Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in the new media society
First Monday

Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in the new media society by Sun-ha Hong

This essay argues that the ways in which we come to feel connectivity and intimacy are often inconsistent with and irreducible to traditional markers like physical proximity, the human face or the synchronicity of message transmission. It identifies this non-objective and affective property as presence: conventionalised ways of intuiting sociability and publicness. The new media society is a specific situation where such habits of being affected are socially and historically parametrised. The essay provides two case studies. First: how do we derive a diffuse, indirect, intuitive sense of communicative participation — and yet also manage to convince ourselves of anonymity online? The second describes surveillance and data-mining as a kind of alienation: I am told my personal data is being exploited, but I do not quite ‘feel’ it. Surveillance practices increasingly withdraw from everyday experience, yet this withdrawal actually contributes to its strong presence.


Tweeting into the air
The absent presence of the trace-body
Feeling differently




Presence is the felt sense of being-with and being there. We typically identify such a thing through a number of objective, material conditions. Physical proximity; the human face and voice; the synchronicity of conversation. When the World Wide Web still possessed a sheen of novelty, we often feared that it would strip humanity of authentic presence precisely through the decline of those material conditions. That narrative still lurks in the background, very much alive. Yet the Internet and ‘new’ media are maturing, and we are now learning that there’s a great variety of ways in which we can feel presence, anonymity, alienation. And these ways don’t map very consistently onto those traditional, objective ‘markers’. This essay is an effort to identify presence as a related but distinct thing from its material and semiotic markers, and to understand some of its common permutations in the new media society.

To separate presence from such markers does not mean retrieving any ‘pure’ essence of presence. Rather, the question is what kind of habits we develop in how we are affected by our media, and how those habits gradually concretise into intuitions, into common sense. What kind of ways of feeling presence are socially and historically specific to the new media society? Today, we find lamentations of loneliness as often as we do utopian hopes of ultra-connectivity. Some say the Internet brings us the world; others say it turns us all away from each other. This shows that we are still figuring out what being-with and being-there is supposed to feel like and mean in this context. This places our present times in continuity with older ones. When the printing press inaugurated a writing and reading public (Eisenstein, 1979), we had to learn how to relate to this ‘us’ made up of an indefinite set of strangers (Hong, 2014; Warner, 2002). When radio came, the awed population responded by proliferating theories of ‘ghostly’ and ethereal communication (Marvin, 1988; Peters, 1999). Feeling connectivity, intimacy, belonging vis-à-vis media has long required us to naturalise what is initially ‘inauthentic’ or fanciful.

A number of traditions and concepts may be enlisted to further specify presence. Most importantly, presence operates pre-reflectively. It develops as what phenomenology has called ‘intuition’ or a ‘sense’ (extending Merleau-Ponty’s (2012) terminology of sense/sensing [sens/le sentir]), rather than a logic. The intuition of presence subtends cognitive reflection, at least initially. Presence may accompany nationalistic symbols, numerical figures of Twitter followers or discourse on the public sphere; but it is not reducible to the domain of reason or information. As recognised across phenomenology, affect theory, and even Gibsonian affordances (e.g., Caiani, 2013), this pre-reflective and affective dimension is experienced immediately and directly. We may thus classify presence, and its difference from objective markers, as a form of affect. Affect theory, or at least the humanities strand of it, emphasises that the subject is moved to a pre-cognitive sense of the world, a bodily process which then has the capacity to ‘evoke the thoughts’ [1]. It is only retroactively that reflective cognition returns to try and discover what we have already become [2]. Presence must thus be understood as subtending and exceeding rational processes.

This line of thought often leads to an analysis of the embodied, ‘biological’ (see Papoulias and Callard, 2010) aspects in affect. Yet the subject of affect is also, echoing Simondon, social prior to individualisation [3]. Presence as affect is neither universally uniform nor given over to personal serendipity. Our sensibility to our shared environments develop through countless daily coordinations of each other’s habits, emotions, interpretations. This coordination is often is engineered outside our conscious or personal control (Hansen, 2012; Thrift, 2008). Some of this happens at the level of technological systems. This essay, cognisant of the particularly human orientation of presence, focuses on the social and phenomenological dimension of such engineering. Although affect hits us pre-reflectively, we develop conventional ways to make sense of those affects at a social level. Merleau-Ponty identifies this reflexivity when he asks: how do I recognise my own feelings as sometimes deceptive, half-hearted, or otherwise ‘false’? [4] This difference reveals myself as not entirely trapped in my sensing, but always already wired into socialised modes of doubling back on that intuition.

This is why ways of feeling-presence should be understood as socially and historically parametrised. A hypothetically ‘individual’ moment of being affected may subtend cognition or reason, but it is both prepared for and recursively interpreted. For all the accusations of a kind of essentialism, even Husserl’s phenomenology suggests “the relation between perceptual objects, subjects, worlds, and communities is oriented rather than absolute.” [5]. The ways in which I tend to enter into a feeling of togetherness or loneliness runs along well-worn grooves. When I find myself affected here and there, I make some sense of it by appealing to familiar forms of interpretation (see Ahmed, 2014). This perspective takes up suggestions within affect theory that subjective patterns of responsivity are not only historically specific (e.g., Seyfert, 2012; Wetherell, 2015), but able to be ‘engineered’ (Thrift, 2008). The question is how we figure out how we are ‘supposed to feel’ in a given new media situation, and how we make sense of how we think we feel, regarding the question of presence.

The term ‘engineering’ brings out the experiential implications of new media technologies. What is notable about technology (broadly defined) is that they are ways of externalising our intentions, actions, senses, beyond the fleshly body [6]. Hence, in a media technological environment, our own bodily experience is only fully realised through technical means, making us bodies-in-code [7]. In a similar way, we ask how affect, technology and lived experience intertwine to produce a sense of being with others, being part of a public, being in a world. The argument is not that presence is social rather than technological — only that the relationship between affect/experience and technology is itself socially parametrised. This social dimension is today recognised even in areas like computer systems research. The notion of telepresence, which focuses on sensory input and spatial cues for use in robotics, virtual reality and human-computer interaction, has long been dominant (Steuer, 1992; Witmer and Singer, 1998). But social presence is now distinctly identified to emphasise the subjectively felt ‘sense of being with another’ (Biocca, et al., 2002). Some of the latter research has also identified cases where feelings of presence actively contradict traditional expectations. ‘Inverse presence’, for example, is when ostensibly ‘unmediated’ experience is felt as mediated (Timmins and Lombard, 2005).

The remainder of this essay makes a preliminary diagnosis of some common permutations of presence in the new media society. They focus on concrete, socialised practices. The first involves patterns of communicative experience in Twitter. This is a prominent yet banal situation which emphasises human and public connectivity. How do we ‘feel’ the presence of physically absent others on social media platforms like Twitter? What makes us invest in communicative acts, often in the absence of any immediate experience of feedback? At the same time, what makes us presume a certain anonymity online? How do we engage a situation where activity is technically fully exposed to the public, but maintain a speculative belief that we can pass unnoticed? Again, these social parameters are comparable to other contexts of presence. We understand our own presence in a café to be rather different from that on a stage or a plaza, even though in all cases, we are technically fully exposed to the strangers’ gaze. Where the neophyte might be seized with anxiety about being too vulnerably visible (and/or anonymously irrelevant) on Twitter, the learned user learns how to dismiss some affects as negligible, and amplify others as ‘real enough’.

The second case is the changing relationship between ourselves and our data in the Snowden era of surveillance and data-mining. This context provides a rather different set of objects of presence. They include the objectification of my ‘self’ into data, as well as the impersonal technological world of surveillance itself. I argue that the intensification of data-mining practices are resulting in the proliferation of trace-bodies, composed of data and inhabiting corporate or government databases. Trace-bodies perform representational functions, but have no locus of affect themselves, being data. They stand in for us in judicial, commercial and other contexts, but are increasingly concealed and removed from our act-bodies — the body with which we act, perceive and feel. Surveillance as externalised presence, too, has a long history. Techniques include not only Foucaultian (1995) discipline, but the role of clothing and skin marks in medieval Europe (Groebner, 2007; Hindle, 2006) and writing as a whole (Clanchy, 2013; Goody, 1977; Scribner and Cole, 1981). But even if trace-bodies are not exactly new, we experience them today as a change in the way of things. The withdrawal of the trace-body in new media surveillance entails a specific wiring of anxiety and its disavowal, producing a diffused, peripheral paranoia as a dominant affective frame for presence.



Tweeting into the air

‘If you retweet and you have 0 followers, was it retweeted?’ (Kaplan, 2013)

How do we feel like we are communicating ‘with’ others, that we are ‘there’, on Twitter? It has systems of responsivity, such as the retweet. But this does not always happen. We often toss tweets into the fray, and do not even expect, let alone get, a direct and concrete reply from the crowd. Neither is the public visibility of my tweets satisfactory. Technically, tweets can be searched for even with zero followers, but few would persist in such depressing conditions. Some say presence correlates to the number of followers. It is often used as (or tested for) an indexical marker of high Twitter activity, and in turn, a more active social life, greater social capital, and so on (e.g., Cha, et al., 2010; Ellison, et al., 2011, 2007). But not everybody wants or needs a million followers. Social media does not infect everyone with the pre-teen anxiety for more, more, more followers; at least, our feeling presence doesn’t seem to depend on it. For many ordinary users, it suffices that our Twitter feed can surprise us, can catch us in a rhythm of regular interactions. We want to feel that we are connected to something ‘reasonably large(r than us)’.

Just as we ‘spoke into the air’ (Peters, 1999) in the séances or radio listening of the nineteenth century, we often seem happy enough to ‘tweet into the air’. We are able to derive a diffuse and indirect sense of communicative participation even when we do not receive constant, ‘direct’ signals of connectivity (like retweets). This presence is not reducible to, or always consistent with, the quantitative count of successful ‘sightings’ and ‘conversations’ (which Web hits or retweets seek to index). It is better described as a felt sense that I am a part of something, a shared space/time of communication, even if, right now, I am alone, and I ‘see’ nobody.

David Berry (2011) has described this kind of presence as riparian-publicity; I am (I feel I am) connected to an expansive public. This public is always partly virtual. It exceeds the concrete gestures and signs in my immediate purview, yet nevertheless impresses its vaster reality through them. Such a public is projected by symbolic and linguistic representations. But if they had not fastened on to some aspects of our lived experience, naturalising themselves into our affective patterns, those representations would have remained mere words. Our intuitions, our habitual ways of being affected, are tied to everyday things. Berry names one in the stream, such as the scrolling Twitter feed; a rhythmic and automated source of updates, surprises, provocations, which entangle with our own bodily rhythm of clicks, swipes, refreshes and sidewise glances. This ties into the more general role of technological interruptions in our experience today. The flashing light on the work phone, the ping of the e-mail server: we now live amidst a host of objects which prick at our attention dozens, hundreds of times a day (Wajcman and Rose, 2011). These interruptions are generally not subject to active reflection. Indeed, one way to define interruption is to say it is when my senses, intentions, and body are surprised by the environment, moved to a response it had not anticipated (Dawney, 2013).

Rhythm is one of the basic ways in which our embodied interaction with this world is structured. It describes how our attention, perception, mood, intensity become caught up into collectively consistent patterns (Adams, et al., 2009; Henriques, et al., 2014). Our habituated and rhythmic ways of living with flows and interruptions of new media thus constitute a background for our conscious experience [8]. A background is a substrate of daily experience that we come to rely on to make sense of our world in a basic and mundane way. Merleau-Ponty [9] references George Stratton’s inverted glasses experiment. Normally, the human retina forms images upside-down, which the brain automatically resolves. When equipped with lenses that undo this inversion, subjects find their perceptual background confounded — until, after a few days, we re-establish a new habit of seeing. The use of ecstasy in rave parties is another example where our backgrounds for sensory experience are deliberately modified — in this case, intensifying our capacity for being affected (Portanova, 2005). More mundane examples would include soundtracks in Hollywood films. They are designed to modulate our affective experience — even as they often sneak under our conscious attention.

These rhythmic and experiential encounters produce a self-fulfilling prophecy: we feel connected because we are used to this affective milieu, and used to confirming it as intimacy. Ironically, these very observations could supply a classic criticism of new media as trivial, chaotic and inauthentic. The Heidegger of Being and time (1962) might regard the Twitter subject as a wretched one, awash in the superficiality of distractions that characterise Dasein’s inauthentic existence (also see Marder, 2011). But what if we dispense with any ideal of the one true way of communicating, the one true presence? What we then notice is that it is precisely new media’s distracted and restless way of life that helps us locate presence, to establish felt connections with a distributed and ever-growing crowd. In the blur of tweets, what impresses us is not (only) their individual content or even their sheer numerical quantity, but the combined quality of movement, plenitude, possibility: “a whole battery” of impressions that “those particular images were already in my head, and I was looking for them [...] a compelling sense of always being already there” [10].

Twitter’s parametrisation of update, transmission and interactivity are specific to the platform. But their relationship with interruptions, streams and distractions also reflect wider characterisations of “new” media technologies and late modern life. These relationships ensure that although each individual moment is partial and uncertain, they gradually form habitual, ambient relations that enable us to intuit our connectivity to a wider “public”. In off-line sociability, we have an array of “phatic” phrases and gestures that in practice mean nothing, and purely help us establish that we are communicating. It is the “are you there?” in phone calls, “you know what I’m saying?” as a refrain, even talk about the weather (see Frosh, 2011; Miller, 2008). It is in this phatic sense that Twitter is able to produce presence.

Of course, we are not the first to live in this way.

Public opinion is a bond between people with no physical connection ... this bond lies in their simultaneous convictions or passion and in their awareness of showing at the same time an idea or a wish with a great number of other men. It suffices for a man to know this, even without seeing these others, to be influenced by them en masse. [11]

In much of eighteenth century Western Europe, printing technology spurred a flood of self-published broadsheets and pamphlets. Many of these had no reasonable expectation of circulation, feedback, or audience ‘reach’; the text scattered into the air (Darnton, 1982; Felton, 2011, 2010). In the early twentieth century, electronic media’s popularisation was broadly synchronous with the diagnosis of schizophrenic symptoms. Some have theorised that the latter simply took to an extreme what was a general modality of feeling-presence encouraged by such media (Peters, 2010; Pisters, 2013). Decades later, mass transmissions of broadcast television provided a powerfully phatic experience. Although the ‘idiot box’ has often been condemned for encouraging ‘passive’, thoughtless watching, the very regularity of ‘tuning in’ contributed to a collective sense of public belonging (Scannell, 1989; Frosh, 2011). The history of mass media shows many different ways in which presence vis-à-vis the public was produced. We are thus able to perceive historical shifts from one contingent, affect-based, not strictly ‘necessary’ system of feeling-presence to another.

But what about anonymity? This diffuse, indirect connectivity has shown itself to be equally capable of producing a sense of anonymity — precisely in situations where neither publicity nor privacy are technically guaranteed. Anonymity is not the inverse of presence, but a specific derivation of it. We may analyse it here through the example of Nina Davuluri. In 2013, Davuluri, of Indian heritage, became Miss America. That night, large numbers flocked to Twitter to voice their discontent in no uncertain terms. Soon, some of these ‘haters’ themselves became public targets:

... @ChrisBlack57, who self-reported his location as Alabama and who tweeted that Davuluri was a ‘sand nigger.’ Black, in the nominal sense, seems hardly enough to be a Web troll [...] He has even tweeted, contrary to any sense of troll acumen, ‘Need new people to text textme,’ with his phone number as the hashtag.

Black’s apparent girlfriend, @madisonmcmickin [...] tweeted, ‘Is anyody else having problems with weird terrorist people tweeting at you? Or is it just me? [...]’ hours after the exchanges, McMickin and Black both shut down their Tweeter accounts. (Greenhouse, 2013)

The New Yorker’s coverage above leaves its own stance in little doubt: Black and McMickin were not only embarrassingly racist, they were also pathetically ignorant of their own publicness on the social media platform. This reasoning is a familiar and prevalent one today: if you are caught with any dirt on you online, you have only your ignorance to blame. Sites like Public Shaming, which compile and ridicule tweets it considers ignorant and hateful, exemplify the sentiment: ’they should have known better‘. However, there is something very conventional and normal about Black and McMickin’s underlying assumption that they could be seen and scrutinised, but that they probably won’t be. One study asked YouTube users: why mark some uploaded videos as ‘public’, and therefore accessible by anyone, when they would only make sense to a small, off-line circle of friends? Their answer was that it was a matter of ‘convenience’ or laziness [12]. Such an attitude becomes plausible only if the users are able to feel that their chances of discovery are, as Black and McMickin felt, negligible.

If Black and McMickin were foolish, it was as part of a broader, consensual foolishness, which we might call a speculative sense of anonymity. By speculative, I mean a commitment which is not strongly proven by facts or quantitatively calculated. It is imprecise, and it overreaches — just as we overreach to establish a sense of connectivity while gazing at the ever-churning Twitter feed. It is a kind of trust or faith — one which was not dictated by the Word, but emerged at the intersection of technological parameters, social norms and lived experience. Now, it might be objected that we don’t need to speculate. Many online interfaces, and external tools like Google Analytics, give us the hard numbers on how many followers we have and how many have read our blog posts. But these numbers are not comprehensive. More importantly, one lesson of the modern risk society is that numbers do not necessarily reduce uncertainty. Indeed, numbers can themselves fuel speculation [13]. Another scholar once asked: why do experts want the public to have more information? The more you know, the more ingredients there are for variant interpretations, fuelling speculation (Douglas, 2001). For all the numbers at our disposal, daily life so often proceeds through speculative beliefs, fuelled by habituated ways of being affected by our technological environment.

Indirect, diffuse, speculative, habitual, ambient. Connectivity and anonymity on Twitter are two specific permutations of feeling presence. They are secured not by the objective appearance of markers like faces, messages or numbers, but habituated, pre-reflective expectations we learn to approach our environment with. Sartre (1969; also see Saury, 2008) offers the paradigmatic example: it is because I expect to find Pierre at the café that his non-appearance affects me as absence. If we intuit publicity or privacy in the absence of (or even contrary to) the objective ‘evidence’, it is because we approach the situation from our background of expectations. It is in the same way that we had learned to be comfortable having intensely private conversations in cafés, or to engage in a lover’s embrace in the park. Our affective responsivity to the world has adapted to Twitter, just as we did to the urban metropolises in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.



The absent presence of the trace-body

The case of Twitter analysed a specific social parametrisation of presence, one which was strongly related to imaginations of human intimacy and connectivity to a living public. We now focus on surveillance and data-mining. Here, what is at stake is not the presence of human others, but the impersonal and technological world of surveillance. How do we intuit the being-there of this vast, yet so often concealed apparatus that allegedly exploits and monitors us? And how do we derive a sense of our own presence, via the medium of data, within that enormous machine?

We all produce information now, we all reproduce information, we all distribute it. We can’t stop ourselves. It’s like breathing. We’ll do it as long as we’re alive, and when we stop doing it we’ll be dead. [14]

The body is often the unquestioned anchor for presence. After all, what affective process can be there without this apparatus for sensory interaction? But the body as a locus of affect, and the body as an assemblage of sensory interfaces, are both susceptible to fragmentation and modification. It is by now a familiar argument that the body is ‘distributed’, that its mode of embodiment is fundamentally entangled with and extended through technological objects (Durham, 2011; Schick and Malmborg, 2010). Going further, Mark Hansen (2012) has argued ‘twenty-first century media’ bypass conscious subjects and directly influence ‘how experience occurs’. In extension, we may say that new media modifies the conditions by which we experience our own bodily being, and what kind of presence we can have of our own bodies. Biometrics and facial expression analyses evacuate the truth of my body from my experience, transforming the body into a biological resource for machine-produced, machine-readable data (Aas, 2006; Gates, 2011). Such uses of technology make us strangers to ourselves; the body is treated as telling a truth that precedes and overrides our actions, intentions and conscious awareness (Browne, 2010). The intensification of online surveillance and data-mining over the last 15 years has enacted such a change, problematising our presence of our own bodies.

Kantorowicz (1997) famously separated the figure of the King from the King who lives today: the King’s Two Bodies. Today, we find a similar distinction between the user’s two bodies. The first is the act-body: the body of performances and actions, where the conscious ‘self’ remains the locus of flows affect. This is the ‘I’ that feels sufficiently anonymous online. The use of profile information and photographs as ‘digital bodies’ [15] is a basic example of the act-body at work. The second is the trace-body, composed entirely of data: IP addresses and locational data, records of browsing and consuming actions, metadata on communicative activity. Such data are mined often without our knowledge, and then reconstituted into profiles that we generally cannot access. Just as the physical body sheds hair, skin, nails, and other detritus behind unknowingly, our act-body leaves traces behind in code. These traces are then pored over by marketers and brand promoters, who sort these profiles into vaguely unsettling categories like “Young Influentials”, “Shotguns & Pickups” and “Park Bench Seniors” (Nielsen, 2013; Turow, 2011). They are joined by Web service providers like Google and Facebook, whose business models hinge on the ability to mine and deliver such data to corporate clients [16]. Also in the mix are political campaigns and government institutions. Obama’s 2012 campaign collected trace-bodies through a tool called (rather aptly) Dreamcatcher, in order to best determine which populations to target with phone solicitations (Issenberg, 2012).

The trace-body has elsewhere been described as algorithmic identity [17], data body [18], data-double [19]; Haggerty and Ericson, 2000), and in a Freudian reference, ‘data dopplegänger’ (Watson, 2014). ‘Trace-body’ emphasises the phenomenological connection between the two bodies, one which is not reducible to the extraction of information. The same daily routines and mundane preferences which maintain the familiar liveability of the act-body is what powers the utility of the trace-body. The act/trace division therefore is not a binary contrast of the physical and digital.

Biometrics is one clear example of how surveillance technologies operate on very physical traces (Adey, 2009; Amoore and Hall, 2009; Gies, 2008). Conversely, the act-body in off-line settings is also known to give off ‘unconscious’ performances and traces as well [20].

How does this ‘absence-presence’ of the trace-body appear to subjects of contemporary surveillance? Activist and literary discourse typically speak of anxiety and helplessness:

The data body not only claims to have ontological privilege, but actually does have it. What your data body says about you is more real than what you say about yourself. The data body is the body by which you are judged in society, and the body that dictates your status in the social world. (Critical Art Ensemble, 2001.)

I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tap into your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that. (DeLillo, 1985)

It has been said that in databases, “the individual is constituted in absentia” [21]. This absence, or more precisely, our awareness of this absence, is key to understanding trace-body vis-à-vis presence. What is notable in surveillance and data-mining today is not (only) the scale and sophistication of trace-body production, but the relentless way in which it is imposed on us as an absent other. We are constantly told: you may not feel your trace-body, but you should know it is the ubiquitous instrument of your exploitation. Journalists tell us that corporations manipulate our Web experience based on our trace-data, and raise our alarm. Yet this does not enable us to see exactly what has been manipulated in any given Web site. Rather, it habituates a gut feeling that something is missing, something is going on behind the scenes. The media frenzy over the Snowden affair fills me with a creeping sensation that I always was and am connected to a vast network of people and things, and someone else, something else, may know me better than I know myself. Our trace-body takes on social meaning and economic value, and the high-profile public debate over surveillance and algorithmic power insists the subject should know what is going on. At the same time, the life and usage of the trace-body remains severed from our affective processes.

This situation parametrises presence because we become aware that this “body’ of ours is separated from our experience and our senses. We feel the presence of our own ‘selves’ as dominated by absence. Like anonymity, absence is not simply the inverse or lack of presence; the absence itself has a concrete affective consequence (Frers, 2013; Saury, 2008). After all, if we were completely alienated from our trace-body, there would be no anxiety to speak of. ‘Absence’ does not refer to a subject alienated from affect altogether. Rather, absence is the condition or quality that characterises the affective relationship between me and my trace-body. Research in telepresence shows quite clearly that affects can be routed through non-human things, and recent theories on object agency (e.g., Bennett, 2004; McCormack, 2010; Thrift, 2010) show that affect is not a purely human question. When I feel my own trace-body as an absent presence, I am also experiencing what it feels like to have machines and databases mediate between me and myself.

This absence of the trace-body finds its correlate in the remoteness of surveillance itself. The very technological apparatus which mediates our access to ourselves is also experienced as withdrawn and remote. The ‘there’ness of databases and surveillance tools themselves is felt to be vague and questionable; a consequence of the secrecy with which both state and corporate surveillance has often been pursued. Our sense of these technologies take the form of a viscous hyperobject: a thing with no consistent and central form, which ‘clings’ to and appears through many smaller, local objects (Morton, 2013). Climate change, for example, presents itself as real and concrete through objects like the recycling bin, ‘green’ products, images of extreme weather. But none of those fully represent, or even prove, the vaster entity of global warming. In the same way, surveillance appears to us as an enormous shadow which envelops the new media society. In the ongoing controversy over Snowden’s leaks, data privacy and the ‘right to be forgotten’, we are informed of increasingly complicated and powerful technologies that govern our lives from afar. Concrete objects that we can latch onto affectively, however, are few and far between. The world of databases, government agencies, algorithms appears as a translucent, virtual Other which always seems to lie just beyond the horizon.

What are the affective coordinates of this form of presence? The surveillance debate today indicates a persistent but peripheral paranoia. This is the sense that something ‘must be’ happening just beyond the edge of my awareness. Rather than consuming us obsessively, it manifests as a vague and recurrent uneasiness. Paranoia, from its earliest modern designation by Emil Kraepelin, has been characterised by the belief that the order of things as a whole is hostile (Freedman, 1984; Kendler, 1986). The paranoiac latches onto the hyperobjective and absent properties of the trace-body and surveillance apparatuses as the object of conspiracy. Yet the paranoia is often peripheral, rather than active and intense. Most subjects do not take to tin-foil hats and loud protests; rather, they integrate this undercurrent of suspicion into their sense of the world around them. Occasional sightings of trace-bodies or the system at work serve to further amplify this sense of enormity. Indeed, Snowden’s steady leakage of NSA surveillance activities does not necessarily provide certainty that we now know what is going on. Rather, it can serve to confirm and amplify our conspiratorial suspicions: ‘what else are they doing that we still don’t know about?’ Peripheral paranoia thus constitutes a specific strand of the moderns’ persistent existential anxiety [22]. In Kafka’s The Trial, K’s object of paranoia unfailingly withdrew into the recesses of modern bureaucracy, provoking a profoundly unresolvable sense of unease. Today, that object is black-boxed behind the interface of our computational devices.

Peripheral paranoia may not provoke a revolution, but it does have concrete behavioural and attitudinal implications. One is the engendering of a cynical and ironic responsivity, one which has elsewhere been called ‘the postmodern savvy attitude’ (Andrejevic, 2004): ‘I can’t do anything about it, but at least I know it’s happening’. In our context, it also describes many subjects’ continued, if reluctant, cooperation with surveillance apparatuses in their daily lives. Because the trace-body and surveillance are not only vast, but always beyond my grasp, I develop the intuitive presumption that it cannot be eliminated by means available to me. It scarcely matters if I install a VPN (virtual private network), delete my cookies, opt out of interest-based advertising on Google. Just as the rhythms of the Twitterscape formed a ‘background’ for our intuition of connectivity and anonymity, this imaginary of machinic ubiquity furnishes a common sense belief in the inexhaustible presence of Big Brother.

Whilst we are dead to the world at night, networks of machines silently and repetitively exchange data. They monitor, control and assess the world using electronic sensors, updating lists and databases, calculating and recalculating their models to produce reports, predictions and warnings. [23]

Paranoia is another word for an extreme susceptibility to affects of presence. This paranoid relation to the remote or absent presence of surveillance has been steadily amplifying in the post-September 11 years. U.S. and Western European governments are increasingly committed to secrecy in surveillance and anti-terror operations. One anecdote: today, Americans are not permitted the information of who their country is at war with (Currier, 2013) [24]. Ordinary Americans know they are at war, but officially speaking, that is classified information. Americans do know they are at war with the Al-Qaeda, at least. But despite the brutal and visceral experience of September 11, it remained difficult to pin down the who, where and what of this mercurial entity. The bogeyman was on the move in the mountains of Pakistan, which seems to extend infinitely into the ‘out there’. Although bin Laden’s death provided some symbolic sense of closure, a similar uncertainty is now unfolding with ISIS, with Al-Shabaab, and even the figure of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist. The question ‘who is listening to me on Twitter’ thus exhibits formally homologous sensibilities to the question, ‘who controls the Internet’, or ‘is the government watching me’.

What are the stakes of these different ways of being affected? The parametrisation of presence does not simply modify ‘feelings’. They go on to impact the collective ground on which political or moral debates occur. The ways in which we ‘feel’ about human and non-human connections have an impact on our intuitions of how the world ‘must be working’, which in turn influences the parameters of our political decision-making. Surveillance, for instance, is typically parsed as a question of individual privacy. Here, the conundrum is that although many users are aware of the mechanisms of surveillance (Andrejevic, 2013a), they seem unwilling to actively safeguard their privacy. Since privacy intrusions generally occur through the trace-body, few of us have concrete access to this experience. There is a vague uneasiness at privacy violations which must be going on, only I can’t feel it. Again, this peripheral paranoia provokes a cynical/ironic response: I am told I should care, but given what little I can do about it, I may as well disavow it nonchalantly. The Snowden affair exemplifies this process in a dramatic fashion. We are told that the tin-foil conspiracy theorists were right. Our covert communications, our embarrassing secrets, our unintentional slips have been collected into a massive population of trace-bodies. Yet there is little indication thus far of any major shifts in user behaviour online. Certainly, surveys report widespread concern over privacy as an issue (Rainie, et al., 2013). But such concerns were also commonplace 10 or 20 years ago (Lacayo, 1991). Even after this high-profile exposé, we remain somewhat alienated from our own trace-bodies. I know I (my trace-body) am being exploited, because Edward Snowden told me so; but I don’t feel it happening.

XKCD, a prominent Web comic, parses the public sentiment a few weeks after PRISM’s public debut. The sage is content to live solely in the act-body, and dismisses what he cannot know or feel as inconsequential. The cartoonist endorses this position by granting him the privileged final panel: the sage is the wise punchline to the intolerable philosopher or the nutjob conspiracist. If I am to be exploited, at least I can admit it with (ironic) style.


Privacy Opinions
Figure 1: XKCD, “Privacy Opinions”,


A presence-based reading suggests that privacy is not a problem of information deficit, but a problem of affective configurations. Scholars are beginning to note that information may no longer be the primary factor in encouraging users to more actively protect their privacy [25]. The disavowal of privacy violation is not necessarily due to ignorance or misinformation. Indeed, knowing more about what ‘really is going on’ could reinforce the cynical-ironic attitude by stressing the overwhelming and systemic nature of the exploitation. Why bother deleting cookies, when that is just the tip of the iceberg? Rather, we might characterise the problem as one of affective asymmetry. The link between the benefits and exploitations of online surveillance has been called a Faustian bargain (Zimmer, 2008). We accept certain conveniences in return for the exploitation of our data. But we never experience it as a negotiation that we were ever at the table for. Our ‘losses’ are incurred at the level of an alienated trace-body, while the gains are felt much more keenly by the act-body in the form of a personalised Web experience. In such a situation, it becomes a very much sensible thing to trade away my privacy. A public commitment to privacy can only come when the presence of trace-bodies and surveillance is reconfigured to address this imbalance.



Feeling differently

Presence describes the feeling of being-there and being-with; the affects of connectivity, intimacy and belonging. It operates at the level of phenomenological intuition — the pre-reflective impressions and responses to one’s environment which habituate into conventional patterns of feeling and perceiving. This essay has sought to describe presence’s social parametrisation in the context of the new media society, picking out Twitter and data-mining as case studies. Though I do not posit any essential or direct relationship between the two situations, we are able to identify a number of parallels and continuities. In both, we find that feeling presence does not always correspond to that which is given to experience in that situation. Things consensually accepted as markers of presence are not always predictors or prerequisites for feeling-presence. The enduring sense of public connectivity on Twitter is not linearly bound to discrete, direct exchanges, but reliant on lived patterns of interruption and update. We are also able to speculate anonymity in full knowledge of our ‘technical’ publicness. In the same way, it is the felt absence of the trace-body and surveillance apparatuses which motivate a paranoid intuition of their virtual presence. In both cases, subjects’ affective responsivity to their environment is socially parametrised in emergent ways, and in doing so, constitutes backgrounds that regulate how new experiences are perceived and made sensible. If the interruption, the stream, the update on Twitter charts the phenomenological coordinates of these backgrounds, the work of alienation and irony in the privacy debate demonstrates how such backgrounds can influence the positions from which we attempt rational and political solutions.

These vignettes do not exhaust the presence parameters of these situations, nor do they provide a full picture of the new media society. This essay has sought only to demonstrate the possibilities of investigating presence, and in doing so, highlight certain ways of problematising the new media society. The first is a relatively distributed scope of new media phenomenology. Presence suggests that what we ‘feel’ is not necessarily a ‘personal’ or ‘physical’ affair. The emergence of data subjectivity reminds phenomenology that it must consider, paradoxically, that which we do not ‘perceive’ or ‘experience’ in a direct sense. To account for the ‘body’ and ‘experience’ in digital space now requires us to trace all their distributed and displaced forms — my body that I do not feel, your attention that I project, ‘the’ body as mediated object. This highlights the points of collaboration between phenomenology and affect theory. Though the two do not always see eye to eye, they can be drawn together towards an understanding of how we experience new media. Another way of saying it is that a phenomenology of new media can and should actively enrol the non-human as well as the human, the discursive as well as the bodily, in order to address a mode of embodied experience that is significantly distributed and extended through new media technologies. The second is to establish a historical continuity, or rather, points of comparison between scenes of social parametrisation. The development of the reading public in the age of the printing press, efforts to characterise the ‘crowd’ in the nineteenth century, the awkward and vocal period of adaptations to radio and television — such episodes are instructive in understanding today’s ‘new media’ not as a unique transformation but a specific one. Here, presence suggest that the standard of comparison is not necessarily the concrete markers or objects enrolled into communication and community, such as the quantity of messages or geographic proximity, but which markers emerge to fill what affective functions, and how. Presence therefore asks: how have we come to feel and perceive this world we live in? And how might we feel it differently? End of article


About the author

Sun-ha Hong is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation examines manifestations of uncertainty in state, corporate and consumer-level online surveillance discourse, and their implications for our affective relationships to the surveillance society.
E-mail: sunha [dot] hong [at] gmail [dot] com



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Editorial history

Received 6 April 2015; accepted 31 August 2015.

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“Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in new media society” by Sun-ha Hong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in the new media society
by Sun-ha Hong.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 10 - 5 October 2015

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