Look up

I’m supposed to be writing a research proposal right now. But I’m distracted. By a YouTube video. Gark Turk’s spoken-word piece Look Up turns the lens on distractions themselves, and considers how technologies and devices are shaping our behaviour and relationships.

I dare you to watch the video and not feel some twinge of recognition and/or despair.

I have 422 friends, yet I am lonely.
I speak to all of them everyday, yet none of them really know me.

At one point Turk asserts “we’re a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people”; his strong words are inciting us to look critically at a lifestyle we take for granted. But on the description beneath the video, he comes across a little more moderate: “I don’t want you to stop using social media or smartphones. It’s about finding a balance. It’s about making sure you are awake, alive and living life in the moment; instead of living your life through a screen.”

Turk’s video has had over 53 million views since its debut a year ago, and perhaps unsurprisingly for a video with an unmistakable moral message, it is not without its detractors (yes, stupidly, I read some of the comments. When will one learn. Don’t. read. the. comments.)

A piece titled Please Join Me In Loathing Gary Turk’s ‘#Look Up’ appeared in a US conservative magazine. There’s an awful lot of hate in Tim Cavanaugh’s piece that I’m not going to rehash here. But one of his more mildly-worded criticisms I can perhaps relate to: “I hate the meet-cute-for-a-lifetime storyline that’s already been used in a million commercials for toothpaste and pregnancy tests but here is supposed to be a profound statement on How We Live Today”. The love story component does verge on nauseating, and I wish Turk had thought a little more expansively: there are a myriad potential benefits of living less tethered lives – spiritual, philosophical, psychological, creative, both at the level of the individual and of society.

While much of the video’s reception has been positive (everything from “thought-provoking”, to “so emotional!” and “revelatory”), many of its detractors have pointed out the irony of Turk using technology in order to criticise technology. In fact, Turk’s CV appears to be saturated in all things media; his bread-and-butter is making YouTube videos. Watching on as Look Up went viral and eventually became the ‘4th most trending video of 2014’ would have required some hefty stretches of time in front of a screen. Turk’s entreaty that we exercise not abstention, but simply, more balance in our use of social media, can be cynically reread as “Don’t go completely off-grid, because I still need some hits on my YouTube channel”.

But none of these points really diminish the sheer power of Turk’s message. Turk is among a number of commentators (Sherry Turkle comes first to mind) who suggest that as long as we are tethered to technologies, we will remain ‘Alone Together’; even when we might be in close physical proximity to another person, the level of connection is more likely to be uncertain and incomplete.

And I have no doubt that social media (here I will single out Facebook, because in my particular social context, it seems to be ubiquitous) is, and will continue to be, implicated in the specific forms that anomie takes in modern society. Anomie is perhaps one of the few useful sociological concepts. It is what happens when the bonds that sustain society begin to break down. On the level of the individual, it manifests as a psychological state of disorder and meaninglessness. One way in which it is brought about is through ‘status frustration’, in other words, when there is a perceived disjunct between means and goals. Social media becomes a key medium through which we are bombarded by images of middle-class fulfillment and conformity that might be experienced by some as completely nauseating, and by others, as intensifying feelings of being disconnected, lonely, incomplete. “But what about the Arab Spring!” I hear you say. Of course, there is the potential for social media to forge connections between people both near and far away, to connect and share experiences and ideas in ways that were not possible for previous generations. The net celebrants’ arguments do have some merit.

I welcome Look Up, as I welcome any attempt to get we in the West, living our technologically-mediated lives, to think critically about what it is that technologies bring to our lives, but also what they might be taking away.

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