My last lover broke up with me in the more-than-real. It was an email, the writing of which he had evidently agonised over, as he did all writing, and it arrived in my inbox as I was about to read to my child before sleep. We were reading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. My seven-year-old still enjoys being read to at night, and will follow this with an hour of his own reading of whatever chapter of the book happens to be on the agenda at that time. He’s not too obsessed with the more-than-real at this stage and for that I’m grateful.
The more-than-real is a notion I’m picking at in this essay: it’s a proxy for digital spaces but it’s also more than that. The more-than-real works as an idea to invert the diminution we usually apply to digital spaces, a deliberate turning around of the not real we often think of cyberspaces as being. It’s inspired by Sarah Whatmore’s wrangling of the term ‘more-than-human’ in hybrid geographies. The more-than-human notion refers to humans as being a part of the world, not masterful creators or controllers, but subject to forces outside the social. The more-than-human turns our attention to the generative power of everything other than us and turns around the rationalist assumption that we can simply dictate to nature through technologies.
My big toe hurts as I write this, tying me down to the real as I play between ideas and emotions, felt and imagined.
The email from my ex was final, more complete than a face-to-face, in the flesh discussion. Negotiation is possible in such an embodied space—emotions are decipher-able on the visage of your opposite there. The disconnect that comes with the rapid-fire of space and time compressions afforded by the more-than-real is a part of what makes this realm so powerful. You can take an idea—such as I can’t do this any more—wrap it up in sharp sentences about splitting once shared things and cancelling dinners at fancy restaurants and send it off to arrive in a receiver’s hands at a time not of their choosing.
Yet we still see digital spaces as not being real, but as functions of the virtual. The acronym IRL captures this as we say to Facebook friends or Twitter associates—this would be different in real life. And it would be different if we were face to face or side by side, but that doesn’t make digital spaces any less real. If anything, their excessive power—both corrosive and generative—forges them as more-than-real. And just as risky.
The more-than-real first buzzed around in my head at a geography conference in Melbourne two years ago. I was sitting with a moderate hangover, having a morning tea break and thinking about the awkward way some people at the conference were joking about their recent online engagement.
‘How are you finding your Twitter experiment? Enjoying getting out there?’
‘Ah, yeah, it’s okay. Seems a bit surreal in some ways.’
‘Well, you know, it’s not as if Twitter is going to promote or save us, so …’
The light banter reflected the academy’s relatively slow uptake of social media, at least in this part of the world and in geography. It also echoes the digital dualism that characterises how many of us approach digital spaces. Hannah Spegel, web and social media editor for Médecins sans Frontières, ‘fights’ digital dualisms and points out the fallacies that such thinking propagates. She critiques binaries of online/offline, digital/analogue and virtual/physical. These artificial binaries constrain our understanding of the messy and intermingled, material and immaterial realities that make up the way we use digital spaces. We place online interactions in the non-real and non-substantive when we distinguish between behaviours and practices that are allowable in both.
A comment online isn’t meant to be taken seriously, a rape or death threat is diminished as ‘trolling’, and rarely prosecuted. A digital dualism emerges that makes it always impossible to take seriously digital spaces—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I’m adding another tool to the task of unravelling digital binaries with the use of this more-than-real idea, but I wasn’t the first to conceptualise it. In 1987, Brian Massumi touched on the more-than-real idea in an article on the simulacrum, talking to those famous French theorists Deleuze and Guattari:
The reality of the model is a question that needs to be dealt with … The alternative is a false one because simulation is a process that produces the real, or, more precisely, more real (a more-than-real) on the basis of the real.
I think Massumi is arguing that there is no real and simulation but rather we make and remake the real from previous ‘real’ things. In effect, a simulation, or representation, is as real as the original ‘real’—except that there never is an original. I won’t meander along a river of French philosophy in too much detail here. However, there is a technological point worth remembering in relation to Massumi’s more-than-real discussion: in 1987, the rise of the global internet was still only emergent, so the application of the more-than-real to this space was not on the agenda.
These ideas—the more-than-real, and how digital spaces offer us powerful possibilities—flowed in discussions I had with my last partner about what academic work I was doing, and why. He knew my views on digital dualism and the problems associated with reproducing false binaries. I still don’t know whether it is more poignant or more annoying that he used that mode to end what we had. But that’s probably to be expected as it was only two months ago that things all changed between us and clarity eludes.
The throbbing in my big toe hasn’t gone away, despite some antiseptic cream and googling solutions to ingrown toenails. I might have to search harder for a fix. The online world, made of crisp binary code and electronic processes happening almost instantly and behind accessible interfaces, is an intangible space that circumvents some basic properties of our daily lives. It cuts across different time zones to bring us together in public and private spaces and renders both categorisations more fluid. We take our smartphones with us onto the bus and in our cars, and take them into our beds, bringing the public to our pillow and the private to the streets. Such blurring is another function of the more-than-real.
