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Vol. 11, No. 5, 2012
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getting byt existentially

Santiago Zabala


Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press. His article was originally published in NewStatesman.

Today if you are not often wired, you do not exist. Like radio and television in other times, the Internet has become not only an indispensable tool but also a vital component of our life. It has become so useful, significant and meaningful for variety of administrative, cultural and political reasons that a life without it seems unimaginable in the 21st century. But the ownership of this interactive life is troubled: when you start seeing interesting advertising on your gmail banner, personalized ads aimed just at you, your existence has begun to belong to others.

At last count, there are now 2,267,233,742 users of the Internet, that is, 32.7 percent the world population. While these numbers refer primarily to North America, Asia and Europe, in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East its use is growing rapidly. However, there is a big difference between being online and being wired. This is not a simple semantic difference, but rather an existential distinction that determines our roles, tasks and possibilities in the world today. Without suggesting a return to 20th century existentialism (which arose as a reaction against scientific systems threatening humans beings uniqueness) philosophy must stress the vital danger that being wired can pose for our lives.

Not everyone who is online is also wired. The latter refers to those capable to finding a date or a job through social networks such as LinkedIn, downloading the latest episodes of True Blood, or purchasing self-designed Nike shoes; the former avoid these services. Using the Internet just for an email account and cheap airline tickets does not make you technologically incompetent, but rather concerned for your existential distinctiveness, that is, autonomy.

For the wired West the danger of the Internet does not lie in going crazy from too many hours spent online, although this is becoming more common, but rather in considering a wired existence transparent, free and vital for your life rather than an active threat. Although being wired assures you an identity on the web, that is, a position in the new wired world, it also frames your existence within the possibilities and limitations of the web. This is why Tim Berners-Lee, a founder of the web, recently pointed out how the “more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social networking site becomes a central platform -- a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it.”

An autonomous life in the 21st century will depend on the distances we manage to maintain from the politics of control. This politics was employed by the Soviet Union and is used in contemporary North Korea. These two regimes use technology to manufacture and control the existence of their citizens in order to impose certain beliefs and restrict others. Today, the West seems to be under a similar regime without a central government; that is, it is imposed by technology. Whether they offer exciting social existence on the web or release private data to governments, our existence is in the hands of programmers such as Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey; after all, wars are now beginning to be fought also through the web with catastrophic consequences.

If being wired seems the only possibility for existence today it’s because only those who have an IP address or Facebook account are recognizable; in other words, only the wired have identities. But the existential issue of wired does not inhere in the fact of being monitored, which is inevitable even offline today, but rather in the existential unfairness of our interactions on the web. We sacrifice not only the personal information we submit when we join a network or make a purchase but also part of our being, that is, our autonomy. In this relation our existence is involved as a consequence rather than an option. Having said this, the difference between online and wired users of the web does not have to do with their level of education or social status but rather with each group’s interest in being an autonomous interpreter free from technological constraints.

The ability of an information consumer to read between the lines has been indispensable since the first generation to read newspapers in the 16th century. Today, though, the web requires an even greater effort considering the amount of information and the possibility of interaction at our disposal. The better our ability to interpret autonomously, the better our chances to live a distinct life, but who is capable of overcoming the web’s existential consequences? The online moderate or the wired enthusiast?

While there is no quick answer to this question, the existential issues it raises are becoming as crucial as they were at the beginning of the 19th century. Like the worker in Chaplin’s Modern Times, who ends entangled in the machinery that has conditioned his existence, we must avoid seeing our preferences, interests and views only in the banner advertisements constantly waved in our eyes.


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