‘Tears’ by Man Ray, 1932
I am watching a war waged through a window on my macbook laptop. The window is smaller than my screen to make room for my notes app and to remind me that I am staring at an image, a photograph, a sheet of digital paper with pixels of red, blue and green scattered about. I am not there, I am not there, I remind myself, but then I roll over in bed and press my nose to the gorilla glass that shields those same pixels in my phone, so near and in the dark, like staring into a tunnel with a steam train rolling toward me. I feel precariously close to falling through the window and tumbling out the other side, landing on the tracks.
I have been thinking lately, even before all of this, about my relationship with online spaces. My first relationship, I would tell friends, was with a boy from my school who once walked twelve kilometres to my house just to surprise me and care for me while I was stuck home alone and sick, and I answered the door furious because I was self-conscious, I didn’t want him to see me that way, all ugly and swollen and un-showered, and we broke up the next day. But my first relationship was really with a boy from Germany, an online pen pal, who wanted to be a film director one day and loved making small pixel animations and only saw me in pictures, and we talked for months with neon pink writing inside a black chat box the size of a pokémon card, and then we cybered once and he never spoke to me again. This was real, for my heart and mind, my first spark of love, my first heartbreak, my first warning that sex was both a mess of pleasure and a weapon of betrayal, my first time ghosted, my first infuriated decry of “men”. But it was private, it was my own, it was something I hadn’t thought about in twenty years, but then I watched the German news yesterday morning with my family, and my mum told me stories of growing up on Spangdahlem Air Force Base and what it was like to worry about the Russians when the sirens blared and the engines blasted, and I remembered that this boy was from Frankfurt, just east of there, and wondered if he was just then watching the F-35s scream through the sky above him, toward the Baltic Sea.
On twitter I read a post condemning anyone who might joke about “World War III”. “There is such a thing as gallows humour”, the user conceded, “but it is for people who are in the gallows. Are you in the gallows?”
I thought about this, which might seem like a joke, because of course I’m not in the gallows. I’m in Australia, I’m in my bed, I’m a spectator, unwilling as I might be to sit idly as I watch. But I think it’s a worthy question to ask; who is in the gallows?
This is the first time in history that the world found out all at once that we might go to war. The internet was conceived in the US as a defence communication service between universities, government agencies and defence contractors, but it grew into a network built by an international web of experts, all converging on the idea that information could be utilised and weaponised in future wars. It isn’t an accident that we are watching a war unfold on our smartphones. It is the internet fulfilling its promise, that we might see these battles unfold in real time and strategise accordingly. What wasn’t accounted for was the fact that civilians would be part of this network too, and really, the most substantial part. In the 60s and 70s, computer technology wasn’t only expensive, it took up a lot of space. Nowadays, a mum at the shops can hold war in one hand and a box of cocoa pops in the other. This isn’t something anyone really predicted, as far as I’m aware.
Because of this, we might still not be so well prepared for the psychological and physiological impacts such free interaction with war could have. This isn’t simply a case of watching extreme violence unfold on a flat screen, which became a more normalised activity (in english speaking living rooms, at least) after the live broadcasting of the Gulf War. The internet enables us to become participants in war, to communicate directly with politicians, journalists, soldiers and civilians, to support, donate, and even rally against. It is indisputable that the internet has become a powerful tool for spreading valuable information, and it’s also indisputable that it’s become a powerful weapon to immobilise sources and obfuscate their message. A journalist risks their life to report bombings on the ground in Kyiv, and the response on social media from people sitting on buses and beds is to write ‘well, actually…’
This all becomes even more complex when we acknowledge that we don’t even know if those people are people, or if they are a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence technology designed to take advantage of our relatively new and untested collective war power by seeking out our online vulnerabilities.
Maybe I’m an optimist, maybe I’m naive, but I think our greatest vulnerability online right now is that we care. It’s difficult to articulate how growing up with the internet has impacted how I feel about people, about borders, about war, because I don’t know anything other than this irrational connectivity, this insatiable desire to be standing at the side of a stranger halfway across the world and holding their hand, this knowledge that I am nanoseconds away from a person who is thousands of kilometres away from me. My connection with the internet is emotional and loving, which makes me susceptible to manipulation and abuse. I won’t lie and claim I haven’t shared so-called “disinformation” from a place of outrage or fear or sorrow. There were reports spread two nights ago that the nuclear waste station in Chernobyl had been exploded by Russian forces, and fallout was quickly spreading across the EU. I hit the RT button with my heart, not my head, only to find moments later that the post was vanished, and corrections were made.
