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?



35 thoughts on “The Internet is Not Real

  1. It does make sense. Seems like everything we do as humans is rooted in paradox. Maybe things can only stand in relation to their opposite – No good without evil, no interconnectivity without that Internet of solitude… no mundane meme without the profound?

  2. Jac, I like this idea, & I’m sure it’s something like that. It just seems now that the mundane meme or enraging political garbage have more pull than such things may have in the past? Outside the net there was once a way for the profound to at least sneak through by accident?

  3. Where indeed is the punk in this vast S.A.W playlist? The Internet, and tbh, the whole hyperrealism industry, seems to cater to the lowest common denominator, ‘The way is shut, it was made by the dead, and the dead keep it.’ Perhaps revolution always needs stagnation, and the profound will find ears that are fresh again?

  4. Never thought LOTR would come to the rescue here, but that pretty much says it! Well, the least we can do is use the ways of the dead to undermine them.

  5. The internet is only as real as our imagination as we imagined the world into existence. It is a reflection, or a database of our conscience which encapsulates the essence of humanity, all the qualities of good, bad and ugly.

  6. I agree; technology & culture & the rest really are just reflections; but is it to apocalyptic to suggest that the internet & online culture accentuates the bad & the ugly?

  7. The internet is a vast ocean of shortcuts to knowledge and like all shortcuts, it serves neither context, critical thinking nor great imagination. That being said, there are benefits and connections to make. It’s just that they rely on our ability to curate what we take in, whose voices we choose to hear and whether or not they are deleterious to our critical thinking skills.
    I think this is an undeveloped skill set for most of us, but not a new problem. As long as there has been public communication, humans have not been particularly adept at being good curators for their own brains. I know this because I can list a lot of political talking points, but don’t know where I put my car keys.

  8. Thanks Michelle. I agree, but it just seems that the present moment is more precarious than in the past; I’m not sure that a mode of public communication in the past has ever been quite as good at keeping us from being curators of our own brains. It’s almost as if it exists & is successful because it exploits that weakness.

  9. It’s a bit of a stretch to describe the technology of the internet “apocalyptic”. I meant that the technology is created with the capacity to serve humanity in communication, and enrich us with knowledge on history and day-to-day information. The internet is a testimonial to our progress as a human race, development from horses to cars to trains to planes to spaceships. Like anything we’ve built from imagination was to serve us in having a better quality of life. The good, bad and ugly are qualities associated with the user behaviour. When the tools made are abused, nasty things happened. The internet brings disaster only if we allowed it. It’s always our fault. With the internet and online culture, our intelligence, and integrity are constantly being tested. Sometimes, it’s hard to see where things are going with space, and time seemingly squashed by the internet. Nonetheless, when internet came online my life sped so fast that memories of 10 years ago was like yesterday.

  10. There are several issues here. One that’s urgently being commented on is how clearly the recent U.S. election demonstrated that — as you observe and Michelle addressed to some degree — we’re locked inside “bubbles” of self-reference, defined by our likes, cookies, groups on FB, etc: without context. We see the world we select to see, and wider context and alternative points of view are excluded. The election was powerfully influenced by social media threads that reinforced what viewers wanted to see/think: a variety of self-propagandizing. We can choose to step outside our comfortable envelope, but it requires an increasing degree of effort.
    As for images, they’re here, deeply embedded in how we relate to the world. 15 years ago I marveled as I rode along the Grand Canal in Venice that 50% of the tourists riding with me never saw the scene with their eyes; their attention was focused through their camcorders. Presumably they’d “see” Venice after they got home and watched the video. That behavior’s been magnified by a quantum degree in the ensuing years. Well, a thousand years or so ago illuminated manuscripts became the rage, and if you go see manuscripts in the British Museum you don’t read the text, you look at the illuminations (unless you’re really good at deciphering Medieval Latin script). We’ve been programming ourselves for a long time to couple words with pictures.
    Thanks for writing, not photographing (although you produce some excellent photos, too). You couldn’t have expressed these thousand words (or however many) in an image.

  11. > there are movies as well written as they are filmed or edited

    Haven’t been able to find many recently. Most of the movies on my shelf go back a ways. 😉

    I use the internet the same way I use TV. I consume some content off it, but I limit myself and do not watch either “just to be watching something,” ie, I don’t switch on the TV when I come in the house, as so many do, to fill the void and *then* ask “What’s on?” First of all, I *like* silence, which so many seem to find uncomfortable for some reason, and I despise much of TV and now the ‘net because it’s designed to tell you, repeatedly, that you’re stupid, from the idiotic UX to the inane ads on television. So I avoid both unless there’s specific content I’m seeking. When I’m done with that content I leave the internet and TV behind…don’t take it with me on my phone and don’t want to. In fact, for me a glorious day is one where I don’t have to pick up my phone, ever.