To write this I’ve had to turn to ‘Focus’ mode on my Microsoft Word ribbon. It’s the first time that I’ve used this function and a white page appears now with a black background and it sits with promise. It’s an invitation. The Safari window that had sat behind this page with visible email accounts enumerated (173 unread emails in my work one, 43 in my personal email) is now gone. I have removed by a few clicks the capacity to roll through various Instagram accounts, including Kim Kardashian, Liam Hemsworth, a friend from Melbourne who is building a catamaran and home schooling her two daughters, Hugh Jackman. Some of which I read for pleasure and disbelief, the others for research on cultures in online spaces. And the space to write write more has emerged.
Zadie Smith said on a Lena Dunham podcast entitled ‘Women of the Hour’ that she might be more efficient if there were no internet: the ‘four-hour Beyoncé Google-holes’ would not open up. It’s no accident that Smith uses a spatial metaphor to describe her online wanderings. Google holes are akin to wormholes in that they connect the traveller to other spaces than those immediately proximate. Every time we open a browser and move through social media feeds or read an article and click to highlighted terms and open new tabs or windows, we engage with digital spaces that sit horizontally on the screen but create chains of substance in more than two dimensions. But the question of whether these forays, unchecked and unchartered, into online spaces are inefficient or not, remains a contested one. Kenneth Goldsmith wrote in the New Yorker about a course he teaches called Wasting Time on the Internet. The curriculum is open and simple: for three hours, students and teacher wander through whatever digital spaces they choose and assessments are based around cutting and pasting from published pieces therein. It takes Massumi’s musings on the relationships between the real and simulation to another level.
Someone on Wikihow wrote that I should insert a bit of cotton wool between my toe skin and toenail. I try this but I can’t leverage my toenail sufficiently to make the wedge work.
The more-than-real has substantial productive and corrosive forces, as we harness its capacity to do a lot and quickly in various contexts. The serious ramifications of unethical online behaviour are evident and well known, reported and read about widely in mainstream media. We can see it in sad events such as the suicide of Charlotte Dawson, an Australian celebrity who was regularly verbally attacked on Twitter, and the murder of Tiarra Pool by David Kelsey Parre after the two met online through Craigslist. On a larger scale, the branding success of ISIS and its savvy and horrid use of social media to recruit supporters encapsulates the corrosive potential of the more-than-real.
Awareness of the damaging potential of the more-than-real is also important. For example, in January 2016 an online petition against a survivalist digital game that allowed players to kill Aboriginal people was successful in having the distributors withdraw the item from sale. Within a day, more than 85,000 people had signed the petition and the game was removed. This is a great example of how appropriate action brings about a just solution with an online activist intervention rendering a positive shift.
The more-than-real idea recognises the intermingling of our digital and non-digital selves, refusing the tendency to suggest that digital spaces offer only fake versions of ourselves. If we consider the more-than-real in this light, then we have to take aspects of it seriously, such as online activism. The petition to remove the offensive and racist game that made Aboriginal people a target is a good example of this, yet there are petitions circulating every day asking us to do something. Our social media feeds are cluttered with well-intentioned requests ranging from saving dolphins to refusing Australian visas to violent hip-hop artists. Clictivism accusations are common and understandable given the huge number of opportunities for armchair activism in our digital lives. However, there are many instances of meaningful change arising from digital spaces and dismissing all online engagement as tokenistic is far from wise.
The crowdfunding of the Climate Council, an Australian climate change information sharing institution, is a case of online action that delivered tangible change. One of the first things the new Abbott government did in September 2013 was to withdraw funding for the then Climate Commission. Social media was quick to respond and calls to crowdfund a new, independent institution were well received. Tweets of rebirth and reinvigoration in climate change action abounded, such as from @danilic: ‘The Climate Commission is dead … Long live the Climate Council!!!’ and @climateprogress: ‘The Australian government may have axed the climate commission, but the people are bringing it back.’
At the same time as this crowdfunding was happening, an abnormally early bushfire season had begun and voters were still smarting from the election of a climate-change denier to the highest political office. These factors played into and around the online activity that generated a new institution—the Climate Council—and such interplay between the real and more-than-real is not unusual. The degree of success for this particular online-driven change was extraordinary but its dynamics perhaps less so.
I’ve given up on the ‘Focus’ mode on my computer as I’ve had to jump in and out of browsers to cite particular details that I’ve forgotten, change music that I’m streaming on YouTube and watch videos of Amy Schumer, just because. This fractured way of working is still yielding words, and they aren’t (yet) collapsing under the weight of distraction. But now my ingrown toenail is giving me grief and I need Epsom salts from the pharmacy to relieve the pain. More soon.
Another instance of exemplary online engagement resulting in significant social change is the feminist action preceding, and then facilitating, the creation of Destroy the Joint. Destroy the Joint is a social media–based feminist group that aims to highlight sexism and misogyny. The group began from a quick Twitter exchange between Jane Caro and Jill Tomlinson in response to Alan Jones’ assertions that women are destroying political life. On his radio show in August 2012, Jones was in conversation with Nationals politician Barnaby Joyce and put forth that ‘She [the prime minister] said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating … Women are destroying the joint—Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here. Honestly.’
