Shadowcasting

The ability to spool a variety of ‘content’ onto the web from any moment and/or location we find ourselves in is growing by the month. But what use is it in real terms, and how much of that content is actually worthwhile?

You can thank the mighty Warren Ellis for getting me thinking about this one – he’s been having problems with his mobile phone, which he uses a great deal in the day to day execution of his creative work, and has hence taken the plunge for an upgrade to a new bells-and-whistles smartphone that he hopes will do the things his current one won’t allow him to:

“Which leads me to the notion of informational presence.

With a working moblogging system, there are all kinds of ways to translate physical presence into informational presence. A way to cast my shadow on to the net.

A glogging — “cyborglogging” — solution could have my phone automatically taking shots while I’m travelling and uploading them. You could see where I am in 15- or 30-minute spaces, perhaps. In theory, I could drop Quicktime-playable voice messages on the site whenever I had time to record them on the phone and MMS or email them off. Same with phone video — vlogging. It also seems likely that my GPS-logged physical presence could be placed on the site.”

As the man puts it himself, “that’s the techie standpoint.” As always, the reality beyond the wide-eyed futurist handwaving is not quite so blue-skied, and the implications of the online lifestyle are still poorly thought through as of yet. Except in works of science fiction, of course – Manfred Macx, the primary character in Stross’s ‘Accelerando‘ is an interesting and double-bladed look at the near-future of wired humans.

The sheer ubiquity of data seems to be the principle problem. There’s so much of our lives that simply isn’t worth making public, no matter how famous we might be.* Furthermore, there may be inherent risks to making a great deal of detail about one’s movements and habits available for browsing by anyone at all – it could be seen as an invitation to stalk, mug, burgle, (possibly) blackmail or even kill you.

So why the fascination, why do people do it? OK, so the technology itself is a lot of fun, and there’s the gadgets-as-status issue, but there’s more to it than that. It’s something I feel myself, the addictive nature of blogging – the ability to publish something that *can* be read is, for many people, the closest possible thing to publishing something that *will* be read. Your blog has no editors, no gatekeepers of content; you can put whatever you like there for the world to see, should the world so choose.

We live in a culture where ‘reality’ television (that greatest of oxymorons) has a huge number of people convinced that fame, fortune and instant popularity is waiting for them at the end of an audition or phone call – an extension of this mindset would be the notion that documenting your ‘well crazy’ life online will make you an overnight sensation.

And, granted, it can happen and has happened – but there are few people who last long in the limelight without having either worked hard to get there or having a certain degree of talent; the rest are just fuel for the media machine, fed back to be torn to shreds by the jealousy and resentment of people who they were once just the same as. Instant fame is a sucker trip. Andy Warhol was right, as were Sheep on Drugs – your fifteen minutes comes at a price you’ll never understand until it’s too late. I’m sure that this cultural phase will burn itself out once the novelty has worn off – I even imagine I see signs of it happening already (though that may just be wishful thinking on my part).

I’m fairly convinced that the technology isn’t a blip, though – that the interest in sharing our lives with each other this way will not simply die off in a few years (major sociological distractions or disasters notwithstanding). I just think (or maybe hope) that people will become more selective about what is shared. Once true ‘always-on’ moblogging is both possible and practical (not to mention affordable), it’ll be the big ‘in-thing’ for a while, but the fad will fade when people realise there’s a great deal of almost everyone’s life that is no fun to witness.

After that, social networking will allow different levels of access to various layers of your public persona – your close friends may get to see where you’ll be later this evening, but your audience/business associates might only be able to see where you were last night, or just edited highlights of your month. Your tax inspector may get little more than your email address and a contact for your accountant…

Maybe we’ll eventually end up in some sort of ‘communism of experience’, a cultural singularity where we all learn to comprehend the world through each other’s eyes. Or maybe we will become so sick of being bombarded by other people’s notions of what is interesting that we retreat into our own cybernetic snail-shells of narcissistic reality, and turn our backs on our fellow men in contempt and ennui.

Most likely though, we’ll end up somewhere in between – using technology to further our own desires and interests, and to fulfill the human urge to communicate our experience, but also using it to screen ourselves from a huge sea of data that simply isn’t relevent to us. Even this situation is probably some way off in time, though, and until then I’m pretty positive that moblogging the life of a library assistant and D-list blogger isn’t going to do me any more favours than simply leading that life already does. Lucky for you lot, eh? 🙂


*In many cases I think it could be argued that the more famous a person is, the more vapid and irrelevent becomes the sh*t about their lives that makes it into the public eye. Regrettably, this hasn’t seemed to assuage the hunger of the audiences all that much so far.

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