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Pique'n Yer Interest

The alienating quality of the Internet



People like to talk about the Internet and its ability to connect us. That evaluation holds plenty of water. Through the evolution of social media we find ourselves more socially connected than ever before.

Through Twitter, people can converse with thinkers and commentators who live thousands of miles away with the simple typing of an "@" symbol. Through Facebook, we can stay in regular contact with friends and family members with whom we would otherwise lose our relationships altogether.

We can every day track the growing up of that adorable niece or nephew who lives in Pembroke, Ontario. The medium puts a bit of a damper on high school reunions, but really, shouldn't people be connecting more often than every 10 and 25 years, anyway?

Wonderful though it is, the Internet also has an alienating quality. When you talk to someone on Gmail or Facebook chat, you're not necessarily engaging with a person directly. You're conversing with the technological syntagma of a person, scrambled and reassembled via modems and Ethernet cables. As Walter Benjamin once wrote, you're not getting the aura of a person, but a mediated reconstruction.

For a lot of people, ie. socially-awkward me, this works. I express myself far better, more wittily and coherently through writing, as almost anyone who has met me can attest. In so many cases I enjoy conversing with people more through the Internet than in person... so much that I've never met in person some of the people with whom I've had my deepest conversations on Twitter.

So I buy the argument that the Internet can foster deeper connections... but recent events in Whistler and elsewhere tell me it has its alienating qualities as well.

As I reported in last week's paper, the Rogers Plus store closed down recently. They're having a closing out sale that I've already taken advantage of, buying six DVD's and three video games on the sale's first day. The liquidation will continue until June 19 and the unfortunate people working there will be on the hunt for new jobs in a slow economy.

That means an end to the era of a video store in Whistler. It wasn't three years ago that we had three.

Many things could have converged to force a closure of the Rogers Plus store. The landlord might have jacked up the rent. Business might have been slow, as it has been throughout Whistler in the past few months.

But there can be little question that downloading movies off the Internet had something to do with it. When you can get something online for free, what incentive exists to go to a store and buy something?

What the Internet is taking away from us is the sense of community that comes along with sharing our favourite films and music, seeing as music stores are probably hurting worse than even video rental outlets. We no longer get that one-on-one interaction where you light up a person's life by opening them up to a filmmaker you've admired for years and that they've never heard of.

From 2005 to 2006 I worked at a Rogers Video at Broadway and Arbutus in Vancouver. Without question, the best part of the job was being able to introduce customers to the most obscure and wonderful cinema they would otherwise not have noticed.

I distinctly remember introducing many customers to the work of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, whose films In the Mood for Love , Chungking Express and 2046 are among the best that contemporary filmmakers have produced. I would do the same at other video stores where I wasn't working and patrons appreciated it without exception.

Now this isn't impossible on the Internet. When you download a film you can always check its star rating on the Internet Movie Database or on the comment section attached to a film on a torrent site.

But what we lose in the advancement of the Internet is that personal connection you can get only from directly conversing with a fellow patron at a video store. Nine times out of 10, I was more convinced to see a film by an eloquent recommendation from another person.

Recall, for a second, that scene from High Fidelity in which John Cusack's character puts on a track by UK outfit The Beta Band in his store. Everyone perusing records starts nodding their heads, clearly grooving with the music.

A customer raises her head and asks, "Is this Radiohead?" No, Cusack says, it's the Beta Band. She buys the record.

In that scene, Cusack makes an immediate connection with his customers. Not one of them leaves the store without being touched by the music he's shared with them. They all walk out wondering whether they ought to have bought it themselves.

It's that very connection we're losing with the advent of the Internet. It's not, by any means, a loss that means life or death. But it's foolish to say we're connecting on the same level as we have in the past.