Saturday, September 04, 2004

Ruminations on Internet Deprivation

As my complaining in two recent blog entries has detailed, we were without easy, home-based internet access for a period of approximately three weeks. I was able to get online briefly on some days outside the home, to take care of a bare minimum of internet-related activities, but I was essentially without access to this particular infrastructure for that period of time. This had a larger psychological impact on me than I was expecting, and certainly larger than I am proud of, and I have been thinking about why that might be.

One reason is fairly obvious: I am living in relative social isolation in a relatively new city, and as someone who is not a big fan of the telephone, the internet is an important tool in maintaining social connections at a distance. It is not a replacement for other kinds of integration-of-living (a made up term of my own to capture the idea of deliberate practices that people in a relationship engage in on a regular basis as the substance of relationships) but it does allow for integration-of-living of a range of intensities and intimacies, depending on the desires and efforts of the people involved. Of course being deprived of this tool under these specific circumstances was less than thrilling.

However, I think my distress at being briefly deprived in this way is also a reflection of a certain flavour of middle-class, North American masculinity. (And my use of the word "deprived" should be seen as having a certain self-mocking intonation, since I fully realize that this was a temporary inability to access a privilege and not much of a deprivation at all when seen in any kind of a social context.)

R.W. Connell writes in his classic book Masculinities:

This class process alters the familiar connection between masculinity and machinery. The new information technology requires much sedentary keyboard work, which was initially classified as women's work (key-punch operators). The marketing of personal computers, however, has redefined some of this work as an arena of competition and power -- masculine, technical, but not working-class...Middle-class male bodies, separated by an old class division from phsyical force, now find their powers spectacularly amplified in the man/machine systems (the gendered langauge is entirely appropriate) of modern cybernetics. (Masculinities, pp. 55-56)

Though I am a little odd in not connecting them to the income I do or do not earn through them, I am fairly typical of North American males in that significant parts of my identity are connected to my productive activities. What I do varies with my specific circumstances, but it has fairly consistently been about facts and narratives. The internet gives me ways to access many facts and narratives produced by others, as well as ways (including this blog) to express those chosen and produced by me. It therefore makes sense that losing access to this major mechanism for enacting this aspect of identity was frustrating.

Beyond being raw materials for and expressions of my productive life, I think that facts and narratives accessed over the internet also function in my life as distractions. More than one feminist woman in my life has observed (with amusement or exasperation, depending on the context) that I live too much in my head, and I do acknowledge that, at times, I use external facts and narratives as a distraction from the visceral realities of day-to-day life which can't help but be occasionally unpleasant and frequently boring. I don't think this is intrinsically bad if it is part of life in a balanced way; after all, almost everyone enjoys this kind of enterntainment/escape in one form or another. Still, it's another reason why lack of access to the riches of the internet can be difficult to take for someone accustomed to them.

There is something potentially unsettling about our increasing tendencies to prioritize technologically mediated connection with our fellow human beings and the world. I don't think I have a complete handle on it yet, but I'm pretty sure a part of what might be worrisome is its impact on our practices of connection that are local. I'm not sure I really see how indefinite deprivation of tools to connect at a distance might directly impact my local practices of connection here in L.A. Nonetheless, I can see that my expectations of physical distance are shaped much differently than those described in stories heard before we left, from my partner's grandfather. He talked of some of his many sisters and brothers moving away to get married and going for years and years without really interacting with them. Of course the experiences of his youth are much closer to most of humanity's current experiences in this regard than my own.

I'm not very confident in my abilities to enact this, and I'm conscious that such ability to deliberately leave and enter various communities tends to be connected to privilege, but I do at least in principle prioritize a commitment to attaching to the local. But the presence of technological mediators of connection at a distance play a huge role in making local connection optional by providing an alternate outlet for the human hunger for connection. Many people (often professionals with class privilege, for example) have no real interest in enacting specifically local connections with other individuals or with community.

I know I was startled a number of years ago when a good friend told me that she thought that, other than issues of distance from existing intimacies, what city you lived in didn't matter. Given that this was in the context of a discussion of Hamilton and Toronto, and my own growing consciousness at the time of the vastly different cultures of community and political engagement in the two cities, I was quite shocked. My experiences of Los Angeles are causing me to appreciate even more strongly that such sentiment is predicated on a certain kind of disengagement from the people and world that immediately surround you, as I come to appreciate more keenly the role of local physical geography (distance within the city and related public transit networks, in this instance) in shaping connections to other individuals and to community.

So that's where I'm at for the moment -- I'm still a little abashed at finding my net-free weeks to be such a frustration, relieved that they are over, and somewhat reassured that at least they have made all of these things a little bit more visible for me.

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