  12. Brad, thank you for this. I hope it’s clear that I don’t mean to put any of the actual visual arts in the same category as breaking news graphics, constant replays on televised sports, & internet ads. I’ve often heard that the embellishments on illuminated manuscripts were in part pious flourishes & real attempts at beauty, as much as ways of alleviating what may have been boredom in monasteries. Images that were created not as a means of getting to the next one, but images that make you pause to consider that one image again & again–I value this as highly as I do words. What you said about Venice is sad, but made me realize something: I may be attracted more & more to the kind of natural or architectural wonders that require a hike or two to get there, simply because you’re forced to experience the surroundings first; even today, you can’t video or photograph all of it. So that when you reach the destination–whether Stonehenge or a cathedral–you do find an easier rhythm of experiencing & documenting it. I’ll take images & music over words most of the time (it’s only by accident that I write), but what passes for imagery these days is far from that.

  13. John, I hope everyone who’s commented here so far reads this. I meant to ask for just what you’ve give: seeing the problem, how do people out there deal with it? Another way is to spend as many days as possible with the clocks covered, & only using electricity as sparely as possible, & that’s it. Room for actual silence, room for actual talking, or just shared silence.

  14. Michelle, I hope you’ll see John Grabowski’s comment here as well; I wonder if I can ask what your way forward is; besides neglecting FB & Twitter, how do you curate news, etc.? What sites or ways have worked for you?

  15. I agree with everything pretty much all of this; I’m never sure if my reactions are real-world or just the kind of “look at the mess we’re in” that is always floating around. I tried to keep the essay short but what you mention is floating beneath this essay & nearly everything else on my blog: whatever bad the internet brings, it’s just our fault for allowing it. That point can’t be stressed enough.

  16. I’ve written about this a bit on my own blog, but in a nutshell, it means finding sources that do longer form reporting and staying away from sites are infotainment, post-truth BS. I am also now paying for the news I get online and off, in order to support a reporting staff and if I’m lucky, actual copy editors. Thus far, I like The Economist and The Atlantic. I read a local newspaper which sucks in all the AP reporting for current events. I don’t watch TV, since I loathe talking heads and pundits. And social media is not a news source for me. I think it all depends, too, how you best process information. For me, it’s definitely hard copy reading.

  17. Well said. No, I didn’t intend to suggest you were disparaging image in favor of word. Still, as just one anecdote, I know some large percentage of people give me a “like” on my posts for the photos without reading the copy it took me two or three hours to research and write. Yes the quality of the image IS strained. ANY image will do. Tough to deal with for someone like me, having spent my career with professionals in the image-making biz, for whom the snapshot is NOT enough. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

  18. The internet is real for it to be not. It has a valid reason to exist, created to serve globalisation. We use it to serve us as we decide. Afterall, we must place ourselves as masters of the technology where we control it not the other way around. If temptation can be subdued and balance is found, we can still interact with our environment meaningfully.

  19. It does make sense, Tim. Seems to me though that the overwhelming majority of human communications and interactions through the ages have been mundane, which is not necessarily to say banal, but it’s not as if even in highly literate elites we’ve always – or even – related through wall to wall poetry and profundity. Humans are tribal and have always stayed in affinity groups, affirming those who see the world similarly and rejecting those who don’t. The technologies of communication change, but communications continue to be characterized by confirmation bias and social bonding functions.

  20. I agree with the others, your post makes lots of sense. I, for one, hugely appreciate the way the internet opened up my world, both extending my knowledge and connecting me to people whose company & thoughts I find valuable. But the internet also does have this capacity of allowing us to pick and choose what we want to consume, intellectually or otherwise… and in this lies both the benefit and the danger.

    Obviously, with the ability to choose also comes the responsibility for what we chose. There’s nothing new in this; I believe the Bible already made it abundantly clear some 2000 years ago that free will comes with consequences (but I could have just as well referenced any number of ancient philosophers). What is new perhaps is that when it comes to the internet too many people are not aware of ‘making choices’ when they like something on Facebook, for example, because they don’t understand the underlying concepts (I don’t think you have to understand in detail how the various algorithms work to appreciate what their work results in) – and that’s where the danger lies. When you’re aware that your sources are biased, you can allow for that bias. When you’re not aware…

    For what it’s worth, I shared your post on my Facebook page – adding to the biased feed of my handful of followers there. 🙂

  21. Elly, I agree with all of this, but it just seems to me equally that some new ground is generally broken when we’re able to look past whatever we think our tribe or our preferences are. & as I’ve said in other comments, it doesn’t seem that previously we’ve run up against forms of technology whose sole function seems to be exploiting our need to belonging, & exclusion.

