This Falsely Transparent World

Lecture Monitor: Nov. 2012

News | Alexei Korolyov | November 2012

Telekom's futuretalk 2012 filled the Spanish Riding School (Photo: D. Reali)

It was one of those nights you couldn’t miss – and not only because of the lavish drink supply. While future.talk2012 – an Austria Telekom-backed event aimed at highlighting the Internet’s increasing presence in everyday life – may at times have felt more like a CEO meet and greet than a serious discussion, with quite a few of the high-profile guests visibly tipsy by the time the official proceedings kicked off, the evening raised issues that are sobering.

"Today we often claim how, with our total exposure to the media, a culture of public confessions and instruments of digital controls, the private space is disappearing. But I claim, no," said Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek. "A much deeper tendency is that the public space is disappearing." Žižek is a compelling speaker and easily held the audience of the 'Me, Myself & I' conference in the grand hall of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School on 9 October.

"Even when we are in public, we are still perceived as remaining in the private space," continued Žižek, famously dubbed the Elvis Presley of Marxism, his 20-minute monologue occasionally interrupted by what sounded, bizarrely, like a horse neighing backstage.

One of the numerous examples Žižek cited to back up his argument concerned what he called "the latest trend in hardcore pornography." The genre, which enjoys immense popularity in Eastern Europe, involves a sex scene set in a public place such as a railway station. But what is truly intriguing about the act, Žižek said, is that "after the initial shock the people around pretend to, or even do, ignore it."

So the major challenge, which our "falsely transparent world" faces today was "how to constitute an authentic public space," Žižek said, adding that he wanted to see a web where people would not be afraid to reach out to one another.

The night’s other speaker, U.S. online campaigner Eli Pariser, made the problem of authenticity the key theme of his speech. Pariser’s 2011 book, The Filter Bubble, argues that search engines such as Google increasingly use algorithms to tailor online information, leaving us cosseted in our own predictable data cocoons.

"We live in our own personal information universe," he said, adding that it was time for web users to start asking how those filters worked. "It’s not only the question of privacy, it’s the reverse: What is the world that Google or Facebook is presenting to me."

When Pariser started out as a political activist in the early 2000s, he was looking forward to a time without gatekeepers that skewed online objectivity. He was "totally wrong," he admits today. "We don’t live in a gatekeeperless society… But we need the Internet as a connective medium."

This, however, promises to be an increasingly daunting task, especially considering that, according to the event’s third speaker, Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, the number of "virtual citizens" will soon far exceed that of actual people.

This ever-growing population will, accordingly, require more help in getting rid of redundant information, the trio agreed, as they gathered on stage for a panel debate. But the question of just how this can be done remained unanswered.

Žižek seemed to sum up the general sentiment when he said: "My formula is not ‘no gatekeepers’, but ‘good gatekeepers’."

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