The week of July 26, 2015

No exit

By Jesse Hicks

In a hyperconnected world, one that always seems to be clamoring for the new-new thing, the words “offline” and “obsolete” can take on powerful new connotations. It wasn’t that long ago that we could speak coherently of the “online world” versus the “offline world”—the blurry distinction we continue to maintain with the dichotomy of “Internet” versus “IRL,” even as (and perhaps because) it becomes harder to argue that such a division exists. In many ways, most of us are “online” whether we’d like to be or not, still clinging to a belief in a “real life” somehow unmediated by our technology.

It’s an old trope, of course, with “offline” and “real life” often playing the same role that “natural” and “traditional” have in past debates about social progress. As Molly Osberg details in her essay about carrying a flip phone in the age of the smartphone, many of us live in a barely sensed cloud of techno-anxiety: excited by the prospects of ever-increasing technological change while still (if only occasionally) worrying what it might be doing to us. In response, we ponder digital fasts, phone stacking, or Tabless Thursdays—what we imagine as respites from the online world, returning ourselves to the offline, real world, if only too briefly. Osberg suggests these are luxuries, illusionary coping mechanisms available only to those with the time and means to convince themselves that we’re not all already totally enmeshed in the “online” world of hyperconnectivity.

We ponder digital fasts, phone stacking, or Tabless Thursdays—what we imagine as respites from the online world, returning ourselves to the offline, real world, if only too briefly.

The Australian performance artist Stelarc, interviewed by Anna Denejkina in this issue, would likely embrace the notion. For decades he’s created art arguing that as technology advances, the mere meat of the human body has become obsolete. He’s used his own body to make the point, placing himself inside hulking metal exoskeletons and even sculpting a fleshy third ear on his arm. He hopes one day to bring it online, with an embedded microphone and a Wi-Fi connection, so that listeners around the world might hear through his third ear. Stelarc believes that there are other kinds of bodies that we can call “human,” and through his art he’s exploring alternatives.

For now, though, most of us are stuck in our fleshy cells, subject to all the ecstasies and indignities that entails. In his feature story this week, Aaron Sankin looks at people who are especially pained by the collision of bodily existence with the rapidly encroaching “online” world: those who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Those with EHS often experience headaches, dizziness, high blood pressure, and other symptoms they associate with the electromagnetic waves emitted by almost all modern technology. That means cellphones, Wi-Fi, and in some cases even electricity. And while most scientific research suggests no link between their pain and actual electromagnetic waves, they’re often driven permanently “offline,” into the shrinking spaces outside modern life—and, perhaps one could argue, rendered obsolete to most of society.

Of course, there are less dramatic examples of obsolescence; indeed, the faster things change, the faster things become outdated, supplanted by whatever’s novel and providing more examples of unmourned obsolescence. As Olivia Coy recounts, the rise and fall of Neopets is a story of banal obsolescence: Devised amid the dot-com boom, it pioneered a new way to market to children while they played games. Just a decade ago, it boasted 25 million active users and sold itself to media giant Viacom for $160 million. It even established a community of dedicated players, many of whom remain today. But mismanagement and cost-cutting led it astray, and the site is a shell of its former self. Was it destined to be so, or could things have been different? And what lessons, if any, can be learned by today’s flourishing online communities—Reddit, say, and even Facebook—from the Neopets example?

Enjoy the issue.

Photo via Neil Conway/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)