  22. Thanks Arwen. Might as well use Facebook to undermine Facebook! …And your point seems dead on. Everything from spending more money to leaving a horrible comment is so easy to do online, it’s as if we aren’t choosing to do anything, it’s just a terrible reflex.

  23. It is the end of civilisation as we know it, but the new civilisation is yet to be done… We live in a under construction world, in which we have to learn to deal with all this technology in front of us, not to be under distress with it, but use it to make our lives comfortable.

  24. The new civilization is probably upon us already & we don’t see it. What you said is pretty much it, tendencies like this are all over history, & in the midst change everybody feels a bit panicked. I hate to sound something like “those kids and their rock n roll.” The only real response is to use it to live decently, as best we can.

  25. I see the internet as a tool. But like a lot of tools, we have to master it. And not let it master us. I think we need time to digest all the new technology that has come to us since the early eighties. The same way that our ancestors needed time to digest fire, written language, mathematics, the automobile and airplane, movies, radio, television. That may take a generation or two. Soon people will learn that they have to play fair or everybody else won’t play with them.

  26. It makes perfect sense. I could not agree more effusively. I have complained to myself, lately, how text messaging has degraded communication to not actually communicating. It is so easy to send any nonsense that pops in your mind by tapping your thumbs. No context, body language, connection, or accountability. It essentially enables the “internet trolls” that everyone laments about to spread it to people you “love”. I think, similar to your point, there are those that avail themselves of these advances responsibly and to their advantage, but most do not. The internet is nothing more than an echo chamber, because you will only seek to answer your leading question. Thank you for this beautifully written and provoking post. I am glad you stumbled on my blog so that I could stumble on yours.

  27. in making sense out of nonsense we have an American president that is a cartoon character who communicates by tweets that can knock millions of dollars off company share prizes and have our great internet providers scuttling to Trump Tower to offer fealty. I guess each generation thinks they are saying something new. The internet is not real, but then again, neither am I, I’m just a koala bear sucking on bitter green shoots.

  28. Yes. The internet is not real. In the sense that all of aggregated symbols, words, concepts, artefacts, cultures and language-games are nothing beyond the observing audience and participants who imagine, reconcatenate and thus semantically, existentially create it. If all human beings suddenly vanished from Earth, all of our attributed meanings and culture would similarly vanish, leaving behind so many meaningless artefacts and symbols. Without observer, translator or interpreter, communication and communications technology (itself really just an evolution of signs and symbols, vocalisations on a spectrum from primitive signifying grunts through to Hamlet or indeed calculus and physics) – this all ceases to exist. If this participatory semantic interpretation is the veritable breath-of-life into communication and communications technology, the removal of the meaning-generating participant observer removes any notional reality. What may consist of so many wires, cables, fibres, motherboards and routers (etc.) which shuffle and juggle so many 1’s and 0’s – this is meaningless in itself and without us. This is why the internet is (and will remain) nothing. It is a nothing which still resembles something, by interpretation and attribution and like so much of what we embrace as real and important – like one mirror turned into another and creating a virtual depth which only appears to be real. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it – there is no tree, no forest. Without observation, signification and meaning-making participation – there is nothing. 🙂

  29. The internet is very much real because you are. Right? “I doubt therefore I am” makes it real. The challenge the internet presents is to step away from your reflection and gaze upon another’s. The difficulty is to see through someone’s eyes.

    Aside. I was in the process of writing a blog post. I stopped to look through my followers list and noticed that you followed me… I don’t know how I missed this goodness called “Word and Silence”… but here I am. So yes, maybe the internet is a collection of what we like – but so is life. The only way to expand our purview is to give a bit of attention to what makes us uncomfortable.

  30. Mel, you pretty much said it. It is really that the internet is as real as we make it, or as fake as we allow it to be. Discomfort & uncertainty are a key for me anyway. Hope you come by for a read & a comment again.

  31. Does the stuff you said make sense? or does it all even make ANY sense, the net, icons, avatars, degraded language, etc.. Not one thing in this world makes sense, nor does it have any meaning any longer ,save the meaning I inject intuit… and this may have been different before, and it may be again – good read, thanks for your thoughts

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