Irreducible: The Lie of the Infinite Canvas

Get Off My Lawn

I try not to spend very much time on the internet.

This is more difficult for me than I would like people to believe. Publicly, I adopt a stance only slightly less volatile than Nicholas Carr (yes, I know it’s ironic), while privately I have a roster of six to ten (depending on how much time I’m looking to waste/fill) sites that constitute my daily time on the web. And look, I’m a fantastic rationalizer. It takes almost no effort for me to convince myself that spending forty-five minutes reading long-form book reviews and literary essays over at The Millions is as useful a time expenditure in which I’m likely to engage, that it’s better than what 90% of people use the internet for. On some days, maybe it is, but like a lot of people – especially, I imagine, people like me who remember a time pre-internet – I’m worried about what the internet is doing to my brain, freaked out at the thought that it’s eroding my powers of concentration. When is the last time I spent a couple of unbroken hours reading a novel? Don’t get me wrong; I still read a lot of books, but increasingly, I’m reading those like I use the internet: for short bursts of time and getting up to do other things in between.

In short, the internet is destroying our brains. Or so the argument goes. I think many would like us to believe that the only ones making such an argument at all are the proverbial old men on the porches of our culture, angry because they don’t understand the burgeoning generation’s wild haircuts and status updates, resistant to and ignorant of the emerging New World Order. I’m not so sure that this is accurate, though. I think there are a great many people who recognize the generally vacuous nature of the time they spend on the internet, but since they don’t see a demonstrable downturn in the quality of their lives, they simply never connect that time to the loss of anything at all.

Many (Carr, most notably) argue that we’re losing the ability to concentrate meaningfully because of the internet’s structure. Since it rewards short-attention spans and feeds them so flawlessly, they say, our brains are reconstructing themselves in response. This is the big argument against falling head over heels for the internet, and I believe it, but I actually don’t think that it’s the most insidious aspect of the web. I think that what we’re losing is actually much more frightening than our attention spans.

The Burning House

When someone approaches me with something “awesome” that they found on the internet, I almost never follow their suggestion and watch, read, or listen to what they’ve found. I know this sounds arrogant – it probably is – but I just don’t care about X Youtube video or Y info-graphic. Well, that, or I’m frightened that whatever they’ve found will capture my attention so fully that it will swallow me whole. However, I occasionally recommend sites or articles to my friends, and get thoroughly annoyed when they don’t follow up and check them out. That this is like lying to people while expecting them to tell me the truth is neither here nor there.

The site about which I’ve been most evangelical (that I can even use that word seriously in this context should tell you something) is called The Burning House. The site’s conceit is simple and brilliant. Posts feature user-submitted photos (and sometimes drawings) answering a simple question posed on the site’s masthead.

 If your house was burning, what would you take with you? It’s a conflict between what’s practical, valuable and sentimental.

What you would take reflects your interests, background, and priorities. Think of it as an interview condensed into one question.

 The submissions are well and truly fascinating. Scrolling through their archives is almost exactly like peering into the windows of houses owned by people you don’t know. Some of the photos and their descriptions are haunting, some are funny, and many seem almost too personal to be allowed for such a public viewing. Two things happened to me the first time I spent an hour (I’ve done it many times since) perusing TBH’s archives: One, I became quickly aware that this sort of exercise – namely, trying to reveal who you are through what you possess – appeals to a seemingly specific portion of our population (the number of old cameras, Moleskine journals, Macbook Pros, and pieces of folk art populating these pictures is staggering), and Two, I felt an overwhelming desire to compose my own entry.

People like me (i.e. people who love to make “all-time-top-5” lists, have oversized record/book collections, and turn every life experience of even minor significance into a sentimental fireworks show) are suckers for stuff like this, after all. I internalized the subtle differences I saw in the entries. Some are history-intensive, filled with the accrued knick-knacks and totems of marriage and parenthood and death. Some are pragmatic, smart phones and portable hard drives and car keys serve as the suns around which lesser trinkets orbit. Some are exotic or sarcastic (it’s not always easy to tell the difference), including one submission which shows a 12-gauge tactical shotgun, a bandolier, and thick stacks of cash. The guy was from Brazil, if that explains anything. Many use their submissions to lament the fact that their houses have actually burned before, and that nothing they could have saved from the wreckage would have salved the sting of crushing loss and helplessness wrought by a house fire.

The site’s brilliance, I think, primarily derives from the wholly convincing illusion that it masterfully crafts and displays for its visitors. The illusion is simple: you aren’t looking at a bunch of stuff laid out on an old blanket or a rustic looking hardwood floor, you’re looking at a person. This picture, the site assures us, is not merely a representation. It is this person.