For me, asking ‘who is in the gallows?’ is asking who is in the seat of this war? Who is being persecuted and victimised? Who is under imminent threat? Who understands both what is happening, and how it feels?
If we are to answer this question, we have to ask in turn, who are the spectators? The audience? Who stands in the crowd poised to gasp or clap at the clunk of a dulled blade?
It’s ironic that the internet has made these questions harder to answer, that, by design, it has many of us feeling close enough that we might recognise the suffering of strangers the same as the suffering of close friends, that we might perceive distant threats as at our doorstep, that we might ready ourselves for a walk up a wooden staircase that hasn’t been built yet, that we might pull a black sack over our own heads, stand in the crowd and wait.
Maybe this lack of demarcation between observers and victims isn’t such a bad thing. These atrocities I observe on my screen feel close to me, in my heart and in my mind, I am anxious, fearful, angry and impotent. I watch footage of flaming wreckage at the side of a road in portrait mode from the passenger seat of a car, all blurred and bumpy, like I’m face-timing my mum, as ‘Blinding Lights’ by the Weeknd blasts from their stereo into my ears. Threads are appearing on my feed spun by Ukrainians responding to the question “what can I do to help?” with hundreds of answers, ideas and opportunities, when twenty years ago there may have only been a few (or less) things I could do. I am a participant, I feel a part of this globalised community, a digital neighbourhood where we could hypothetically reach out windows and shake each other’s hands.
This transhumanist ecosystem is where compassion can be found, and where empathy can rage (and raging empathy is certainly something we need right now). This is where we might seek our will to fight for the rights and freedoms of people we don’t know, who live in countries we’ve never visited, who speak languages we haven’t learned. But it is also a place where empathy fails, where it’s overwhelmed by colour and noise, where we stop looking at faces and start seeing avatars. It’s where we can become subject to the propaganda campaigns of entire governments, or even individuals who have too much spare time and hold a bitter grudge. We see this from European and colonised countries when we look to Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. I have my own theories as to why; namely that we’ve been conditioned to look at war through a carefully cultivated and wholly American white supremacist lens, and by doing so, we fail ourselves, our friends, and people who might’ve been friends if we’d smashed the lens and looked with fresh eyes. The point is, it doesn’t only matter what we are looking at, but how we are looking, and why we are looking in that way. We are too often missing context, whether intentionally or not.
I think there is a danger here in indulging our imaginations, picturing ourselves falling through windows over and over again, forgetting that we are not currently in the seat of war, that some of us are curled up safe in our beds, and that there is privilege and power in this position. Susan Sontag writes about this phenomena in On Photography, where she says the role of the photograph can be to dull the sensations of reality, that through photographs we can be reeled into a comfortable but spurious message of similitude;
Our unlimited use of photographic images not only reflects but gives shape to this society, one unified by the denial of conflict. … The world is “one” not because it is united but because a tour of its content does not reveal conflict but only an even more astounding diversity.
The danger here, for Sontag, is reducing the world to clichés. She writes that “we make of photography a means by which, precisely, anything can be said, any purpose served.” Sontag strongly felt this was the defining feature of the “modern” world, where images overwhelm reality to such an extreme that a photograph of an A-bomb “can be used to advertise a safe”. This might be why people are making jokes about World War III, or why my feed is so full of unifying messages of hope and love next to pictures of civilians being shot in the streets of Kyiv. I talk to my friends, and most of us are crying, exhausted, and scared. Now we have more than photographs to contend with, we have an endless stream of videos and conversation, of opinions and art, all piling on top of us in a heap, like one singular amorphous beast who sits on our chest and refuses to budge. And this illusion of oneness is made even stronger with algorithms designed specifically to show us only what we ‘like’.
The connections we make through the internet are meaningful. Vital, even. But if we are to be participants in this war, if we are to use the internet for its intended purpose — to spread information, to communicate, and to strategise —, then we must first anchor ourselves in reality. We must know our own context, where we live, and what we’ve experienced and understand. And, most importantly, what we don’t understand. We must ask ourselves firmly, are we in the gallows? And if we aren’t, then we should lift the sacks off our heads and look out for those who are.
So good ...