Aug 16, 2016

Musings About Life On YouTube

This weekend, my main YouTube channel - a largely academic channel devoted primarily to lectures about philosophical texts and thinkers  - passed a significant milestone.  Over 30,000 viewers are presently subscribers to the channel, and we're rapidly approaching 3 million total views.

Those numbers are particularly gratifying given that the videos I produce are on the low-tech, low-production - but high-content - end of the spectrum.  It shows that there's a real desire for substantive engagement with ideas out there, and that, if you produce content that helps people grapple with those ideas, what you out out there will indeed be watched.  And not just watched, but shared, commented on, and used by students, lifelong learners, working professionals - and even other academics.

Once I passed the 30,000 subscribers mark, I took a look through the figures - the "analytics" - YouTube provides me about the channel and the videos in it.  There's several other figures that are in many respects even more telling.  One of those is the total number of minutes that have been viewed - and that's a staggering number.  As I recheck those numbers tonight, it's 29,104,280 minutes.  29 million!  That has me once again mulling over something I've thought about from time to time over these last five years.  Quite simply - my YouTube avatar has existed for more total time than I have.

How Should We Count The Years?

If you crunch the numbers - if I haven't made a mistake - 29 million minutes winds up being something like 55 years.  I'm currently 45, about to turn 46 later this week.  The real-time lifetime, of course, for my YouTube alter-ego, out there available for anyone, at any time, around the world, is 5 years and a few months.  I started the channel back in the Spring of 201, after all.  So that guy who more or less looks like me - for the most part younger, and typically better-dressed - in a certain sense has been doing what he's doing, on demand, for just a portion of my lifetime.

But perhaps when we're considering whatever it is that passes for the life of a virtual being - and that's what my YouTube avatar is, though I'm continually contributing more of my own energy, thought, and work to that alter-ego - we have to measure and conceptualize it in a different manner. When does Gregory B. Sadler - the YouTube one - exist or, perhaps even, live?  Well, what is is to exist or to live?  I'd say, its when that guy is doing his thing, delivering the same lecture for the first or the hundredth (or in some cases, hundred-thousandth) time, being watched, perhaps even helping explain some murky philosophical passage, or provoking some reflection on the part of the viewer.

If we look at it that way, then the more or less consistent avatar - probably no more inconsistent than the real person it's based upon, or derived from (me, the guy writing this) - has to have his life measured by a time that, while certainly composed of linearly arranged and following moments, isn't the same sort of time that measures the length of my own life, or (for most of the readers of this, I think) that of your own.  In that case, this guy, who looks very much like me, says the same sort of stuff that I do, and exhibits some of the same idiosyncrasies (like bringing his coffee up, and forgetting to drink it!), well then, that guy has now lived for 55 years - all of it in the last 5 years.

And given typical trends for growth of viewership on YouTube, his rate of consuming time is just going to increase exponentially.  Let's say I stopped filming entirely, stopped uploading any content, just left those already nearly 1,000 videos out there on the platform.  By any conservative estimate, in the next 5 years, he ought to log - or rather, properly speaking, viewers ought to watch - another 55 years.  Or, it might be 100.  It might even be more.  How weird is that?!

Who Is That YouTube Philosophy Guy?

It might strike you a bit odd, the way I've been talking about my avatar here, as if he's someone different than myself.  After all, didn't I create him - don't I keep on doing so - by filming myself?  Isn't my avatar really just a reflection, or a video reproduction of myself, totally dependent - not only causally, but even for its continued existence - upon me, the real person?  There has to be a strong, persistent connection between us, right?  After all, people have brought me in for talks, workshops, or consultations precisely on the basis of the identity between myself and my video image (and of course, quite a few of those then got video-recorded and fed back into the channel!) They've booked me for tutorial sessions, coaching, or philosophical counseling - for personal interactions, centered on and in philosophy - based on what they watched.

Besides all of those considerations, we could add that one of the factors that has contributed to the strength and growth of the channel is that I regularly engage viewers through responding to their comments on the videos.  And that, of course, is me, the person, Greg Sadler, writing in the comment streams.  So, n some sense, the lecturer or interlocutor out there on YouTube is sort of like a very complicated marionette, whose strings I'm always pulling, right?