This scares the crap out of me.

The Irreducible 

Saying that you don’t use Facebook has become a kind of hipster shorthand for letting everyone know how deep you are, how you want to pursue meaningful relationships with real people, so I get that even by admitting that I only use Facebook to post links to the blogs I write for, I’m cranking the sanctimony up to probably unbearable levels.

Sorry.

My reasons for not using this most significant of internet hubs are not particularly insightful or profound. I agree with those who call it narcissistic and bemoan the shallowness of its connective potential, but many of its users would acknowledge these criticisms even as they scroll through yet another page of their second cousin’s vacation pictures, so neither of these are really the point. But since there’s not really any better site to illustrate the thing that actually is the point, I’m plowing ahead.

What both Facebook and The Burning House are indicative of is the tremendous reductivism that drives expression on the internet. The web is necessarily compartmentalized. That’s how it’s built, and that isn’t a de facto negative. But the problem is that we don’t see the internet that way. We constantly refer to its “limitless” potential, and how the secret to “expanding” charity and business and social interaction is by harnessing this potential. Like the universe itself, we are told the internet is an infinite canvas, its latent capability unimaginably vast. Because this is the lens through which we’ve been taught to survey the web, we feel strongly that the internet is equipped to display our fullest, most authentic selves. This is false. Now, it isn’t evil or apocalyptic, but it is dangerous, because if we acknowledge that the internet is increasingly the venue in which our lives will be lived, then we have to be aware of what it is and what it is not, what it can do and what it can’t.

A picture is not a life, it’s just a picture. And it can’t do much more than tell us what is materially or sentimentally valuable to a given person. Status updates and vacation photos and tweets and all the rest don’t add up to a human being. They represent nothing more than themselves. To reduce the rich complexities of our existences to a collection of vaguely organized blurbs and still-frames only insults us. It would be like trying to explain why a movie is great by reading the credits. We are more than the sum of our parts, the armfuls we would haul through the smoke and singed air.

If we don’t recognize this, if we continue to delude ourselves into believing that our online personas are the same thing as our selves, then we run the risk of eventually pulling ourselves apart, perhaps unable to remember what the whole is even supposed to look like.

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6 Comments on “Irreducible: The Lie of the Infinite Canvas”

  1. Michael Burchett
    May 8, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    I like it! It’s interesting that you mention that pictures, videos, etc. does not equal a person, because this is exactly what Facebook is trying to push…being your “real self” online (according to their prospectus, this is going to be a major pursuit of theirs if they wish to continue expanding their revenue stream). I’m interested to see what form technology will take as it continues to develop. To this point, we have basically been trying to get faster, easier and more convenient. Most of us now have miniature digital devices in our pockets, as well as larger ones at home and at work, and also sometimes a mid-sized tablet as well that goes with us. Perhaps next they will try making it even more convenient by giving us digital glasses? My thought is that…there is only so much that the internet can really do to us in a short period of time…and my hope and thought is that people will start trending back off of “spending time on the internet”…but I see that in 10, 20, 50 years, technology will still be more advanced and very heavily used…just more in the background of our lives, like when someone wants directions to the old high school they just get in their car and say “take me to the old high school” and turn-by-turn directions will start without even having to touch anything…that is just an example, but you get the idea.

  2. Anthony Jones
    May 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    What the internet is doing to my brain terrifies me

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] When I was in middle school one of my homework assignments for a computer class was to find a product or advertisement that had a website listed on it.  After quite the search I found a coke can that had the company website printed near the nutritional information.  I brought it to class, shared it with my fellow students and got my participation grade.  Things have changed a bit since then and there are literally millions of sites out there that can take up your time, here are a few that I think you should be visiting often.  I spend too much time on the internet and if you are like me you should read this post from Josh Corman. […]

  2. Another Gem From Huckberry | thethingaboutflying - July 7, 2012

    […] You may remember The Burning House from this post written by Josh.  Well the fine folks over at Huckberry have put together their own entries for the site (the […]

  3. #19 14 Websites You Should Be Aware Of | thethingaboutflying - December 23, 2012

    […] When I was in middle school one of my homework assignments for a computer class was to find a product or advertisement that had a website listed on it.  After quite the search I found a coke can that had the company website printed near the nutritional information.  I brought it to class, shared it with my fellow students and got my participation grade.  Things have changed a bit since then and there are literally millions of sites out there that can take up your time, here are a few that I think you should be visiting often.  I spend too much time on the internet and if you are like me you should read this post from Josh Corman. […]

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