Extreme conservative rants are what Jones is known for and it is not surprising that he chose to have a go at these individuals when so many political offices were being held by them, most notably then prime minister Gillard. What is remarkable is the extension of incompetence claims to all women and the allegation that we are all destroying the joint. Surely half of his supporters are women? Thousands swiftly lampooned the ludicrous claim soon thereafter. First Caro offered: ‘Got time on my hands tonight so thought I’d spend it coming up with new ways of “destroying the joint” being a woman & all. Ideas welcome.’ And Tomlinson responded: ‘Bored by Alan Jones’ comments on women destroying Australia? Join with @JaneCaro & suggest ways that women #destroythejoint’.
As the weekend following Jones’ comments rolled on, suggestions of how women #destroythejoint ranged from contributing to society by having productive careers, raising children, cleaning homes to running successful businesses and non-profit institutions. Such lampooning inverted the potency of Jones’ comments and clearly relied on understandings of women’s lives as embracing continuities between real and more-than-real spaces.
My foot is in a magnesium sulphate solution and under my desk as the sun shines bright against the laurel bay leaf tree on the balcony. It’s a stereotypical blue-sky Sydney day and we’re heading down to Wolli Creek once I’ve picked up my child. A friend of his is having a birthday party at Turella Reserve, including letting off rockets, and I think we’ll have to use Uber since I can’t walk properly now. How can one small shred of nail and skin cause such pain?
Following the #destroythejoint moment, a movement called ‘Destroy the Joint’ (DTJ) grew on Facebook and Twitter, moderated by volunteers and led by Jenna Price, a media academic from the University of Technology Sydney. Now DTJ has more than 74,000 Facebook likers and more than 17,500 Twitter followers. DTJ campaigns range from trying to stop gender-based violence to stopping sexual harassment in the workplace. During the course of DTJ’s existence, it has worked as a sort of umbrella organisation for micro campaigns to congregate and work together. It has also attracted its objectors. In late 2015, disability advocates were disappointed at not receiving endorsement from DTJ for a memorial service being held for deceased women, men and children who suffered violence, neglect or abuse. The concerns were not addressed by DTJ to their satisfaction and the disability advocates ran their own protest by commenting on DTJ spaces but were promptly blocked. The invisible hand of moderation was put on display in these exchanges and it is understandable that dissatisfaction at DTJ’s actions arose. An apology was made to the advocates the following day and it seems that subsequent to this conflict, DTJ has made more of an effort to engage with issues that people with disabilities experience.
I have friends and sisters who are traversing the world of online dating. Online dating, with its potential pleasures and dangers, was a spectre that accompanied my early forays into digital spaces. As my friends and I approached our late twenties, we turned to online dating and started talking with strangers through purple and yellow websites and then texted for weeks before meeting up with a new person. We moved from known strangers, to sometime lovers, to occasional partners. The first conversation would be full of hidden half-known facts, gleaned from searching online and poring over profiles, and then, if a relationship did emerge, the place of that first meeting would be obscured or lied about in narratives of how we came to be ‘us’.
Outside this online dating realm, mention of having met digitally was frowned upon as it lacked spontaneity and/or originality. The shame of a non-physical meeting place overhung such relations. Along with the stink of desperation. Now, nearly ten years later, there are several apps and you can swipe yes/no to hundreds of people in an hour and all meetings are seemingly legitimate. Or at least they don’t appear to be so on the nose. The real is catching up to the more-than-real: we seem to be okay with mixing these dimensions up in our love lives these days.
That doesn’t mean I’m ready for the cut-throat world of Tinder or Hinge or the slower paced RSVP and OK cupid. I need now to return to my earlier comment about the power of putting ideas out there in the more-than-real, ideas such as you’re dumped. I observed that there’s little room to negotiate in email correspondence about matters of the heart, no space for making an alternative case. And I’ve come to understand that that’s precisely the point of using the more-than-real for an exchange of such importance. The mirage of negotiation I sought was simply never there. It was over. I simply have to accept that now.
The more-than-real doesn’t always work as a simple progression, though; people shift and warp and grow and shrink in these spaces, just as they do in the real. Take Megan Phelps-Roper’s experiences and transformation as a case in point. In her early years she was a hyper-conservative member of the Westboro faith, using Twitter as a platform to argue against the perceived faults of a lax and too-liberal America, and later met people who challenged her way of thinking and being in the world. Her ontology shifted and she left the Westboro group with her sister, fell in love with one of the people who opened her eyes to the monocular vision she’d held since a child. So there’s hope, however obscure.
After just one soaking in Epsom salts, my toe is feeling somewhat better. Not good enough to walk properly but getting there. We might use Uber for one leg of the journey this afternoon though.