Well. . .  I'd say that at first that was certainly the case.  When you haven't got quite so many people to interact with - and there's still a solid core of viewers who regularly comment, some of whom I've gotten to know fairly well over the years - it's easy to feel connected, and like you're clear about precisely what you've put out there.  When you've got over a thousand of hours of video content, all of which was originally you working through philosophical ideas, texts, thinkers. . .  after a while, there's a sort of splitting-off that gradually, even at first imperceptibly starts to take place.

I'll put it in very simple and stark terms.  That guy out there in YouTube, the Gregory B. Sadler who gives all those lectures or leads those discussions, he's become smarter than I am.  Put all those videos together into something like a digital mosaic, a shifting composite picture, and he can speak competently about far more topics, many more thinkers, a number of texts, that if you were to come up to me on the street, I might not be quite so savvy in talking about!

The life that he leads, though - if you want to call it one - is far more restricted.  He's typically at the very least in a dress shirt, often with a tie, sometimes with a jacket.  You'll find him usually in front of a chalkboard or a podium - if not that, seated at a desk or table.  He doesn't get out much.  He doesn't eat, sleep, shower, chat with his wife, play with his kids, take the dogs for walks, or any of that sort of stuff.  So just going by that, it's no surprise if he's a bit sharper than I - the real person who in some sense brought him into existence - can be for more than a bit of time!


What Happens Next?

Let me end these musings by emphasizing two things.  The first is that I'm not complaining about all of this.  The second is that I don't have any sort of satisfactory answer to that question - what happens next?

When I consider the dizzying pace of late modern technological innovation, I sometimes start to muse about the "big picture".  What will happen with YouTube videos ten years from now?  Thirty years from now?  One hundred years from now?  Are they going to be a vast digital graveyard - almost infinitely vast, when we set them up against other dead, lost media that are then later dredged up by whatever archeologists are going to become in the future?  Or is the other extreme more likely, that somehow they will be incorporated, assimilated into something else?

Here's one line of my thinking about that.  I'm supplying vast amounts of data, on multiple levels.  There's a consistent dynamic digital image of me - granted, not doing a hell of a lot other than talking about philosophy! - but enough that, as our computers and the software and platforms that drive what they do become more and more sophisticated, one could easily imagine algorithms that would not only flesh my image out in 3D (and perhaps even give it some kind of corporeality, touch, taste, odor, and so forth), but which could place me in postures I never took, reconstruct the sort of things I might say (nonsense generator programs have been doing that sort of work for decades), in short give a kind of extension of range and life to that avatar.

There's also the fact that what I'm doing is really thinking and communication.  Is it possible, is it conceivable that this too could be taken in, analyzed, and then reproduced in a way that was not merely producing variations upon already provided themes, but perhaps even doing something creative?  Add all the other massive enhancements that the ongoing development of computing technology might bring in its wake.  Could we then, perhaps, in the future, long after I'm dead and gone on - the "we" here is the human race - have a Gregory B. Sadler who might end up being something like the philosophy tutor (perhaps with a rather limited range!) for students of the future?

It's certainly not unimaginable.  Just to take one of our own (from the perspective of the future) low-tech examples:  how many people, myself included, have benefitted from Rick Roderick's lectures?  He's unfortunately long since passed on, but in a certain sense, he's here - at least a part of him - still imparting his insights to us today, on YouTube.  And I'm happy that he is.  I'd love to have had the chance to meet and talk with him, but I can at least watch his eminently engaging lectures.

Is that - in some other permutation - where my own avatar is headed?  He's certainly going to be better suited to that than I am.  He's not getting older.  All he really requires for his own continued existence are some devoted digital resources.  I have to say that if that is where things are headed, and if my avatar ends up teaching and discussing philosophy long after I've died, that's not something I view in a negative light at all.  What it does mean is that there's an additional reason to make sure I'm getting matters right, and doing the best work that I can.  A reason based, to be sure, in pure speculation.  It's entirely - and equally - possible that everything I've put so much work into may entirely disappear.

None of that, though, bears upon the sort of weirdness, or even uncanniness, that I feel when I think about this digital double, who in some sense - since he's lived for more time - does not just possess a different kind of reality than I enjoy, but perhaps even at some point will have more reality.  I can't say that I have any well-worked out thoughts on that front though, and that ever-so-often-arising feeling is thus what I must end with.