I have recently attended the research seminar ‘Paradigmatic Shifts: Narrative and Semantics Now’. This seminar looked at how we read and access information having moved from reading the pages of books to reading from web pages in a digital age, how we now read often ‘multivalent texts on multiple screens’ (Murphy). Also discussed however was our increasing dependence on technology to the extent that new ways of representing the subject have emerged. Indeed, we have various online identities such as our Twitter accounts and Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. The web then appears to be a space in which we are free to express ourselves. However, there is an extent to which that freedom is limited. A representation of a person is reduced to ticking particular boxes. We claim to create ‘individual’ profiles on Facebook for example, but our identity is reduced to a number of basic facts such as name, birthday and nationality. Also, all Facebook profiles are essentially the same in appearance. They are all blue and while we may have the option of including a cover photo, that photo consists of the same dimensions as everyone else’s. Scan through enough profiles and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish one from another.
This seminar then has provided me with fascinating insights into how the web structures not only how one reads but also who is reading as we create online personas. However, the web has also considerably transformed what we are reading as literature increasingly reflects upon this impact of social media. Major technological advances have always been documented in fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, for instance, reflects the profound fear of science current in that era. Contemporary culture is no different as popular sci-fi and horror appears to demonstrate a similar concern with the technological. This is often represented by the figure of the robot in science-fiction films such as I Robot and 9 which express a hysterical fear of the machine ‘taking over the world’. However, there is another major preoccupation in sci-fi that appears to stem specifically from society’s increasing dependence on social media and the phenomenon of standardized online identities, that is, the cyborg, the idea that technology takes over not only the world but also those that inhabit it, the fusion of human and the technological. In the series Battlestar Galactica, for example, characters fear they may unknowingly be Cylons programmed to think they are human. Similarly, one of the most persistent enemies of Doctor Who are the Cybermen, a race of cybornetically augmented humanoids seeking to increase their numbers by converting humans into fellow cybermen. This process involves removing a human’s brain and personality, resulting in a uniform group of beings. We can read this as representative of society’s increasingly uniform online identities because their sense of individuality is literally removed as they succumb to the technological. Moreover, Doctor Who takes its critique of social media further in ‘The Bells of Saint John’ because the ‘monster of the week’ in this episode is the Internet itself. Similar to the 1982 film Tron, there is a planetary epidemic of people getting trapped inside their computers and literally taking on their online identities. In the scene where The Doctor informs his companion Clara of the situation, for example, an anxiety over society’s life in cyberspace is made explicit:
The Doctor: This whole world is swimming in WiFi. We’re living in a WiFi soup. Suppose something got inside it. Suppose there was something living in the WiFi. Harvesting human minds. Extracting them. Imagine that. Human souls trapped like flies in the World Wide Web. Stuck forever. Crying out for help.
Clara: Isn’t that basically Twitter?
Therefore, not only has the web altered the form of the texts we read and watch but also the content and ultimately, our identity.
The paranoid opening scene of Doctor Who’s ‘The Bell’s of Saint John’:
An article discussing the fear of ‘The Rise of the Robots’:
Battlestar Galactica. Ronald D. Moore. Universal Television, 2004-2009. Television.
Murphy, Orla. ‘Paradigmatic Shifts: Narrative and Semantics Now.’ University College Cork. 30 Nov. 2014. Lecture.
Solana, Michael. ‘Dystopian sci-fi is making us fear all new technology.’ Wired, 15 August. 2014. Accessed 10 Mar. 2015. Web.
‘The Bells of Saint John.’ Doctor Who. Writ. Steven Moffat et all. BBC, 1963-present. Television.