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Digital Hermits

© Valik Chernetskyi

“Digital Hermits”. Quite an oxymoron. Because, nowadays, no one could possibly consider him/herself a “hermit” within the digital realm. We are always tracked, chased, captured by complex calculation systems aimed to define us on the basis of what we like, what we look for, what we would desire to be, instead of what we actually are.

Digitisation I: Digital Hermits was the title of a very dense and compelling conference, the first of four: organized in Cluj-Napoca (Romania) in the frame of Digital Natives, a cooperation project between five of the UTE’s member theatres—Volkstheater Wien, Comédie de Reims, Hungarian Theatre of Cluj, Schauspiel Köln and National Theatre of Northern Greece.
Concord Floral by Jordan Tannahill (which premiered at Schauspiel Köln on 16 November 2018) is “a play about teenage identity and interactions, the power of perception and technology.” Each of the five theatres involved is going to stage a production or use the themes of the play as the basis for workshops with amateur teenage actors. A series of “digital experiments” will be the outcome of such collaboration and three other conferences will take place throughout the course of the project.
During the Interferences Festival 2018, produced by the Hungarian National Theatre in Cluj, three speakers were invited to share their thoughts about being part of this “new” digital turmoil: Mária Bernschütz, Tamás Trunk and Valér Veres. Three very different contributions, able to draw a multi-coloured picture of the numerous ways to approach digital cultures.

We all know our birthday, there’s no doubt about it. And yet, how sure are we about our role in the digital society? How closely are we watching the technological evolution, how aware are we about our influence in establishing a shared model of “living in the digital era”?
Mária Bernschütz presented an executive summary of which are the generations involved in the digitization process. Based on the so-called ‘generational theory’—initiated by two American historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe—Bernschütz’s speech tried to inscribe our “agency” in five categories, through which we should be able to locate our presence in the development of digital culture.

Ms. Bernschütz is Assistant Professor at the Department of Management and Business Economics (Budapest University of Technology and Economic), she teaches marketing media and research methodology. Her vivid contribution was aimed to show how technology influences individuals in their everyday lives. Feeling sorry for a rather rough generalization, Mária Bernschütz presents a sort of rationalistic scheme, that reveals how technological development could be used as a barometer for measuring generational gaps, according to age range.
“Do you know which generation you belong to?”, that’s the basic question of this inquiry, which is based on an in-depth qualitative research conducted on Hungarian society.
According to the results, the “Veterans” were born before 1946; the “baby boomers” were born after the Second World War and are the most involved in the reconstruction of the world after that disastrous event; they are evaluated as “the most technophobic” group. Generation X—between 1965 and 1979—is considered as the one of the “digital immigrants”: they came in touch with technology as adults. Generation Y—between 1980 and 1995—gathers people who were attending secondary school or were just enrolled in university when they have learned about “new media”; they are now quite used to smartphones and tablets. Members of the Generation Z were born between 1996 and 2000: they don’t even use pens or pencils anymore, Internet has been a part of their everyday lives from the very beginning. The latest one is the Alpha Generation—including children born after 2010—who is already in charge of teaching their parents how to deal with technology.
Ms. Bernschütz talks about “tasks” and “advantages”, which seem to be two fundamental categories to distinguish between our personal and private attitudes to technology and our willingness to be part of it.

Beyond any possible kind of generalization, the reality looks much more complicated: we are all addressed by a sort of ‘collective call’: we all hold a special responsibility in translating our own cultural values into comprehensive statements, devised and conveyed through technological tools. A brilliant example is suggested by the way the performing arts are communicated, today, in the frame of the so-called ‘information society’. On the one hand, the good health of the theatrical system could be evaluated through its capacity in engaging audiences and attracting fresh theatregoers; on the other hand, it would be really hard to detach the virtual communities from the physical ones, that, however, prove to be vivid and tenacious. They underline the very essence of theatricality, the fact that artists and spectators share the same space during the same time.

Mária Bernschütz’s speech, even though deriving from a very specific research sample, was crucial in gaining an impartial view of how different generations of ‘users’ currently deal with the digital environment; and yet, everyone in the room was asked to develop personal insights, trying and locate themselves in this or that generation, becoming part of a sort of ‘common sense’ of participation.
If Generation X is labeled as “very enthusiastic”, responsible for initiating “the revolution” and refusing “strict rules within their working space”, the members of Generation Y “don’t respect the leader’s judgmental language” and are not always able to “find what they are looking for”, locate their own values, establish their connections with other colleagues and “understand how one could actually be ‘disconnected’”. They want trust, and, in this quest, they experience a sort of anxiety. The members of Generation Z are already much more “money-oriented”, because they were “born after the global crisis”. And, by now, they only want to succeed.
It’s not very easy to detect which generation we belong to, until a young man, an honest citizen of the ‘Z-realm’, takes the stage.

