Sifting through the various Baudrillard obits, I came across this passage from America, a travelogue he wrote in 1989:
…This is echoed by the other obsession: that of being ‘into’, hooked in to your own brain. What people are contemplating on their word-processor screens is the operation of their own brains. It is not entrails that we try to interpret these days, nor even hearts or facial expressions; it is, quite simply, the brain. We want to expose to view its billions of connections and watch it operating like a video-game. All this cerebral, electronic snobbery is hugely affected – far from being the sign of a superior knowledge of humanity, it is merely the mark of a simplified theory, since the human being is here reduced to the terminal excrescence of his or her spinal chord. But we should not worry too much about this: it is all much less scientific, less functional than is ordinarily thought. All that fascinates us is the spectacle of the brain and its workings. What we are wanting here is to see our thoughts unfolding before us – and this itself is a superstition.
Hence, the academic grappling with his computer, ceaselessly correcting, reworking, and complexifying, turning the exercise into a kind of interminable psychoanalysis, memorizing everything in an effort to escape the final outcome, to delay the day of reckoning of death, and that other – fatal – moment of reckoning that is writing, by forming an endless feed-back loop with the machine. This is a marvellous instrument of exoteric magic. In fact all these interactions come down in the end to endless exchanges with a machine. Just look at the child sitting in front of his computer at school; do you think he has been made interactive, opened up to the world? Child and machine have merely been joined together in an integrated circuit. As for the intellectual, he has at last found the equivalent of what the teenager gets from his stereo and his walkman: a spectacular desublimation of thought, his concepts as images on a screen.
When Baudrillard wrote this, Tim Berners-Lee and co. were writing the first pages of the WWW in Switzerland. Does the subsequent emergence of the web, the first popular networked computing medium, trump Baudrillard’s prophecy of rarified self-absorption or does this “superstition” of wanting “to see our thoughts unfolding before us,” this “interminable psychoanalysis,” simply widen into a group exercise? An obsession with being hooked into a collective brain…
I kind of felt the latter last month seeing the little phenomenon that grew up around Michael Wesch’s weirdly alluring “Web 2.0…The Machine is Us/isng Us” video (now over 1.7 million views on YouTube). The viral transmission of that clip, and the various (mostly inane) video responses it elicited, ended up feeling more like cyber-wankery than any sort of collective revelation. Then again, the form itself was interesting — a new kind of expository essay — which itself prompted some worthwhile discussion.
I think the only honest answer is that it’s both. The web both connects and insulates us, breaks down walls and provides elaborate mechanisms for self-confirmation. Change is ambiguous, and was even before we had a network connecting our machines — something that Baudrillard’s pessimism misses.