Replacement Panic

I’ve run into replacement panic on a couple of occasions recently, and since I have grading to finish, a major article and a major sermon to prepare in the next two weeks, I figured I’d open up a major blog topic.

“Replacement panic” is the expression I started using back at the Digital Genres conference that Alex Golub arranged (by the way, Alex, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette thinks that PNG is a near-perfect place for a vacation). I use “replacement panic” to refer to the fear — frequently a spontaneous reaction to positive assessments of online technology — that digital media will supplant physical interactions.

I should agree at the outset that replacement panic doesn’t arise out of nowhere. Some of the techno-romantics have heralded the advent of a day when our memories will be downloadable to hard drives, our thoughts presumably assisted by sophisticated applications, our sensations provided by elaborate simulation algorithms. David Weinberger has made a small campaign against such illusions, but they nonetheless play loud in mass media and (hence) the popular imagination.

At the same time, physical interaction won’t just go away. The people I know who seem to spend the most time online (starting with Josiah, but think of David Weinberger, Meg Hourihan, Doc, Chris Pirillo, Denise Howell) also spend lots of time in physical interaction with people. If anything, the way that online interaction permits a vehicle for modulated, careful interaction permits increased sociality for introverted people who might otherwise not venture out at all.

Before we succumb to replacement panic, we ought to look closely at the characteristics of our physical interactions, and how they’ve changed over time. Would we suggest that the class-determined interactions of Upstairs, Downstairs-era Britain, the physical-world interactions of slave-owners and their chattel, were fully authentic, present, relationships? Of course not; but one problem with replacement panic lies in its appeal to an unarticulated, illusory ideal speech situation in which everyone is present, everyone is candid, everyone is unclothed with mediating signifiers or modifiers that might distort speech. That speech situation has never existed, can never exist, and rests on pernicious assumptions about truth and the authenticity of communication. Nonetheless, the sponsors of replacement panic argue as though we all know of a situation for communication that’s uncontaminated by mediations (such as digital media), social determination (nobody say “power laws”), or class-, race-, or gender-based privilege. We don’t know of any such place — but if we did, my guess is that it would look a lot like the internet.

The point of online interaction is not that it will replace physical interaction, but that the tenor of all our interactions will shift, has already shifted, and that unnerves some people as it exhilarates others. We’re all dealing with the change, though, in our physical presence as in our online [self]-representations, and neither online interaction nor physical interaction will go away.