I woke the other day to find this sentence in my email: The internet is not real.
Because after we go beyond all the news that has been filtered to reflect our opinions, all the ads that reflect our preferences and all the entertainment that we choose to fall into for hours on YouTube or Netflix, what of the internet actually resembles reality? Where else except in our own heads can we encounter only the people and ideas and images we prefer? The internet is not real because the internet is us; the internet is no one else but a huge isolated Us.
I remember being thrilled as a teenager, with my Walkman or portable CD player, to be able to cut the grass or drive around while listening to the music I liked. And earlier in my childhood, going to restaurants with my parents or visiting relatives were radically altered by now having a Game Boy. Music and video games were no longer tied to one room, to a huge TV or stereo; but like the present day, continuous access to such things did not amount to a better use of time—“I can play Game Boy here, so I can do something else later”—but instead crowded my time with endless choices that could all be taken up whenever I chose. The difference now is that this ability is determining the lives of all of us, and how we perceive and understand one another. It is determining how we actually live.
The internet we’ve allowed to be created is also largely based on images meant for immediate, perpetual, and repeated consumption. Words themselves are at best a cheapened supporting cast. The artist and poet Hugo Ball, in the wake of the First World War, complained of “the language devastated and made impossible by journalism.” So this is nothing new. But in a primarily visual culture this degradation of language is even worse: our media and culture demands an endless stream of images, and so only the simplest and easiest words—whether provocative or combative, and rarely requiring critical thinking—can be used alongside them. This reliance on imagery and technology have created a media and culture which are more successful the less informative they are; and so is it possible, then, that the caricatures we are given of everyone, of all political or cultural stripes, are as cheap and inaccurate as the words and the images used to describe them? And are we just gullible, attaching ourselves to one or another cheap group to belong to? Have we all been had?
But just as I’ve just used the internet to say how bad it is, there are clearly alternatives: there are movies as well written as they are filmed or edited, there are documentaries so filled with with real people expressing themselves that we could do without the images of them entirely, and just listen. Podcasts are another avenue for the primacy of words, where the speaker has no net but his or her ability to articulate. (There are also old fashioned print books!) And the friendships I’ve made online all express themselves in ways that wouldn’t have been any different a hundred or a thousand years ago: through emails, through actual private words not dependent upon the reactions or comments of anybody but one person.
Does any of this make sense?