As he grabs the microphone, Tamás Trunk definitely looks like the ‘minister’ of Generation Z. He speaks a very good English, with a clear and smart American accent; he handles a remote control to show us a brief yet effective gallery of slides on the wide screen at the rear of the stage; which he doesn’t even look at, but he masters beautifully.
His tone is colloquial, fast, high-pitched, rhythmic and captivating. Tamás Trunk is passionate with sneakers and youngsters’ culture, he’s a ‘professional YouTuber.’ As a matter of fact, he’s an ‘influencer’, and he looks like one, although he doesn’t wear sneakers this particular day, but a fashionable and elegant outfit, laced shoes under a big smile on his face.
He refers to the “grown-ups”, as if he wanted to mark a distance; he himself grew up “globally and digitally”, his generation was the first to be “completely connected”. The easiest impression, he reckons, is that Generation Z can “consume, drink, and eat the same food and beverages and use the same products all over the world.”

Is this what being connected means? Are we actually all the same? Do we really look alike?
“No, this doesn’t mean that we are all the same”, says Trunk. “We are probably the most diverse generation ever. And, yeah, we actually love to show that.”
In the map pictured by Tamás Trunk, the digital world is, in a first place, an opportunity to connect with each other. But the most evident feature is that this connection is guaranteed by the choice of ‘to be or not to be’ affiliated with this or that brand.
If the pioneers of media and Internet studies would draw a line between online and offline world, we all saw those borders being rapidly eroded. The advent of social media, integrated with mobile communication, brought the online realm straight to our palms, and we became more and more dependent on the interface, in order to interact with our daily reality.
Immediacy embraced hypermediacy and the combination of the two gradually generated new layers of reality: hardware and software played together in offering the users a new form of virtual
experience which can no longer be distinguished. As Bolter and Grusin wrote in their seminal essay Remediation, today, “digital hypermedia seek the real by multiplying mediation so as to create a feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality.”

In Trunk’s talk, that reality seems to be based on the opportunity of being part of a network. And yet, it’s surprising how, in his vision, such network is essentially shaped on market logic, based on buying and selling, advertising and branding. “Brand” is, in fact, one of the most frequently used words in the young man’s speech.
One of the slides shows a photo of a group of ‘hippies’ from the Seventies. To the speaker, this is a symbol of revolution, to which he compares a contemporary attitude: “Sometimes I hear that my generation doesn’t want to rebel anymore, that we all just want to be the same, and go with the flow. The reality is that, in this digital world, we don’t rebel against the same things, nor using the same symbols, such as alcohol or drugs.” Brands and fashion seem to offer a new way of provoking social attention and promoting “equality and equal treatment for all of us.”

Trunk’s enthusiasm is contagious, and yet it seems to be irresistibly kneeling to the altar of the Market, understanding Internet and the social media as a way to establish a sort of network of consumers. “Brands want all of us to buy their products and we actually like these companies.” These symbols of “a huge consumer’s world” apparently grant a sense of belonging to the younger generations. “Together,” says Trunk, “we can work a lot and create amazing movements and projects that, we feel, are actually ours.”
Thus, these “digital natives” need certain kinds of “movements” and “brands”, to compose “an amazing community”, able to activate a wide “secondary market”, where very young people can start their own business and, reselling items for “way bigger prizes”, make a lot of money. We are suddenly talking about millions of dollars.
Many of these youngsters don’t connect with each other in real life, and yet, in Trunk’s opinion, “online world is an extension of the real world.”

For the question time, moderated by Gergő Mostis from Kreatív Kolozsvár, also the sociologist Valér Veres is invited to the table. It’s the right moment to reconnect the accurate ‘generational study’ conducted by Mária Bernschütz with Tamás Trunk’s passionate storytelling, that some ways presented a case history of his own generation.
In his book The Virtual Communities (1993), Howard Rheingold thinks of cyberspace “as a social petri dish, the Net as the agar medium, and virtual communities, in all their diversity, as the colonies of microorganisms that grow in petri dishes.”
Rheingold’s metaphorical description of cyberspace is proven to be true when one looks at the technological and rhetorical architecture of social networks. Founded as these are on an individual selection of data to be read and written, they represent very complex instruments in charge of managing a large amount of “information as social and cultural objects”. And yet, the development of citizen journalism, net-art and online activism has demonstrated how strong and effective such kind of connections between users can be.

Mária Bernschütz thoroughly summarized how the “generation gap” is still present, and yet, technological development is a process that has no memory and tends to erase the past. In a couple of decades, the so-called “world” (because also this term should be confronted with a still huge ‘digital divide’) is going to be populated by different generations that will have the exact same relation to technology.
Language, so diverse in its references from speaker to speaker, set the tone for a fugitive imagery. In a digitised world, made of weak ties, language and modes of interaction should be considered as a mind-expanding technology; digital media must then be seen as a physical support for the export of language. In the words of Derrick DeKerckhove, in a system of interconnected and composite competences, “the more the discourse gets decentralized, the deeper is the change in the conventional definitions and relations.”
And this could be a good starting point to compose a new view of the “world”. A world defined by connection and relation, in which, really, no one could possibly consider him/herself a “hermit”.

Published on 16 January 2019