“In Real Life”, A Loss of Innocence as Beeban Kidron Interrogates the Internet

By Jacqueline Lucas Palmer

Yesterday Beeban Kidron’s fascinating documentary exploring the impact of the internet, was followed by a satellite discussion chaired by Channel 4’s Jon Snow, and spawned a lively online TV and radio debate, far outreaching the teenagers on whom she focuses. Demystifying what it means to live and communicate now with this technology, Beeban interviews teenagers addicted to their phones, to Facebook and social networking sites, to video games, YouTube videos, online pornography and gaming, as she weaves their interviews alongside academics, technology writers and thinkers, psychoanalysts, software designers, whistle-blowers and YouTube bloggers. 

We see the impact of cyber bullying, the monetization of our data, scary statistics on usage, and powerful imagery of what the icloud really consists of; gigantic banks of machinery and fiber optic cables connecting multi million dollar buildings scattered all over the globe, storing our photographs, our videos, our modern day letters and text messages that make up our online experience. And where is our offline experience? 

In the real world Beeban interviews Paige, a teenager of 14 who is so addicted to her phone she lets a group of boys abuse her in order to keep it safe, and falls into depression when separated from it. We meet fifteenyear old Ryan, whose porn addiction leaves him denuded of love in real life, as he and his friends increase their online demands for girls to get naked and more in an effort to out thrill the porn at their fingertips. Real bodies and real experience can never match his online high and fixed fantasy. Similarly a gaming addict flunked from Oxford University denies the impact of his Xbox addiction, as we watch his winning high while losing in life.

We follow Tom, a fifteen year old who comes out online and finally dares to meet his online soul mate. In a moving scene he and his finally real life boyfriend cuddle and rub their phones together to share information, in a strange act of intimacy. In a world where google “knows you better than your own mother”, the parents of a boy tragically bullied online are the last to know the truth. The power of the new brand of pop star YouTubers and bloggers on meet-ups in Hyde park is also fascinating, just as the questions the documentary raises on anonymity, and on the internet’s political, economic, psychological and philosophical implications in a culture where “Facebook conditions you to undervalue your own privacy”. Indeed the openness of the participants is itself part of the debate, with the new trend of employers using Facebook and social networking sites to eliminate candidates.

As kids grow up feeling more intimate with their phones, this conversation feels crucial. As I prepare for a workshop exploring blocks to intimacy. I watch the documentary with my teenager and experience the film and satellite Q & A as a powerful and real experience as we emerge into daylight to check our phones via a technology bearing little resemblance to the use of those who invented it.