Locality in the Internet Age

“But information now is just a bunch of disconnected data or entertainment and, as such, may be worthless, perhaps harmful. As T.S. Eliot wrote a long time ago, information is different from knowledge, and it has nothing at all to do with wisdom.” – Wendell Berry, “Digging In

I have always been a Dodgers fan. I was born into it. Thanks to the wonderful Internet and the advanced media of Major League Baseball, I can listen to every Dodgers home radio broadcast from my computer while sitting comfortably on my couch in New Jersey. My sports world is no longer hampered by time zones, proximity, or the range of radio waves. In a world of hyper-mobility, it is easy to be specific: to get exactly what we want, when we want it. There in lies the rub of locality.

In listening to the Dodgers game last night I heard advertisments for:

  • Farmer John’s Dodger Dogs
  • Los Angeles Mass Transit
  • Nursing in the Los Angeles area
  • Local car dealerships
  • And so on…

Sitting three thousand miles away listening to a game, the advertisers might be discouraged to find out that I have no means or ability to buy or use any of the products advertised. My location makes it impossible. The ability to listen to a local broadcast remotely enables any person to be completely disconnected from the epicenter of information, entertainment and event. In so doing this, the repercussions for “the local” are numerous.

For the person, it must be understood that location in part defines a person. What happens then, when a person may choose their own location, especially one that is not where they are physically present? More so, what will happen when presence becomes hyper-real?

In a synopsis of Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson’s book Infinite Reality, New York Times reporter John Tierney summarizes the author’s beliefs that avatars will enable all of us, within the next several years, to do the following:

1) Without leaving your living room or office, you’ll sit at three-dimensional virtual meetings and classes, looking around the table or the lecture hall at your colleagues’ avatars.

2) Your avatar will be programmed to make a better impression than you could ever manage.

3) While your avatar sits there at the conference table gazing alertly and taking notes, you can do something more important: sleep.

Wendell Berry has no idea how far the definition of local will be stretched by technological ways and means. But to his point, will the outcome be a physical manifestation of our digital disconnectedness or will our digital lives inform us and make us wise? Is the obliteration of physical presence and the local an adventure in possessing information (a baseball game, a lecture, a wedding, a Eucharist?) without ever letting it impact our own person, our own place and those around us? Or, is it a new way to further, broaden and deepen the connections started in local, present, physical lives in a digital way?

Back to the baseball game. If the local is to be taken seriously, the connections we possess must be accounted for, both local and not so local. Just as with food, it must be recognized how food is produced and where it comes from. Information must be understood in the same way. It is a product from a certain place and a certain time. It is interpreted as such.

It is also complex. Though far away, I am linked to a team I saw in person dozens upon dozens of times as a child, sitting three rows back behind the Dodgers dugout. Listening to a game or watching on TV re-invokes the presence for me again and again, like remembering a pilgrimage.  In the same way, as the definition of local is changed in more ways than we can (literally) imagine, the information we possess and the avatars we choose cannot become disconnected from the physical realities and events that inform our un-virtual, analog, and grounded lives. However far the fiber optic line or Wi-Fi signal may take us from our seat there will always be a fixed point that serves as the lens to connect all the disconnected data.

  • http://brtom.typepad.com/wberry/ Tom Murphy

    Thanks for this reflection, Thomas. Your last sentence about “a fixed point” (which any of us are) is worth attending to. Your implication seems to be that these fixed points will always be our “locality” … a consciousness that will always make choices, filter, select and digest whatever data is available. Mr. Berry worries that this conscious activity may be at risk: “To make yourself a passive receptacle for information, or whatever anybody wants to pour into you, is a bad idea” (opening of the same paragraph you cite). He may be overstating for effect. I’m not sure what my becoming such a “receptacle” would feel like … or who I would be if I became such.

    One thing that bugs “most people” about Mr. Berry’s critical stance is that they don’t see our consumption of digital media as any different from our consumption of analog material. I can hold a physical book, an e-book reading device or a computer before me and take in the same content. Are there differences and various challenges with each experience? Of course there are. But … we want to say “but” and be excused from having to push our thoughts too much farther.

    A big difference for WB is digital media’s reliance on electricity. As caring for his own locality, he wants us not to forget where electricity comes from and what it actually costs his place (Kentucky) and other places. We’re all implicated in this problem. Electricity junkies = Coal & Oil junkies.

    And yet, this past week I was able to take in the digital recording of Mr. Berry’s remarks to the food conference in Washington. And I remember a time not too long ago when I had never seen him or heard his spoken voice … and treasured the rough vcr tape that arrived one day from a friend. It changed forever the way I “heard” Wendell Berry.