The Internet is blue and there’s nothing we can do
ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - January 16, 2016 - 9:00am

At the risk of sounding basic, my favorite David Bowie song is still Space Oddity, his first hit song in his long and complex career. It’s about a certain “Major Tom” who is lost in space, trying to stay in contact with the faceless “Ground Control” on earth, a planet that he can only stare at from his tin can of a space capsule, noting that it is very blue and that there is nothing he can do. It’s perhaps the greatest song about alienation and its relation to technology, summed up nicely by the lovely line, “though I’m past one hundred thousand miles, I’m feeling very still.” That’s essentially how I feel about the Internet sometimes — a technology meant to bring people closer together is making me feel more alienated.

When word of David Bowie’s death first came out, I was hoping it was just a hoax. Not only because I don’t want David Bowie (or any person for that matter) to die, but also because I didn’t think I could stomach the spectacle of grief that was about to happen if he did. I know it’s a weird thing to feel about the death of someone, but social media has long obliterated any concept of normality when it comes to our reactions to celebrity deaths.

Social media’s #RIP reflex is an undeniably wonderful phenomenon — it is the first time in human history where people get to share their grief with one another on a global scale and in real time. It is also beautiful when the sentiment is pure and genuine. But the problem with authenticity and social media is that the two seem inherently incompatible. It’s hard to scan what’s pure and what’s augmented when something is done for the consumption of an audience. The obvious analogue here is reality TV actors who project constructed personas to an ever-present camera, but one can argue that writing (e.g., what I’m doing right now) is in itself a performance and therefore no more genuine. But the difference between writing (or any art form) and social media is that the former is harder. It’s easier to fake it in 140 characters or less.

Genuine Sadness

There is no way of knowing how genuine sadness is in a #RIP tweet. Do you really feel grief for the death of someone who has touched your life deeply, making the loss akin to that of a family member, a loss whose gravity you can only hope can be captured in a tweet? Or are you relatively fine but only became subconsciously competitive at the sight of other sad tweets whose sincerity you also doubted? These are difficult questions to answer because our consciousness is already hardwired into a system that has programmed us to be constantly relevant, interesting and worth listening to. We may not be consciously doing it, but sharing the same vertical space has forced us to constantly compete for that short instance when the scrolling stops and the eyes fix on what we wrote. And not only have we not made an exemption of grief, but it seems as if the competition peaks in its presence.

Because I, too, have become a robot programmed by the system, I found myself listening to Space Oddity on repeat while Twitter flooded with #RIPDavidBowie profundities and platitudes. I realized then how perfect that moment was — an artist known for his unparalleled commitment to performance and artifice has become, himself, the subject of a great social media performance. Bowie pushed the boundaries of conceptual art rock by turning himself into the concept, shifting from one character to another, and embracing the realness of pop music’s superficiality, an aesthetic that would lay the foundation for glam rock. Bowie was a pro. We are all amateurs. Nothing demonstrated this more than one fact about Bowie’s life: he pretended to be gay. At his peak, he was a fake homosexual at a time when real ones were hiding in fear behind their closets. Pretension is normally an attempt to be agreeable. Bowie was not normal.

On Bowie

My favorite David Bowie anecdote: he hated Velvet Goldmine, the Todd Haynes film loosely based on his younger glam rock years, not because it portrayed a character loosely based on him having an affair with a character loosely based on Iggy Pop (this never actually happened in real life), but because that was the only part he liked. My favorite #RIPDavidBowie tweet was from Steve Martin, who quoted Bowie telling him that his publicist “makes up stories about me and I say they’re true.” His entire life was a performance but it was never in pursuit of acceptance. If David Bowie’s career were a social media account, it wouldn’t fall prey to groupthink, would never feel obligated to make a #RIP tweet. Or maybe it would. Maybe he would do it with a self-aware affectation and turn it into a commentary and celebration simultaneously, embracing social media’s fakeness the same way he embraced rock ‘n’ roll’s.

In his death, David Bowie was widely praised on social media for being some sort of patron saint of freaks, outcasts and people who dare challenge the status quo. But social media, as it stands today, has become its own status quo, a place ruled by the tyranny of conformity, a safe place for safe, politically-correct thoughts, tightly policed by a vocal contingent bent on dictating what matters, what ought to be considered relevant, lest you be considered an outcast, muted and blocked. Rejection is feared and almost never dared.

It’s easy to say “be yourself” but I’m not sure what that even means anymore. David Bowie wasn’t himself. Or maybe he was himself the most when he was being other things. And this made him compelling because he did it with such courage and individuality. He intuitively knew how fake and alienating the world was and set out to create uncompromising art based on that knowledge. The world is no less strange than it was when Space Oddity came out in 1969. We’re past one hundred thousand miles and feeling very still. The Internet is outer space and we are all lost in it, all out of touch with ground control.

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Tweet the author @ColonialMental.

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