections that make us human. “Just twenty years ago, people stopping and talking in the street like this used to happen all the time. Now you never see it.” I pulled on my Digital Native dungarees and explained that it wasn’t necessarily the case that technology was causing disconnection; it was only that the connection had migrated elsewhere. “That doesn’t cheapen it,” I said, “It only changes it.”
What if you were speaking to someone and you couldn’t see their face, he said; they had a hood pulled down over it. Wouldn’t that make you uncomfortable?
“That’s very dependent on the context,” I said, “Who they are, and why they’re hiding their face.”
They’re telling you a really harrowing story, he said. Something awful that happened to them at some point. Rape, or torture – something like that.
“I think I’d be more interested in the story,” I said, “I like to think that I would”. He was worried that you don’t know who anyone really is online – there could be anyone sitting behind the other end of the keyboard. I questioned the idea of ever knowing who anyone really is; what is it that necessarily makes the meatsack standing in front of me more “real” than an online avatar? Aren’t they both just a form of representation? There could be anyone sitting inside of that face.
“You’re being purposefully contrary,” he said, “You don’t really think that.”
Maybe I am, I said, and maybe I don’t. But I do definitely think we place too much emphasis on the facial and the corporeal. Isn’t it the stories and the ideas that matter more? Doesn’t the internet give us direct access to other people’s stories without having to go through all the palaver of a skin-interface?
“What ARE you?” he said, looking faintly aghast.
“I suppose I’m a writer”, I said.
And then I fucked off to the pub.