The big (as in inches of page space) story in the “Arena” section of the Wall Street Journal [link may expire] on Dec. 5th is about the “problem” of overloaded WiFi at concerts and events (like Lollapalooza). Concert goers and event attendees get very disappointed, and upset, if they cannot get rapid internet access to post their selfies and other shots onto Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social-media sites right then, live. As one young lady put it, if it’s not live, it’s not proof that she’s really there. This may be the ultimate First World Problem, but the article raised some troubling questions in my mind.
So, if you do not have a way to document that very second that you are somewhere doing something, you (and the event) do not exist? Leaving ontological questions such as “If people attend a concert and no one Snapchats, is anyone really there?”, the article paints a fascinating and to me a little disturbing picture of how dependent on the Internet some younger people have become for their identity and social world. They do not, in their own mind and apparently in the minds of their friends, experience the concert/performance/event unless they can constantly document it and tell the world of the Internet that they are there. No fast WiFi, no instant uploads, no gloating/announcing to their “friends” that they are only four feet from the stage, then it’s a bad experience. “For three hundred dollars a ticket I expect to have good WiFi” one person said. He’s aiming too low: for $300 a ticket I expect a full multi-course meal, free bar, excellent concert or presentation, and a dessert that’s so good it’s almost illegal. But that’s part of why I don’t go to Lollapalooza, Electric Daisy, SXSW, or massive star rock concerts, either. And when I go, I go to watch or listen, not to document and share with the world that I’m there.
Interestingly, the phenomena reminds me very much of things I’ve read about theater and opera in 18th and 19th century France. People went to be seen, not to listen to the music. Think of the line in Dangerous Liaisons, where Glen Close’s character observes that someone is such a devotee of music that he actually goes to hear, not to socialize. How odd! The clothes are different, the volume is much louder, but the sentiment appears very similar. Granted, I observe similar things at operas and classical concerts I’ve been to (Yes, you on the second row who are here so you can be seen supporting the arts so your business looks good. Be careful, you might actually like what you hear) but without the electronic impedimenta.
Reality for some people, it appears, is no longer the physical world, or even the world of thought. It is the world of electronic data, of calling “I’m here!” on social media, of selfies sent to a hundred other smart phones. What will become of their world when the power goes out? Will they discover that physical reality and live people are far richer than their electronic universe? Or will they crumble because they’ve lost all trace of their identity, unable to access the persona that lives on the Cloud? Yes, it is a First World Problem, but if some of the psychologists are right about the malign effects of constant social-media immersion, it’s a potential problem none the less. And a little sad, to see people reducing their world to pixels and bytes that will vanish without a trace if a server farm catches fire.