Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jay Smooth and the Distributed Personality

Jay Smooth provided a video meditation on Gil Scott-Heron's death, by way of the media aftermath of that event, and it's poetic and insightful, as with all of Jay's work.

I wanted to respond to this with my own thoughts on the subject. I understand where Jay is coming from, in terms of being frustrated with the amount of bile and hostility that seems to spontaneous jump from digital interaction. Seems like trolling is sort of a standard mode of online interaction at this point, doesn't it? And once it starts -- especially from people who often sound well-informed and reasonable -- it's extremely hard not to get pulled into it right along with them, trying to do your own part in regulating the discourse and making opinions (about opinions about opinions) known.

At the same time, I'm a full-on collectivist futurist technophile floozy, so I can't disapprove of this extra layer of mediation that we're all subject to, even in the sort of calm, tolerant, high-level form that Jay's skepticism seems to take. I think there's a reason for this kind of turbulent crossfire second-guessing that happens constantly, in every sort of online dialogue, that creates both these total rhetorical asshats ("trolls") and, on the other hand, those people like Ze Frank, Roger Ebert, Jason Kottke, and Jay Smooth himself: the people whose voices, for the first time in history, are really finding the cultural capital that they deserve.

It seems to me that the Internet is a sort of higher-level processing unit, emerging from all of our consciousnesses, all interfacing simultaneously. It's a larger consciousness, not necessarily exceeding, but at least reflecting, all the confusions and multitudes of our individual minds: our repressed desires, our frustrations at ourselves (which, as part of the Internet, take the form of frustrations at one another); our mixed feelings about very personal things, our submerged prejudices and twisted senses of humor, our crippling second thoughts. And because it's public, open, and accessible from pretty much anywhere at this point, it makes all those things totally transparent, in a way that they aren't when we suppress them in our own personalities.

The id is particularly strong in the Internet. I've been to porn sites, I've seen flame wars, I've witnessed smart people descend into terrible, destructive lapses in logic... I've seen it everywhere. It's only the appointed, contractual watchfulness of community admins and the restraint of the more rational members of these forums that allows this latent chaos to deflate each time it erupts.

So I love seeing Jay Smooth's own conflicted process as he reads other peoples' tweets, and gets frustrated at their limited ways of appreciating a hero whose work is very personal to him. He seems to scare himself, to some degree, with his own frustrations, and he handles it by returning to Gil Scott Heron's music and discovering an answer: a sort of zen withdrawal, a realization that he can't be fully embodied in a digital world, and that he can't idly let that world define him.

And yet, I'm here offering the flip side to this equation. Those frustrations, that instinct to reject others' inadequate appreciations, that possessiveness and bitterness, is a part of Jay Smooth's personality, just as it's a part of each person's. We can escape the Internet for a few minutes at a time, but we can't escape that darker side of ourselves. The people who follow those instincts blindly are n00bs; the people who intentionally incite them are trolls.

But Jay responds as I hope more and more people do, with an inner strength and insight that I think the larger Internet is slowly developing. He steps back and lets his love, his appreciation, his roots in his younger self, speak to the world and defuse his own hostility. This gentleness, too, is an integral part of his personality, and it's a part of him that emerges in this video. Just as we see all parts of the strange and conflicted human race in the information layer, that digital substrate, so we see a full portrait of Jay Smooth in this video: the id, with its competitiveness and resentment, eventually dissolved by the superego, with its rational, uninhibited love for Gil Scott-Heron, and then his ego, his inner mediator, relating the whole process back to us, his audience.

It's a noble act for him to lay this bare for us. It's a beautiful thing to watch. And it's also a noble legacy, issuing from the teachings of the late Gil Scott-Heron.

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