In December, Time magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” honor went not to Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Kim Jong-Il or any of the other usual suspects, but to “you”: each and every one of us using or creating content on the World Wide Web. Time’s cover showed a white keyboard with a mirror for a computer screen, allowing each of us to see his or her own reflection. To justify the choice, the editors cited the global shift from earthly institutions to the emerging digital democracy where individuals–you–are both citizen and king.
There was more to this choice than meets the eye–and in more than the usual sense of the term. If there ever was an ideological choice, this was it: The message–the new cyber-democracy allows millions to directly communicate and self-organize, bypassing centralized state control–masks a series of disturbing gaps and tensions.
First, the obvious irony, everyone who looks at the Time cover does not see the others with whom he or she is supposed to be in direct communication. They see the mirror-image of themselves. No wonder Gottfried Leibniz, the 18th century German philosopher who invented the binary system, is one of the predominant philosophical references of the cyberspace theorists: Consider his metaphysical concept of “monads,” those entities of perception, which are to the mental realm what atoms are to the physical, though “without windows” that directly open up to external reality. Isn’t that eerily similar to what we are reduced to when immersed in cyberspace? The typical Web surfer today, sitting alone in front of a PC screen, is becoming more and more of a monad with no direct window onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet increasingly immersed into the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire planet.
One of the latest fads among sexual radicals is the “masturbate-a-thon,” a collective event in which hundreds of men and women pleasure themselves for charity. Masturbate-a-thons build a collective out of individuals who are ready to share something with others. But what are they actually sharing? The solipsism of their own stupid enjoyment. One can surmise that the masturbate-a-thon is the form of sexuality that perfectly fits the coordinates of cyberspace.
This, however, is only part of the story.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on January 26th, 2007. (full text).]