Vorhanden, zuhanden. Those words seem like lyrics from a Rammstein album. Bring on the pyrotechnics, we’ll be rockin’ tonight… well, we won’t.
Behind those big-sounding words – straight from the intellectual iron maiden that is Martin Heidegger – is a very important concept: instrumentality. Vorhanden, or presence-at-hand, refers to things and concepts that are already there to begin with; it is up to us to make theories about what makes those things and concepts meaningful. Zuhanden, or ready-to-hand, refers to the involved actions we have with instruments; we don’t need to make theories about using a spoon, for example. Of course, I’m not an expert in all things Heidegger.
Personally, I appreciate the fact that more and more people are using social media to act upon their society in a positive manner. I don’t know of a single advocacy or cause that does not have a manifestation in the Web. The fact that Twitter has become the gateway for information on the state of Iran is something we should applaud and be proud of. For everything said about “cyberactivism” as “slacktivism,” Pinoy Netizens are at the forefront of impeachment complaints and calling book blockades out as bollocks.
I don’t usually disagree with Cocoy on matters concerning technology – I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about – but I believe we are far from “cyber war.” Twitter is a great way to inform us all about the goings-on in Iran, but it’s a long way from being the definitive catalyst for social change. Rather than descend into long-winded discussions about hyperreality and simulacra/simulation, I’d like to make this polite (if not curt and fair) point: technology is an instrument in a situation, it is not the situation itself.
Take things like “cyber hackers,” for example. I’m not discounting the possibility, for example, of online marauders hacking into my computer systems because of an open letter to Congress; but I’m not overestimating it, either. Like I said before, the almost instantaneous action made possible by online social media can sometimes mislead us into thinking that the Internet will lead to instantaneous consequence. To treat the “virtual world” as separate from the “real world” would be to misunderstand how things fall into place. The most the Internet can do is be a catalyst for spreading information; the messenger may be shot during the war, but he or she is still not a soldier.
It can also mislead us into thinking that “cyberactivism” compensates for the weaknesses of physical action in the social realm. Take Carlo Ople, for example:
And that I think is one of the strongest qualities of Virtual Rallies. The moment a person joins, he’s in it for the long haul. The count is cumulative regardless of the time and space. As long as the website is up and running, people will be counted. That’s the reason why the Facebook Cause against Con Ass is already nearing 30,000 sign-ups. Imagine if we give it more time? That number will continue to grow and eventually might even end up more than 100,000.
As much of a kind acquaintance Carlo is to me, I have to ask if he’s pulling anyone’s leg here. Numbers are relevant, yes, but I don’t know how much commitment is there to be found in mouse-clicks or memberships to groups. The numbers may be there, the shoutouts may be there, but as long as the barometer of action is measured in presence-at-hand, the cause is not there at all. As inconvenient as physical action may be, we cannot allow things to descend into an exercise of slacking off and presiding in our computerized Parliament. While we’re tweeting away at the events at Iran, the protesters are still marching in Teheran. While there are people who will tout thousands of members in the No to Con-Ass Facebook groups, the protesters marched at Ayala. There is a very big difference there, the least of which being commitment.
I feel that some people have a tendency to overestimate the importance or centrality of the Web as anything beyond the instrument that it is. “The Internet is the new bastion of democracy,” at least to me, would be to say that the Internet becomes the Zion to the invasion of anti-democracy machines somewhere at the other end of the Matrix. It’s a tool: the same tool that can be used to propagate democracy can also be used to propagate dictatorships. It’s like we’re giving a tool a mind of its own.
Let’s get this back on track on a more positive note. More than open up doors for things like “cyber war” and hackers and things like that, the real effect, or perhaps “danger,” of online social media is a more informed public. It’s more dangerous than malware attacks. Yet that comes with a curt and fair warning that when people define their situations as real, they are real in their consequences (yep, the Thomas theorem). The central roles that we take as Netizens should also reflect in the way we are as citizens. Virtual environments are not situations: they are instruments that act upon situations. Vorhanden compliments zuhanden, but the latter is primordial – that is to say, authentic and involved – compared to the former.
The sooner we come to grips with that, the sooner we come to grips with the online and the offline…
Ah well, that’s another rant altogether.
* – So I’m kind of writing this because I just had a conversation with a friend writing her thesis on “virtual worlds.” LOL. The title comes from a novel by William Gibson. And I’m still writing in long sentences, woot!