The era of the performer: As need-based communication becomes increasingly mediated and impersonal, civility plummets and partisanship rises

Life used to be so inconvenient prior to the internet. There were no one-button presses to satisfy every want, no Google to find every answer, no screen through which to mediate every bit of communication.

You had to talk to people in all their glory, ugliness, prejudice and promise. And if you wanted to get anywhere — if you wanted your problem solved or your question answered — you had to be somewhat nice. They had something you needed. So you talked. Civilly.

There was no screen between you and the information (have we forgotten that information comes from people, not computers?). People were actively involved in the transmission of the data you needed in the very moment you engaged it. It was not packaged for later consumption. It was not edited and filtered and search-optimized and nipped and tucked for a rectangular interface that would serve up anyone, anywhere, anytime. It was messy. Slow. Uncomfortable. It was risky — all that effort could produce nothing, and your seconds of life might be considered wasted. But it was worth it. It was more important than we realized. Because it came with a little-appreciated side effect: social cohesion.

It is hard to hate someone you know in three dimensions. Three dimensions? I mean the person you’re talking with is, in real-time, constructing your perception of them, rather than you independently modeling their personality based upon missives that person released at a previous point in time for a screen.

It felt human.

Now I find that a large percentage of my communication is mediated. It operates on a time delay, it goes through a screen and it is designed rather than spontaneous. I am now crafting a picture of people from their carefully crafted presentations of themselves; yes, I am distinguishing between the subconscious crafting of a persona that happens in regular conversations and the one that happens when someone, for example, assembles a selfie after dozens of takes.

We are all becoming performers. We are never off the stage — stages. Facebook, Twitter, personal websites (like this one), LinkedIn, Instagram, Snap, Mastodon, this site and that site and on and on and on. Everywhere is a show now, and those who survive are those who dance the best the longest.

The problem is that a performance is not a person. Hugh Jackman is not Wolverine. Brian Cranston is not Walter White. Those are characters meant to entertain within a specific context of communication need: distract me, engage me, lie to me. Performance is about story, not truth.

Human lives are never as neat as stories. Never. To expect them to be — to treat each other like performers because our modern means of communication seems to demand it — will feed a destructive cycle of increasing inability to recognize the imperfections inherent to all of us. That will leave us disappointed and that will spur resentment.

It doesn’t have to, does it? We can turn off our many stages (stop meandering through Facebook and its ilk). We can use the internet the same way we might use prescription drugs — as a medicine that needs to be monitored and controlled; we take a dosage to address a specific issue and then abandon it until it is needed again.

Maybe it’s simpler. Next time you’re bored, don’t reach for your phone. Look up instead. Notice the person next to you. Notice where you are. Look at people’s faces. How are they feeling? How are you? Stop being in between this performance and that performance. Start being where you are. You’ll find others there. It’s a lot less lonely. You might like it.

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