We Can’t Handle What the Internet Has Done to Us

A practical philosopher explains how social media broke our sense of self

Photo: Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

It’s the morning after the British elections and I’m thinking about the internet. I’ve been reading Trick Mirror, a collection of essays about self-knowledge and authenticity by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino. The mirror in the title refers to our efforts to try and know our true selves through the way we perform on the internet. I started blogging when I was 24, and I have also grown up, as a writer, looking at myself in the mirror of the internet. For Tolentino, as it is for me, writing is a way to know the self. But I also wonder, “is that really true, or is this just a performance?”

Like Tolentino, I have written about ecstatic experiences, moments of self-transcendence, and epiphany. Yet as soon as I communicate those experiences to others, I think, “Is that how it was? Am I remembering accurately? Or have I constructed a neat version of the story for public consumption?”

Our sense of self exists in a constant feedback loop with our digital reflection.

This is what it’s like for all of us online, in the internet age. Our sense of self exists in a constant feedback loop with our digital reflection.

David Bowie, that alien from the future, picked up the massive transformation about to happen in 1999 when he was interviewed on the BBC’s Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman:

Bowie: I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet will do to society — both good and bad — is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.

Paxman: It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?

Bowie: No, it’s not. It’s an alien life form. Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here.

Paxman: But it’s simply a different delivery system isn’t it? You’re saying it’s something more profound.

Bowie: Oh yeah. The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything that we can really envisage. Where the interface between the user and provider will be so… in sympatico. It’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

As Tolentino puts it, Web 1.0 in the 1990s was a cheery village of cobbled together HTML houses, each with schmaltzy visitor counters in green and black. In Web 2.0, from around 2000, “the structures were dynamic… instead of houses, websites were portals, through which an ever-changing stream of activity — status updates, photos — could be displayed. What you did on the internet became intertwined with what everyone else did, and the things other people liked became the things that you would see.”

She goes on: “Through the emergence of blogging, personal lives were becoming public domain, and social incentives — to be liked, to be seen — were becoming economic ones. The mechanisms of internet exposure began to seem like a viable foundation for a career.”

My first job was for a financial news website, but in my own time, I set up a satirical internet magazine, Global Village Idiot, and then I launched my first blog, Politics of Well-Being, in 2008. I’ve been blogging for 11 years, and much of my inspiration was my recovery from social anxiety.

Everyone is an influencer now. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone wants to know the opinion of everyone else.

How weird is that — as part of my recovery, I exposed myself to the internet. I was essentially saying, “I used to be addicted to the other’s approval, but I’m better now. Please share this.” The trick mirror of the internet makes us all look ridiculous.

Everyone is an influencer now. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone wants to know the opinion of everyone else. Everyone has a rating for everything — a credit rating, an Uber rating, an Amazon rating. Do I have a Tinder rating? Are there hidden algorithms that decide my level in life, like invisible air currents?

If we hook up and go to bed, our most intimate sexual habits and desires are probably shaped by the internet, and by online porn, that shimmering city in the sky, with a carbon footprint bigger than Belgium, and a daily visitor tally greater than the population of Canada.

As regular visitors to that cosmopolis, we acquire new habits — choking, anyone? — yet even in that lurid city, we yearn for authenticity. The most searched term on PornHub in 2019, after all, was “amateur.

Social media has also totally transformed our politics, in a decade. It’s ripped apart our sense of trust in media and politicians. A photo gets circulated of a boy with pneumonia, who, through a lack of available beds, is forced to sleep on the floor of the Leeds hospital. There is outrage.

But then another story circulates that a Labour party protester punched health secretary Matt Hancock outside the hospital. That story is retweeted by the BBC and ITV’s chief political reporters

Another story circulates that the photo of the boy was faked. The exact same wording is repeated by several fake accounts.

This story is picked up and retweeted by a Daily Telegraph columnist to her 40,000 followers.

It turns out both these latter stories were made-up, and circulated by Tory party spin doctors.

But it doesn’t even matter. Enough disinformation has been sown that we’re not quite sure what the truth is. Perhaps we give up on the idea of truth entirely and shrug.

This is exactly what Russian politics is like. I know because I used to live in Putin’s Russia. Who knows what’s going on? Who knows who really blew up the Moscow apartments in 2002? Who knows if Putin is really one of the richest men in the world? Who knows?

Out of that shrug comes apathy, hopelessness, truth bubbles, and crazy conspiracy theories. That’s why Russia has waged disinformation campaigns against other countries (as my old colleague from Moscow, Peter Pomerantsev, explored) — to undermine liberalism by eroding the very idea of truth.

But the situation is more dire than that. The trick mirror turns everything into a performance, so political debate becomes wrestling — a cartoonish gladiatorial combat designed not to converse with the other, but to win cheers from your fans. Every gesture seems phony — virtue signaling or moral grandstanding.

The internet creates bubbles of adoration and chasms of incomprehension. The morning after the British election, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with bewilderment. How could the country vote for the Tories and Brexit? After all those tweets! Will that lead to people spending less time trying to influence others on social media? No chance.

We’re all in our own reality tunnels, lovingly created for us by the tech titans.

As the internet erodes our ability to understand people outside of our filter bubble, it erodes the center ground and erodes our trust in the mainstream media. The BBC was the big loser this election, but all the TV channels lost. Biased! Stitch-up! Liars! You’ve been played!

The poor BBC. It was the glue that held the U.K. together for 80 years. But less than half of young people in Britain watch it now. We’re all in our own reality tunnels, lovingly created for us by the tech titans.

The internet was supposed to bring us all together into the “global village,” to turn everyone into centrist free-market liberals. Instead, it’s empowered the fringe and fired up the extremes. The far-right has gone mainstream by embracing the chaotic creativity of the internet. Where 1930s Fascists endlessly paraded the same symbols — the swastika, say — the 2020 far-right pours out an ever-changing stream of memes and insider winks.

The internet creates a feedback loop of mock shock and histrionic outrage. “Welcome to the scream room,” as journalist Laurie Penny would say.

Our very thought-streams have been colonized by the tech giants. I left Twitter because I was starting to think in tweets — I found myself talking to the internet even when I was offline.

I finally tore myself off, but then — obviously — went back on to Twitter this year, with all sorts of misgivings.

Meanwhile, the tech giants get bigger and bigger, with every new outrage, every new spasm of fury, they glow, and they grow. The house always wins.

I recently read Star Maker, a remarkable science fiction book from the 1930s by British philosopher Olaf Stapledon. It’s a sort of sci-fi version of the medieval dream-poem, or the classical “flight of the soul.” The narrator’s soul flies into space and witnesses the evolution and destruction of countless civilizations.

Across the universe, he sees civilizations go through the same struggle — they evolve into a higher collective consciousness, and then fall back into brutality or madness. And then, if they’re lucky, they ascend once more, sometimes gathering into planetary intelligences, or even galactic superminds.

I believe our species is facing this sort of crisis today.

We have reached a stage of collective consciousness, through globalization and the internet, and we can’t quite handle it. We’re going a little mad — like someone on LSD who can’t quite handle all the new information.

At the same time, we’re facing a global climate crisis, which requires a totally new level of collective long-sighted thinking from humanity. But we’re coming up on the LSD, and screaming at ourselves, tearing at our clothes, banging our head against the steering wheel.

Are we going to stabilize at this new level of interconnected global thinking, or will we fall back, back, back, either wiping ourselves out or sinking into tribal barbarism?

I think we’re going to come through.

Meanwhile, let’s recognize where we are. We’re in an entirely new level of interconnection, and we’re freaking out. Breathe.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions. www.philosophyforlife.org.

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