First westernisation, now techlienation

Can a new netiquette bulletproof our shriveling physical experiences from the intrusiveness of social media?

A street vendor, selling umbrellas, takes a "selfie" as snow falls in the main pedestrian street of Istiklal in central Istanbul
A street vendor, selling umbrellas, takes a 'selfie' as snow falls in the main pedestrian street of Istiklal in central Istanbul [Reuters]

When was the last time you really anticipated seeing someone: sorely, achingly yearned for them?

Or that nervousness while waiting for someone who didn’t arrive? The exhilaration when they finally came, sharpened by the earlier impossibility of contacting them?

Those long stretches of solitude during which experiences were processed, follow-up plans formed, and thoughts had the luxury of maturing into minor eurekas, have not been around for a while.

These states, all by-products of seclusion, seem almost relics of a past preceding the second-by-second frenzy of live videoconferencing, vibrating alerts, scrolling information streams, and the harvesting of likes by a distance-annulling digital multitude.

World’s languages under threat

With our new lifestyles now half-lived online, there is less time for real life to occur. Even when it happens, it’s at a weaker emotional intensity that what those older than 25, or who still don’t inhabit a digital society, recall. But though our new normal may feel novel, this isn’t the first time in history that dislocating change replaced one state of being with an anxiety-inducing other.

‘Untuned’ from the old world

As the Industrial Age displaced premodern village life with factory-centred urban living, so did western colonialism impose wrenching westernisation on societies ill-equipped for it. The anguish felt by Europe’s peasants as they were transformed into a working class was expressed by the Marxist theory of alienation. Even in the West, the transition was uneven, giving rise to what French historian Lucien Febvre called “a quest of cruelty at the expense of love”.

The academic whose embrace of 20th century modernism was such he confessed himself “untuned” from the old ways of thinking, wrote in the 1930s, he forecast that a revival in “primitive feelings” might soon turn the world into a “stinking pit of corpses”.

In the Third World, a whole host of theories developed in opposition to the clumsy modernisation imposed by westernised local elites: Vedanta in India, Eurasianism in Russia, Westoxification in post-Shah Iran, and forms of Salafism across the Arab world. 

So it may not be the first time that technological shifts affect human behaviour, but the difference between a century ago and today is the scarcity of debate with which we have segued into our brave new world, largely driven by an obliviousness at the scale and speed of our transformation.

The first dislocation

One of the most violent modernisations happened in Turkey, where the founder of the post-Ottoman state Kemal Ataturk imposed sweeping, catch-the-West reforms. The work of literary giant Yasar Kemal, who passed away in Istanbul this week, criticises how Turks’ ties with nomadic animism and the land were indecently interrupted, resulting in uprooted generations condemned to a fragmented existence.

But Kemal’s criticism fell on deaf ears, and Turkey, complete with a new alphabet, calendar, national dress, and way of measuring time, was marched through the 20th century along a jolting, rediverted course: a member state of NATO, proud owner of pop-up factories and sparkling armies, resolutely anti-Communist, and always repeating the mantra that membership of the West was the only strategy for avoiding a repeat of what happened to the Ottomans.

This delusional reinvention only started to change in the past decade, as a conservative party and its hard-headed president insisted to the defiantly unreformed conservative majority that there is no shame in religiosity or tradition.

The work of literary giant Yasar Kemal, who passed away in Istanbul this week, criticises how Turks' ties with nomadic animism and the land were indecently interrupted, resulting in uprooted generations condemned to a fragmented existence.


Yet something had already broken. The multi-generational experiment of uprooting a population from its spiritual traditions and inculcating it with a drive diminishing their heritage had passed. Turks now lack the tools to reengage with their region. They have been turned into “uprooted and superfluous men” transformed without their knowledge, as Pankaj Mishra wrote last week.

Dwindling internet-less towns

Fast forward a century and a half and our physical spaces and cities, not to mention our habits and personalities, are being reordered by a new force: the Cloud.

I’m currently based in a small, almost Felliniesque, Italian port, whose inhabitants – apparently aberrantly – still walk, shop and interact with each other rather than with their smartphones. English is almost unknown and I can’t speak Italian, but my days bubble with interactions, mostly in English, and with people at least hundreds of kilometres distant. Rather than helping me integrate, technology takes the urgency out of trying.

In Rome, last week, my chirping smartphone constantly intruded upon life, delivering requests for help on issues as disparate as writing about fascism in Greece, the best vantage point for a shot of downtown Beirut, where to rent a car in Erbil, and how to heat a flat in Istanbul.

These interruptions wrenching me from physical reality by requiring I cognitively exit my surroundings and focus on the new task. The requests were backgrounded by a series of reminders to myself to address a host of outstanding obligations, which in turn distracted me from carrying out a number of tasks that were themselves partially generated in the virtual realm.

Appropriately that day, Rome had also been brought to a standstill by a swarm of right-wing protesters expressing their grievances at conditions largely bred by our globalised, hyper-competitive, lowest-common-denominator modernity.

The next morning, while sitting at a cafe people-watching, an intriguing thought occurred: How many of the couples walking by had even met in the physical world? As my train pulled out of Rome, I was transfixed by the spectacle of hundreds of passengers packed into the carriages of an adjoining train: though they all sat in intimate proximity, their heads were docilely bent over the screens cupped in their palms; silence reigned.

Carving solitude from the noise

Technology marches on; as it should. But in the absence of a developed online etiquette, respected by all, the very nature of our intimate remoteness can result in misunderstandings, technological angst, disorientation, and a sense of loss.

Deep immersion and the concentration brought on by uninterruptedness are two emotions that constant connectivity has forced us to forfeit.

Aside from rewiring our very brains, our sleeping less, new habits, chronic forgetfulness and reduced interaction with those in physical proximity is reshaping our immediate environment by giving rise to communities first imagined online, then concretised in the here and now.

A decade before our every waking moment was smothered in screen glare, a musical genius was memorialised in the Canadian film classic “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould”. Although the composer departed before the onslaught of technologically enabled connectivity, one of his most memorable quotes was: “For every hour you spend with human beings you need a substantial number of hours alone.”

Fast-forward to today, and the peek into an imminent future provided by the 2013 film “Her”, in which an alienated office worker staves off solitude by dialling up for phone sex with an unknown woman before falling in love with his feminised operating system.

Yasar Kemal may not have lived to see that day, but his words ring prophetic: “Somewhere humanity collapsed and … some creatures similar to humans came and took the place of humanity.”

Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.