The overlapping consensus

July 2, 2012

In the latest LRB, Perry Anderson artfully dissects the dichotomies of contemporary India: “the couplets of antiquity-continuity; diversity-unity; massivity-democracy; multiconfessionality-secularity.” And of the many intellectuals writing about the world’s largest democracy (TM), he notes that they “enjoy what in Rawlsian diction might be called an overlapping consensus.”

Rawls used the phrase to political ends, describing the core of commitments, to basic human rights and freedoms, at the heart of a range of moral, political and religious creeds, which permit a just and civil society to emerge. But it resonates too, this ‘overlapping consensus’, with how many of us negotiate our feelings about the network.

Nathan Jurgenson’s stirring call to arms, “IRL Fetish“, in the New Inquiry, laments the failures of this consensus in terms of online and offline, from Sherry Turkle’s privileged disconnectedness to Facebook’s continuation in the real world, and is strongly reminiscent of both Piotr Czerski’s “We, the Web Kids” (“the Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it”, also quoted here), and my own feelings about Instagram and its ilk.

To be clear, the digital and physical are not the same, but we should aim to better understand the relationship of different combinations of information, be they analog or digital, whether using the technologies of stones, transistors, or flesh and blood. Also, technically, bits are atoms, but the language can still be conceptually useful.

Such digital dualism is responsible for our strange guilt about connecting, intellectually privileging the offline despite its direct responsibility for much of what occurs in our lives (cf the Guardian’s cheer-making article on digital relationships at the weekend). Jurgenson asks “How have we come to make the error of collectively mourning the loss of that which is proliferating?”

I love this line from Sarah Nicole Prickett, that we are “so obsessed with the real that it’s unrealistic, atavistic, and just silly.” At the Do Lectures in Wales, in a field, overcome by irritation at the privileging of the artisanal and handmade, I remember writing in my notebook that “things virtual are more real than they are here, they stand better for ourselves than we do; it is us who are transient and insubstantial.”

Tim Krieder’s essay in the NY Times, “The ‘Busy’ Trap“, could be read, in its appeal to the undisclosed location, as an urging to disconnect too (and is worth it for this line alone: “if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary”), but what it really points at is a basic confusion between electronic media and work, effort, busy-ness. It’s dualities all the way down.

This division, between online and off, is a mental illusion, one we propagate to keep ourselves sane for lack of better metaphors, just as we keep our physics safe through wave/particle duality. The notion of things coexisting along different axes of definition terrifies the animal brain—it always has. But we nevertheless live these dualities, these muliplicities, all the time.

I am in a square in the Raval in Barcelona, I am everywhere. The network is here but not here but everywhere. These things are not the same, but they overlap in ever more concrete, confusing ways; the consensual hallucination is not dreamed but always with us and between us.

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