Up Close and Abstract

‘Yes Mrs Jones, we are real people’ the presenter says to the television screen as she belts a young man over the head with her microphone. The young man’s response is to rub his head and say ‘ow’, looking at his assailant in a wounded manner. This interplay is designed to reassure the audience that in fact they are watching real people and that dstore.com.au (the company being advertised) really does employ ‘real people’. By this logic, this must therefore mean that the company itself is real and that consumers can entrust their business to it. Yet the audience also knows the realities of television broadcasting. It is more than likely that they are watching actors play the role of ‘real people’ for a commercial – a simulation and representation of an e-commerce (or e-tailing) reality. ‘Curiouser and curiouser’, as Alice said in Alice in Wonderland. For the audience is also shown the supposably concrete actuality of the inside of this ‘dstore’; yet in the same manner as Workcover advertisements show the inside of a generic manufacturing business, the audience has no way of actually ascertaining or verifying that dstore is not just another stage set playing the role of a business.

March this year saw the debut of a newsreader who was announced as ‘the new face of news’. According to a report in the Melbourne Age (EMAG March 2000) this newsreader, Ananova, is 28 years old and five foot nine in heels. She will read live news, sport, business reports and weather forecasts to you online. Yet Ananova is a computer-generated animation constructed in human form to give ‘nice interfaces for people’ who may not feel completely comfortable with databases. This simulation of human form is accentuated through the programming, which tells Ananova when to change her speech inflections and facial expressions according to the nature of the story she is relaying. Thus she will look and sound amused when relaying some stories and suitably grave for others. As such, even though audiences will know that Ananova is computer-generated they are expected to respond to her as if she was human.

As the Internet increasingly becomes a site for interactivity, information collation, and commercial transactions, the community is required to develop skills that enable understanding, conceptualising, and interacting with, virtuality. A common theme running through the two examples just outlined, is how the use of the technology calls into question the status or authenticity of a virtual engagement. These examples question how the individual attempts to negotiate the conceptual and concrete actualities of virtuality versus ‘real-life’ or verifiable presence. For example, how does one present or understand an experience or transaction as concretely real when it is abstracted from the actual process it is representing? New social forms and understandings/skills are acquired and enacted as users grapple with the merging or confusing of previously unquestioned categories.

In some ways online shopping is tied back into recognisable experiences – you will give a credit card number and you will later on receive a tangible product as a result (or you hope you will). In other ways, it is easily argued that this process of abstraction is simply an extension of abstract processes, which we all readily engage with on a regular basis. For example, the use of electronic money has been rapidly incorporated into many people’s understandings of financial processes. We understand that, even though we do not see money changing hands, in fact the process of handing over a card or a card number is the equivalent of paying a certain amount of money for a particular item. Mail cataloguing involved a similar process whereby you look at the pictures or offerings in a printed catalogue, you order and pay … all before you have handled or seen the actual product.

So in some ways it could be argued that what we are experiencing is nothing new – it is simply that the technology or medium itself has altered. Once familiarity with the technology is achieved then it should be smooth sailing – or so one argument goes. Numerous television and radio shows are dedicated to the task of enlightening the general public in the use and possibilities of networked interaction. However, several points need to be highlighted.

Over the years, Arena Magazine and Arena Journal have engaged in many discussions about the implications of technologically mediated social forms and interactions. Writers have explored the ramifications of these new technologies for the framing of social life. They have indicated how new ways of organising and experiencing social forms permeate earlier ways of being, altering the ways in which these earlier forms are experienced and understood.

What we are currently witnessing is an acceleration and extension of types of abstract interchange through widening areas of our lives. This has ramifications for social forms and cognitive processes. It is leading to a thinning of our social life and engagements and an increased individualism. Shopping, whether in shops or shopping centres, is a form of social experience that no longer is enacted or experienced when shopping over the Net. The individual engages in a wide number of activities and interactions with others – but increasingly these are mediated through a computer screen. Individuals are being encouraged (pushed) to undertake education and recreational activities and financial transactions online. The union movement has recognised the importance of ‘connection’ to the network and introduced its virtual communities project. The aim is to enable individuals’ connectivity to be as extensive as possible.

The acceleration of these abstract processes is also leading to the raising and negotiating of questions as to the relationship between ‘reality’ and ‘virtuality’. Every day, the person in the street is increasingly being called upon to take actions and make decisions according to abstract processes that are removed from their immediate material presence. The saying ‘to see is to believe’ is traditionally applied to the spectacle of an embodied or concrete actualisation of something or someone. Now, even though an Internet user may ‘see’ something on screen, the ‘vision’ does not necessarily equate with an actual item or event. Scepticism or caution has been cultivated through an increased awareness amongst participants in our image-driven society, that images can be manipulated, simulated, or selectively portrayed. Many years of television and other media developments have led to such cynicism and uncertainty; but what I am arguing here is that this uncertainty has entered a new or heightened level of experience.

Conflicting or confusing pressures are also created which say, on the one hand, that technological development is good and that anything that can increase productivity and compress time and space must surely be valuable; yet on the other hand, that there are questions about the reliability or authenticity of processes and products. The elements or traits that are celebrated on the Internet when used as an interactive medium – the ability to construct one’s identity in any desired shape, form or character – cannot but filter through to e-commerce options as well. Whereas the professed fluidity of identity or anonymity can be seen as valuable in some circumstances, this certainly does not extend to virtual shopping.

April saw momentary panic in stock exchanges around the world as technology stocks plummeted for a day. These shares rallied the next day and speculators breathed a sigh of relief. But concern was expressed about the sharemarkets’ enthusiasm for anything hi-tech and for the inflated prices of shares for e-commerce companies that are showing huge losses and do not have the material substance upon which investment can be secured. Amazon.com is one of the more well known and established e-commerce operators yet it is still forecasting huge losses each year, with the possibility of profits nowhere in sight. In offline businesses this would hardly be seen as desirable investment. Questions as to how to measure the worth of virtuality become important.

This uncertainty about reliability and authenticity is accentuated by media coverage of phenomena that highlights the vulnerability of reliance on technology. A case in point is the existence and exposure of computer viruses capable of demolishing entire data systems. The ‘love bug’ is interesting in terms of these issues of abstraction and vulnerability. In this case, a virus is spread using the usual processes of the network system, yet referring back to human emotions and the need for security. The email message ‘title’ that leads to the virus being disseminated once opened, is ‘I Love You’. In the modern world where interconnectivity is actively sought, and love and acceptance have become more singularly valuable, such a statement is revealing. The title is fraudulent in that it reassures through assertions of love and connection that, once accessed, destroys the computer which enabled such connection. Tainted love indeed! But the title also points to a phenomenon that is present in many Internet (inter)actions – the need to refer or tie back abstract processes to ‘earlier’ more familiar experiences: dstore is a real business located within a concrete time and space (in Melbourne). Its marketing within television, radio, and the print media asserts its familiarity and its everyday nature while promoting a process that is new and completely mediated via the Internet. It conveys the message that even though we may seem unusual, we are not really so – we are safe, you know us, you can understand this process. As our lives become increasingly abstract, such messages are uncannily familiar.

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.