Ed Driscoll

The Alpha And The Omega Of The Internet

Though sometimes it’s tough to tell which is which. First up, Andrew Ferguson gets “Lost in the Personasphere“:

My first glimpse of the personasphere came several years ago at a county fair. It was like all county fairs, an all-American overload of colored lights and hurdy-gurdy noise and questionable smells. I’d always thought it was an experience that nobody could be bored by. Then I saw a gaggle of four teenage girls walking together along the midway. They were yacking away, as teenage girls, you might have noticed, sometimes do-but they were yacking into their cell phones. Walking four abreast, they were huddled in their personaspheres, each in her customized bubble, talking to someone who was far away instead of the friends that plan or chance had placed beside her. They were lost not only to one another but to the noise and color around them.

Since then, the appliances that furnish a personasphere have grown in number and complication. Walk down any city street and you’ll see people deploying one gadget or another to construct their bubble, ignoring the nearby in favor of the faraway. Here comes a kid talking excitedly into a cell phone, followed by a businessman calling up a webpage from his iPhone, followed by an office hack scrolling through the messages on his Treo. Meanwhile, life erupts all over the place, unnoticed. If this were a just world, I’d get to see at least one of these busy people walk into a lamppost or fall through an open manhole, the way people used to do in silent movies. They never do, though, at least not while I’m around. This must not be a just world.

But it is a very distracted one-though maybe distraction isn’t the fitting word. A distraction is supposed to be something that draws you away from immediate experience, pulls your attention from the matter at hand. The personasphere involves experience once removed, pressed through a piece of hardware; in the personasphere, immediate experience is the distraction, an annoyance that takes you from the now-primary business of texting, phoning, websurfing-being elsewhere. Faced with the real world, we draw our personaspheres over us like a cloak against the cold.

I’m a silver-lining guy, as my friends will tell you, always searching for the upside in any given situation, so I’ll mention one nice thing about this cocooning, this withdrawal of everyone into his own personasphere: It has served to prove the techno-utopians wrong once again. From the dawn of the Internet through the coming of the Wi-Fi era, the utopians told us that technology would pull us together and restore a common life to a fragmented culture.

We can see how mistaken they were. Consider the man lost in his personasphere, at dinner, on a bus, in an elevator, scheming into a cellphone or tapping a message on his BlackBerry. If technology has brought him closer to distant friends it has also made it easier to detach himself from those near at hand. As his world expands, it shrinks-roughly to the size of his busy, excitable, unutterably lonely self.

And the flipside? Kyle Smith of the New York Post is about to receive comment number #300 on his review of Wall-E:

As always, I am humbled by the number of people who, upon reading a lukewarm reaction to a cartoon about cute robots, managed to reach down deep and bring up some deeply crazed fury.

To be fair, some futurists, such as Alvin and Heidi Toffler in 1980’s The Third Wave, didn’t predict, as Ferguson wrote, “that technology would pull us together and restore a common life to a fragmented culture.” Just the opposite–it’s the technology itself that’s atomizing a once mass culture, as we’ve gone from three national TV networks in 1968 to 112,000,000 blogs in 2008. But within that atomization, there is room for shared bonds to be forged–even if it occasionally involves fending off a crazed Wall-E storm.