Another dead notion that simply won’t shut its beak: the idea that the internet was supposed to connect all of humanity and it failed. “It failed.” Is your brain fried? Are you microdosing alcohol in between ayahuasca retreats in Mexico? We are connected. The tentacles reach into every home and hug us to the same monster. We all see each other all the time and perhaps what’s really said is that the equivocal we doesn’t like what it sees.
Where do we begin? First, we have to understand the hope that was placed in the internet.
It’s neatly summed up in 1996’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” A manifesto addressed to governments, proclaiming the Leviathan’s disbarment from the digital country. The emotion swirling around John Perry Barlow’s fingertips must have been contagious as the flu. It’s dripping with hope. Full of love for a transformation that might as well have been transcendent: a freeing from monkey limbs and turnip brains.
What Barlow envisioned is the philosopher-kings of a new age. A rational, enlightened being more interested in truth than gorilla-posturing. Humanity could accelerate to walking on two legs using its newly minted tool and become leaders of a glorious utopia that would inspire heaven’s spires to rise through the dirt of the earth. You don’t need institutions or a Republic with the internet playing puppeteer.
Over twenty years have passed. And while there are more people wearing “philosopher” as a four-syllable summary of their personality on Twitter, there are few people who can claim enlightenment. The tool didn’t fulfill the zealot’s prophecy.
To start, governments ignored Barlow and co’s “Do Not Disturb Sign.” Because if there are natural laws to sovereignty one of them is its insistence on dominating every sphere of social interaction. Sorry anarchists.
And part of the general we more or less welcomes it. The wild west must be tamed so coastal ignorants can plant a garden. A safe, welcoming environment that’s always splashed with sunshine. Only a father can guarantee such security. With each day the mighty bicep of the state further chokes the web with an aviator grin. All applaud king Chadzer.
But what’s worse: the people who live online are nothing like imagined. They have become slimy toads; burnt toast stepped on, on a corner; oversized black tees; fat whales vaping fruit-flavored juice mixing with the smell of rotting Taco Bell; shades drawn to chase out the son; a keyboard coated with white film grease peeled off in Spring; a Vitamin D deficiency that no doctor will diagnose; fake usernames born in 1970 that have been drinking porn since 2002; content indifference that loves to laugh at the all-too-serious and pokes captured bears with blue iron: Shitters.
These folks could be Diogenes, but they eventually become addicted to the same drug in an always-connected world: the need to wave flags. And that’s what everyone does, frog-person or otherwise.
The more embedded you are within a community, the more you need to distinguish yourself from its members. When the whole goddamn world is connected you’ll grab any stick to demarcate. Seeking either approval or discord through signals flamboyant as a peacock-in-heat’s feathers. Busy as hell marking up HTML with whatever can be funneled out of the neocortex. Marching with allies, throwing stones at enemies.
We don’t live in closed off information cul-de-sacs: that’s the clickbait quick-spit–shine-up highlight. Instead, everyone has a license to drive on the same superhighway and people aren’t happy about it. They want to share the road with the same smug vehicles they drive. And because it turns out people aren’t like them—on some level, resembling another species—they try to crash into whatever bumper sticker offends their sentiment. And when that fails they shut down parts of the highway altogether.
Because connection is ubiquitous.
Everyone sees what everyone else thinks. And instead of laughing at the absurdity of it all we’ve chosen to dig the trenches deeper, always keeping an eye on the other side across no-mans-land.
But here’s the best part. What you typically see is the extremes. That rabble-rousing minority who never learned the virtue of silence. With a wave they wash their tyranny across discourse and slave away to mold a combative image of the way things are. These are the people who give credence to the Civil War narrative.
So no, the web is not a catalyst for authenticity and self-actualization—whatever the hell that means. Nor could it ever have been. It can’t produce better people; not on its own at least. What it did accomplish is an always-open window into the minds of the other. A job well done. We can prick and prod and distinguish and spit and applaud all over each other’s brains. The scope of human experience is stupefying and the internet has given us access to the biggest slice of the stupid.
What will happen—is happening—is another division: an adaptation; the cell must divide to survive. Some will be capable of exploring this landscape without being captured by the petty politics of its mating rituals. Others will drown, blaming someone else for their lack of oxygen. But navigating the hyper-connected doesn’t require an ubermensch. Just a good sense of humor.