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.

8 thoughts on “Replacement Panic

  1. There’s a Martin Buber moment lurking somewhere in here — I-it relationships romanticized as I-thou — but I am ever so not the right person to write about Martin Buber.

  2. “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.”

    Since you’re not really busy at this busiest of holiday seasons [wink-wink], I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on this particular assertion? For instance, what does “tenor” mean in this context? Who is included in the use of the possessive pronoun? What is the universe of interactions encompassed by “all”? And finally, what do you perceive is the “shift” (in “tenor”) that has already occured, and is it the same as the “shift” that will occur? Is it possible for people to be unnerved about some aspects of the “shift,” and exhilerated by others, or are there two clearly demarcated camps?

    Sorry to be so particular, but it’s hard to frame a reply unless I understand what you’re trying to say.

  3. Replacement panic is a good name and a useful concept. But haven’t we heard it before…

    “If the kids get to use pocket calculators, they’ll never learn to do arithmetic.”

    “If we print too much of the service in the bulletin, people will never learn to use the prayer book.”

    “If we keep doing contemporary music, people will never learn the hymns.”

    “If we let the kids watch television, they’ll never read books or play outdoors.”

    Seems like the telephone had the effect of putting (or allowing?) distance between people, allowing them to replace visits and letters with phone calls.

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  5. Wasn’t it Aristotle who spoke of the waning of children’s abilities to memorize because of those darn new-fangled books?

  6. “Replacement panic is a good name and a useful concept. ”

    I’m not sure “panic” is a good descriptor. Maybe overstating a bit.

    “If we keep doing contemporary music, people will never learn the hymns.”

    And sometimes, it is justified.

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