June 24, 2016

About Real Life

Videodrome is the best film ever made about the internet. When I first watched David Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece, I was studying the sociology of knowledge and beginning to apply these theories to the web, which researchers and everyday commentators seemed to treat as weirdly foreign. I felt that we needed a fundamental shift in understanding when it came to what new, social technologies are: something implosive, interpenetrative, bloody and breathing, not something virtual, separate, or parallel, far away and cold as outer space. Human bodies have always been technological, materiality and information always co-construct, as theorists like Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles have long known. Bodies mesh with media signals and merge with devices. Cronenberg shows his humans diving into television sets or self-inserting Betamax tapes; his original screenplay title for Videodrome was Network of Blood. If The Matrix is Descartes, then Videodrome is Haraway and Network of Blood could be a synonym for real life.

I’ve argued that “online” and “offline,” like “body” and “mind,” aren’t like two positions on a light switch—a perspective I’ve called digital dualism. Instead, all social life is made of both information and material; it’s technological and human, virtual and real. Together with friends and colleagues, I’ve theorized an experience of the internet based less in cyberpunk and more in body horror—and not just horror but other things too, like joy. With Real Life, we will be building on that perspective.

Real Life will publish essays, arguments, and narratives about living with technology. It won’t be a news site with gadget reviews or industry gossip. It will be about how we live today and how our lives are mediated by devices. We plan to publish one piece of writing every weekday, though we may eventually expand to other mediums and formats as well.

It’s fun to call a magazine about the internet “Real Life,” and it’s funny for a minute to say “read my piece in Real Life,” but the name isn’t ironic. It has resonance: REALLIFE Magazine was, in the 1980s, the only downtown New York art magazine that was “by and about artists” but not just for art-world insiders. Founders Thomas Lawson and Susan Morgan wanted to look at art and politics, or art and life, undualistically, and if you substitute “the internet” for “art,” that’s part of our vision too. By publishing writers who may not think of themselves as tech writers but are acutely aware of how they use and are used by their devices, we hope to make room for a wider, better understanding of the web as something neither good nor bad, neither net negative nor net positive, but human in all the weirdness and complexity of that word.

Because social media are more like the social world than like traditional media, and because technology is bodied, our talk about contemporary technologies—and by “our” I mean everyone’s, not just that of experts and academics—should be as varied and complex and nuanced as our talk about the social world and inner experience. Popular discourse on technology has sustained the idea that there is a digital space apart from the social world rather than intrinsic to it, while popular tech writing is often limited to explaining gadgets and services as if they’re alien, as well as reporting on the companies that provide them. This work is crucial, but writing about technology is too often relegated to the business section. On this site, it will be the main event. We’re not a news or reviews site, but we will describe the tech world—specifically how that industry shapes the world we live in today. To that end, we aim to address the political uses of technology, including some of the worst practices both inside and outside the tech industry itself.

This aim is not without conflict. Three years ago, Snapchat offered to support the work I do as a sociologist, primarily applying social theory to social media. In these past three years, the company has also paid for the venue for a conference I co-founded and chair called Theorizing the Web, without asking for any editorial input or control. Snapchat is now funding Real Life, and we have editorial independence as well. The support means we can focus on writers and writing rather than clicks and shares. At the same time, there are inherent complexities attached to being funded by a company in the field of what we’re publishing about, sometimes critically. But the content will have to speak for itself. We believe in this project, and we’re doing this because we think and care about the things you’ll see discussed on the site: identity, power, privacy, surveillance, relationships, beauty, to name a few.

I’ll serve as editor-in-chief. Rob Horning, Alexandra Molotkow, and Sarah Nicole Prickett are the senior editors, and Soraya King is the managing editor. Our backgrounds are largely not tech-oriented, reflecting the editorial philosophy that technology is best discussed as lived. I knew Rob Horning from Twitter, and when he and I met—at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, in fact—he told me about a new site called the New Inquiry, which has been important for me ever since. On that site was a piece called “Speaking in Tongues” by Sarah Nicole Prickett, which was about the intimacy of media and epitomizes the writing I expect Real Life will host—writing both brilliant in form and thought. I’ve admired Sarah’s ability to bring idea and form together, particularly with the magazine she founded, Adult. Alexandra Molotkow, who, as a founding editor of Hazlitt, shares an interest and ability in creating something new and small and experimental. She has edited many writers eloquent about the social world in general and has the imagination to envision them as writing about technology specifically. Soraya King is our managing editor. She is a colleague of Sarah’s at Adult and brings editorial sophistication, an aesthetic sensibility we love, and the skill and dedication without which this site would not have been realized. Together, we think the ideal work on Real Life will be work that happened only because this site exists and wouldn’t have happened without it.

Thank you for reading Real Life. You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr.