28 Aug

In my PhD dissertation, I used the metaphor of the ‘rabbit hole’ to describe the distorted experience of using popular dating applications (apps) like Tinder. I also referred to the hypernormalisation of a discourse that suggests experiences via such apps are less-than-real – a notion echoed by all participants of the ethnographic study. The comparison refers to Lewis Carrol’s tale of the fantastically surreal Wonderland, which the protagonist Alice reaches through said rabbit hole. As I just learned, the latter also plays into the idea of the ‘red pill’ that Tesla Billionaire Elon Musk controversially referenced in a tweet a while back (May 2020).

The ‘red pill’ reference is borrowed from the movie ‘The Matrix’ and symbolises one of two straightforward options: swallowing the blue pill is the decision to live in the bliss of ignorance to the dimensions of one’s realities. The other choice, the red pill, is to be confronted with the unpleasant truth of their intricacies. The rebel leader in the movie suggests: ‘You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes’.

In the mainstream, the ‘red pill’ reference has been adopted to express alt-right views that locate the answers to challenges of globalisation and multiculturalism in an encapsulating nationalism. It has also been used to support movements suggesting that men, not women and other groups, are a suppressed group in need of liberation. The uncritically used phrase of ‘being red-pilled’ thus has become synonymous with having one’s eyes opened towards a simplistic truth.

In the times of Covid19 and in the context in which Elon Musk made use of it, the ‘red pill’ stands for the re-opening of economies. It is with fear that I observe the brewing of similarly obscuring, radical sentiments underlying the chants of anti-lockdown protesters in Germany. Officials warn that marches may be infiltrated by far-right extremists. Speaking to this is that protesters, screaming for freedom and a return to the status quo (portrayed as selectable reality), could be seen wearing the ‘yellow star’ badges Jews in Europe had to mark themselves with as far back as the in 13th century. They were effectively revived as a strategy of dehumanisation during the holocaust.

Simplistic versions of reality are tempting in the turmoil of uncertainty experienced by humans around the globe. Selecting among the vast amounts of information becomes a challenge even for those dedicated to filtering out ‘valid’ news from those that are inflammatory or intentionally obscuring. Mask (no mask), touch (no touch), protest signs and their cross-armed responses - politicised information always acts upon bodies. Currently, the ways in which embodied compasses transforming everyday movements and realities are highly visible. Despite the difficulty of selecting amongst all kinds of ‘expert knowledge’ readily available online and in public discourse, everybody seems to have become an expert themselves and is ready to share their wisdom on how governments and individuals should act in Zoom meetings with family and high school friends. It is difficult to have a conversation that does not mutate into an altar of opinion-offerings and solution-giving. We can watch these conversations being knitted into the fabric of public memory.

In my ethnography, I used the idea of hypernormalisation to emphasise the fuzziness and obscureness inherent to the human experience. Generalising discourses on contemporary forms of intimacy and Tinder-dating in particular, however, is very much entangled with persistent uni-dimensional ideas of ‘modernity’. The war rhetoric that is commonly used these days by state leaders in making sense of the corona virus itself and the infliction of lock-downs (of various degrees) similarly becomes part of thought repertoires. So do illustrative phrases such as ‘flattening the curve’, employed to point out the severity of the situation and to justify (temporary) curtailments of rights and routines as ‘measured response’. The language fogs a lack of transparency with regards to what forms this corpus of knowledge that people in power weigh their decisions against. Especially at the onset of the pandemic, virologists conquered the stages of all late-night talk-shows on German TV for weeks. Meanwhile, their voices have become more silent. Perhaps, this is a sign for there being a desire for additional thought models. It may also signify uncertainty as to what constitutes ‘science’, ‘facts’ and ‘knowledge’ where those are used as keywords captioning estimations that do not always turn out to be accurate. Moreover, what was insisted on being ‘impossible’ in the past (such as reducing air traffic) suddenly becomes a possibility.

Like the Tinder users in my study, individuals seeking answers on how and why their realities are obscured in certain ways at this moment in time continue turning to the same platforms without being offered the comforts they are looking for. People who download the dating app over and over again have acknowledged pain, numbness and anti-social phenomena like ghosting to be part and parcel of this ‘modern’ way of relating. These are intrinsically associated with the app that never disappears from their phone screens for too long a time - despite the fact that humans have encountered others wearing multiple expressions before the partial cybernation of social processes. Presently, Covid19 is similarly framed as a phenomenon of its time. While the magnitude of medieval plagues such as the ‘Black Death’ tends to be retrospectively linked to ignorance and a lack of medical and technological achievements, Corona is mused to be a revenge of nature. Or, alarmingly, it is deemed a simply made up reality as per hyperbolic ‘red-pill’ language. The question, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek, put it, then becomes: Where does data end and ideology begin?

As numbers becoming ever more synonymous with moral choice making in public discourse, multiple facets of realities and imaginations are increasingly masked. There is a need for accessible spaces and platforms apart from the online sphere for the public to make sense of numbers without demagogism and with a sensitivity for the nuances of experience. Schools and workplaces, now in many places in the process of corporeal revival, could use this moment as an opportunity to create dialogues that disrupt the normalisation of simplified, polarising ‘truths’.

As scholars of the humanities, we are trained to be reflective of what realities we allow to solidify and how we communicate what we phantom to be true to others. (Although, this is not to say that there are no glitches in that regard). Momentarily, we live in an ongoing cautionary tale, reminding us to ensure that we do not only have to maintain this nimble-footedness but to continue cautiously extending our view beyond the scholarly ivory tower and pointing out the complexities of thinking about being connected as humans.

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