March 2, 2010

Insanity and the Libe Videochatters

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The past year has seen a strange development in Libe Café. In addition to the usual cast of characters — the sorority girls rehashing the weekend’s drunken escapades, the biochem students fretting over electron counts, the indie kids twirling their headphones — a strange new breed of introverts has grown up amongst the crowded tables and chairs. Consumed by conversations taking place on their laptops, these videochatters pass the hours in virtual exclusion from their peers, all but oblivious to the cacophonous, non-digital reality surrounding them.

And boy, do they look like idiots. On any given day, you’re likely to see girls screaming and sobbing at their fourteen-inch screens, grown men whispering sweet nothings into their tiny speakers, gaggles of friends waving frantically at a miniscule camera. They cast furtive looks around to make sure no one’s eavesdropping — as if that could be avoided — and they surround themselves with an air of impenetrable distance. Quite simply, they look insane.

But besides matters of propriety — it’s not exactly the nicest thing to gesticulate madly at your laptop while people around you are trying to work — this public videochatting trend raises some serious issues. First and foremost, our ability to talk face-to-face with anyone in anyplace seems to negate the whole need for personal contact. If I can reach you instantaneously with my little screen, why even bother to meet up? Why approach each other at all? If your friend, lover or boss is just a mouse-click away, what’s the point of getting off your ass?

More troubling, perhaps, is that the very possibility of this digital flattening of distance imposes certain burdens on us. In an inverse of Kant’s dictum that “ought implies can,” the fact that these technologies are available to us implies that we actually should use them: If we can interact without being in the same place, we ought to. We’ve already seen a similar pattern with Blackboard and the like: If you’re able to turn in your homework online, or if you can e-mail your professor a question without going to their office, then you should. The possibility of the new way impels you to abandon the old.

And so physical distance will no longer be the invaluable excuse it always has been. Can’t make it to class? Great, open your laptop. Can’t meet on weekends? Great, open your laptop. Can’t travel to Dad’s funeral? Open it up. With a digital eye always at our disposal, there’s no more impossible — and impossible is often a good thing.

Of course, videochatting can — and, in my opinion, ought to — be restricted to the confines of your own home. But what’s fascinating about the café blatherers is that they choose to conflate the private and the public space. The epic fight with your lover that should by all rights take place in your bedroom, or at the very least on a private phone, is translated to a common space. And the common space, which we usually associate with certain, restricted interactions, is robbed of its status. With the laptop as a portable window to anywhere, anywhere becomes everywhere. The classroom becomes the café, and the café becomes the bedroom.

Speaking of bedrooms, I saw a guy last year at my hometown library watching porn on a public computer in full view of all passersby. While this moment may not have attained the level of personal interaction we associate with videochatting, it did suggest the same type of physical boundary-breaking that our broadband connections and videoscreens encourage. We’ve started to invest our computers with all the trappings of home — the intimacy, the privacy, the dirty secrets— and we’re carrying it wherever we like. Is the day so far off when the public taboo — generally associated with a distinction between home and the outside — becomes irrelevant? When we’re all free to jack off, yell at our parents and cry wherever we like?

If this all seems crazy to you, use your next visit to Libe Café to closely observe a videochatter. Their degree of obliviousness and isolation is astounding. They may have good reasons for speaking to their screens — their boyfriends are thousands of miles away, their mothers need advice, whatever — but their willingness to share with the public the intimacy of such relationships raises some interesting questions. Is privacy an anachronism in the 21st century? Is the laptop the new hearth? And, more importantly: Have we all gone mad?

Ted Hamilton, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of the Sun’s Arts and Entertainment Editors. He may be reached at thamilton@cornellsun.com. Brain in a Vat appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ted Hamilton