My ambivalence towards Digital Culture

I feel Ambivalent towards digital media, and the cultures that grow out of them. Which is weird, considering I’m on them all the time. Videos on youtube, streams on twitch, my cousin’s baby on instagram, and memes on reddit all reach my eyes over the span of the day. Yet the sheer size of the digital culture shows just how dense a jungle it can be, tricky to navigate and easy to get really lost in. Just an example to show how thick this forest is, if you want to be up to date with the popular online Dungeons and Dragons stream, Critical Role, and you’ve never watched an episode, you have to catch up with more than a hundred episodes of at least 4 hours. But that is only one show, there is a plethora of digital cultures which together form a vast ocean of human toil, which is as much its greatness, as it is its downside.

The visibility and communication that has become possible with platforms such as twitter, Facebook, or the aforementioned video platform, is immense. As of this moment of writing, an immense protest for Black Lives is going on in America, which may not be properly addressed in traditional media, but on digital platforms, such social issues can gain incredible clout. It becomes hard for those meandering through the prairies of cat videos and memes to not stumble upon them one way or another. The consequence (as well as the reason it becomes visible in the first place) of us young people being more and more confronted by global issues, such as American police having committed acts of war crimes against BLM protestors, Chinese genocidal treatment of Muslim minorities, or global warming and its many consequences, is that we also think about them. It becomes difficult as a young person (especially as a student) not to be political, knowing everything going on. Although digital media, and the cultures which become increasingly politicised, this visibility has exposed us also to the teetering state of affairs, which tend to be emotionally crushing.

Greta Thunberg explained how she became depressed after she learned about how seemingly little is done against climate change, feeling something called climate grief. Yet it should be understood that the feeling of despair and hopelessness cannot be only contained to the topic of climate. There are many other serious issues which are casually filling the ranks among the myriad of other content we consume. Besides connecting and despair, digital culture also creates inertia.  So many hours of content are being uploaded each moment, timelines being filled, forums and threads growing and growing, YouTube with the ever-looming threat of falling into a new rabbit hole of who-knows-what topic, and above all, the endless torrent of memes. And that devours our time. In the end, when we finally watched the video, time has moved on too, while we were stuck in a rabbit-hole of something that may seem as a waste of time in hindsight. Which is where my apprehension towards digital culture lies.

Yet despite the mire that digital culture presents, the non-digital still thrives regardless. My friend and fellow student Camiel still takes pictures on a non-digital camera since he considers the act of taking a physical picture more impactful, compared to a thousand pictures that ultimately are not memorable (think of your dad’s vacation pictures). I still read physical books, besides the many options available to read or listen to them on my phone, because the act of reading helps me elude over-stressing. Yet despite my ambivalence towards digital media and its culture, derived from my own relationships with it and procrastination, attention, and focus, there is also a great enrichment that digital culture has that would be more difficult without it, I must admit. Now I can watch a fellow book-enthusiast have an interview with one of my favourite authors, completely changing the way people interact with their fan bases, while my sister can get new crochet patterns from a variety of Instagram crochet-icons (which is an actual thing).

In the end, I suppose my ambivalence comes not from digital culture and media itself, but my personal relation with it. The art lies in finding the best way to have a functional relationship with it, so as to reap the rewards it can bring, while avoiding personal pitfalls, such as falling in rabbit-holes and procrastinating. Because digital platforms allow you to also do the opposite: listening to music that helps you concentrate, or otherwise help us navigate the real world and connect with other people across the globe, sometimes in the form of subcultures where you can connect with on a more personal level. Digital culture represents a personal ambivalence, yet at the same time a trove of possibilities. A sinkhole of uselessness, as well as a cornucopia of tools and content that can help us or inspire us. My ambivalence comes not from the digital itself, but how I use it. And through becoming aware of my use, I can also change my relation to it.