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Reimagining the digital ether

Why films should catch up with the lexicon of social media.

Art by Emma Pham

With our social lives now almost completely substituted by digital interaction, the limitations of forming connections over cyberspace are more pronounced than ever. Gone are the times where we could make small talk with familiar faces in tutorials, weave our way through parties to bond with someone new, or stoke the flames of newly formed friendships by running into each other on Eastern Avenue. These acquaintances and casual friends are all still there, within virtual reach, yet it feels impossible to remedy the loss of body language cues and spontaneity that make our conversations feel unforced. When regular contact in digital spaces has formerly been preserved for communication between already close friends, how do we prepare for the potentially ongoing digitisation of our relationships into the future?

Overshadowing every messenger conversation, video call and Instagram story, the likelihood that everything we do online will be permanently recorded already limits how open we are with others. Before social distancing, the panopticon-like surveillance of digital technology was enough to cause anxiety, but as we now attend classes and socialise mostly online it penetrates further into our lives. Unless we choose to keep in touch by writing letters, our interactions must necessarily take place within a profit-oriented algorithm that sells our data to advertising companies. Not only is privacy a concern when interacting online, but our ability to express meaning is restricted. There are fewer audio-visual cues such as facial expression and tone of voice to help us understand intent when messaging. Video calls might allow us to read facial expressions, but body language is far more polyphonic than what can fit within a screen’s window-like frame. The internet is hostile to embodiment–it chops our voices into uncanny robotic sounds and dissolves our faces into pixelated fragments.

One of the greatest drawbacks of social video calls is that there is no potential for movement and proximity, for walking around a room and talking in smaller groups, making spontaneous conversation. In Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, his reflections on the telephone resonate with the anxiety of Zoom calls, “the other is always in a state of departure; the other departs twice over, by voice and by silence: whose turn is it to speak? We fall silent in unison: crowding of two voids.” The simultaneous absence and presence felt during Zoom calls is exhausting and results in frequent silences. We feel so strongly the need to connect, but are at a loss for what to say and how to express it through the language of digitality.

Surprisingly, while social media dominates our lives it is not often written as such in films. We need new artworks to make sense of the complete transferral of our interpersonal connections into cyberspace, to help us understand the potential and the danger of the surrogate worlds we have created online. Part of why film has yet to seriously take on the language of social media is that it requires collapsing the idea of a narrative into a tele-communicative scenario – time unfolding in a single space that brings together multiple spaces. Film theorist Béla Balázs wrote that “we should turn to the cinema so as to compile a lexicon of gestures and facial expressions on a par with our dictionaries of words.” If film functions as a social toolbox and cultural machine showing what to desire, it needs to update its vocabulary for the new modes of interaction brought on by digitality.

What can now be considered a gesture or non-verbal expression in online spaces disrupts conventional ideas of the body, and though the way we use our devices as extensions of our bodies bears significance, its meaning is often nebulous. For Balázs, embodied gestures and facial expressions don’t signify concepts, but are the direct expressions of our non-rational selves. There are some things that we cannot bring to light through words, likes, images or reacts – which dominate our interactions on social media – but that arise unconsciously through our faces and movements.

Since it is likely that future disasters will lead to further instances of physical separation, we need to seriously interrogate how to open up fissures for non-rational expression and refuse the encoding of offline hierarchies onto the online world. We need to transform these spaces so that they affirm our humanity and allow for genuine moments of connection. In the 1930s, Balázs argued that the nature of film contradicts capitalist culture because it “expresses the yearning for the concrete, non-conceptual, immediate experience of things.” Presently, the tendency of mass commercial films is to reduce our attention spans through frenzied cutting and full sensory immersion. There is radical possibility in reimagining digital spaces to embrace an alternate logic of slowness and stillness.

Playing off our anxieties about the digital ether, the horror and thriller genres have found strong interest in the language of social media. The 2018 Netflix original Cam explores the dangers and stigmas faced by sex workers as the protagonist’s identity is mysteriously stolen by a virtual doppelganger. The action takes place both offline, which is shown through traditional film techniques, and online where the actions of a mouse, sounds of message notifications, and error messages are used to communicate meaning. Cam draws on our collective anxiety about having our accounts hacked and losing the ability to control what happens to our image, while also bringing to light camgirls’ experiences of stalking and harassment. The replacement of real people by digital doubles has occurred quite literally in the use of CGI to resurrect the deceased James Dean for the upcoming film Finding Jack. This is a disturbing symptom of how digital technology, and by extension, commercial cinema, is used under capitalism not to expand on creative possibility but to remix pre-existing material for profit.

Recognising the limitations of digital love, Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her resonates with our collective nostalgia for a return to physical contact. The lonely protagonist Theodore falls in love with Samantha, an artificially intelligent voice assistant installed in his computer’s operating system. Her suggests another way that the existing social order is encoded into new technology; the Siris, Alexas and Cortanas of our time may not be programmed to understand themselves as gendered, but they perform services that are traditionally associated with women and have therefore been given a feminine voice. In Her, Samantha’s voice is always sympathetic with Theodore up to a certain point where she begins to assert her agency. Like Theodore, we evoke a hallucinatory mental image of those we interact with in bodiless, digital space. According to Paola Golinelli, “the virtual excludes and gets us used to the absence of direct contact between bodies, with the complexities, limits, fragilities and consistency that physical co-presence carries with it.” When Samantha finds someone willing to act as a surrogate body to unite them in flesh and blood, we realise the perversity of the perception of bodies as interchangeable. The film leads us to conclude that digitality frustrates love because it eludes carnal, non-rational knowledge by excluding the body.

Virtual reality is an outcome of the evolution of cinematic language as it expands the aspect ratio to encompass an entire field of view. Steven Spielberg’s 2018 Ready Player One depicts both a playful fantasy of life occurring in a video game-like virtual world and a dystopic vision of the transferral of existing repressive structures into that world. The major corporation (IOI) seeking to take control of the virtual Oasis has its own carceral system where people in debt are kept in small chambers and forced into virtual labour. Though the protagonists defeat the evil corporation, the film doesn’t gesture to any further possibilities of transformation aside from the fantasy of escaping working-class conditions through Oasis which has its own form of currency and ownership. Though Ready Player One’s haptic cyberspace equipped with physical touch and facial expression are a far throw from the present, its depiction of the freedom to manipulate one’s appearance through avatars resonates with the issue of curating social media presence and catfishing. More hopefully however, Ready Player One gestures toward the liberatory potential of transcending somatic boundaries and biological determinism through the ease with which avatars change genders in the example of the character Helen. Eventually realising the limitations of the fast-moving virtual world, the film ends with a message advocating the return to ‘authentic’ reality as a way of maintaining physical connections, something which is impossible for us now.

In Arundhati Roy’s words, “the pandemic is a portal.” We can take this opportunity to rethink the baggage that has been codified in existing iterations of cyberspace and imagine new possibilities–for slowness, for openness, for transforming the multiple worlds we inhabit. This doesn’t mean we stop being critical of our relation to the land we are on as we access online spaces and nor does it mean we unquestionably accept that everything will stay digital post-COVID. As we have seen in our own lives and the films discussed here, the desire for connection is often stifled by the language of the digital and it may never live up to the concreteness of physical co-presence. Still, the imaginative activity of striving to make the spaces we retreat to in times like these as accommodating as possible is an act of love. More is to be done in art’s challenge to the notion that the world is static; the future of cinema needs to re-invent the language of the digital and virtual through its form. If we don’t interrogate how existing systems have mutated with the evolution of technology, we risk accepting the fracturing of our relationships online as the only possibility there is.

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