In my research for my Masters I am looking at our relationship with real, tangible objects – things we can have a haptic experience with – compared with our relationship with virtual intangible objects (hyperobjects) such as Facebook, Twitter, digital photographs, text online, the Internet, games – things we cannot have a haptic experience with in the traditional sense. (Here I see another question – can the haptic exist in the virtual? That’s another blog for another day. My brain is working overtime today.)
I believe that most of us living in the contemporary world feel as strong a pull towards virtual possessions, a pull as strong as the one we have with real ones. I don’t ascribe to the fear of the digital and the argument for the addictive nature of social media and the Internet. Rather, I acknowledge that they are equal in our lives to the reality of physical things. This is based on my own experience. However, I think it is unpopular to regard digital possessions as as equally valid as non-digital ones. Why is that? Is that just a prejudice against the modern? A fear of the addictive quality of the digital (or the supposed addictive quality of the digital)? It reminds me of the 1970s fear of watching too much television leads to square-shaped eyes. I’m sure Walter Benjamin would have something to say about the pernicious digital age (at least in relation to art).
Today over lunch I asked my two youngest children to make a choice between keeping the Internet or keeping their non-essential physical possessions. My middle son currently spends a lot of time playing Minecraft and Fortnite on his computer. He uses the Internet via his phone to keep in touch with friends. My youngest son doesn’t have a phone but he uses the Internet like a set of 1970s encyclopedias he can carry around in iPad form. I cannot imagine him being happy without google at his fingertips. In fact, when his iPad needs charging, he struggles when he has a burning question on his mind (particularly if I don’t know the answer to it).
They asked a few questions such as ‘Can I keep my clothes?’, ‘Are you really going to take something away?’ and ‘Am I in trouble?’ But once I reassured them, surprisingly, they both chose to give up the Internet. They didn’t hesitate in their answers. Even when asked ‘Are you sure?’
Is that because the Internet is intangible and they cannot ‘imagine’ a life without it in the same way they can imagine a life without real things? They can ‘feel’ their things more easily in their mind (as well as their hands) when pondering the question compared to ‘feeling’ a loss for Fortnite, google and minecraft. If I could conduct the experiment in real terms and ask them to spend a week without their things except their iPad, iPhone and computer and then a week without the iPad etc, would their answers differ from before?
I’m currently asking this question on social media (ironic, I know). I will be interested to see the response from adults compared to younger people and children. My sample is quite small so far – about six adults have replied, with no doubt, to say they’d give up their digital possessions including the Internet.
As for myself, I’m struggling. There is so much in my digital sphere, such as access to friends and family, messages, photographs that are just stored digitally, my blog, emails and access to a wealth of information and entertainment that I would struggle to live without and that feel quite attached to. Yet, if I had to give up old letters and photographs from the pre-Internet age, my books, my jewellery and gifts from people which I treasure, that would break me too.
This leads me to conclude that for myself at least, the digital, non-tangible possessions I have are just as important to me as the ones I can see and touch as I type this, such as my pebble people. I bought one of these a couple of years ago. I saw this in a seaside shop and immediately a memory flooded my head – I had had this ornament as a child. As a consequence, I had to buy one and I now treasure this mere thing.
Would I be happy with just this picture of it, in my blog? I’m not sure. What would the pebbles say?