Is the Greatest Tool We’ve Ever had Transforming us or Destroying us?
According to the internet, we do and we do not need one another.
Tech has given us connection at the tickle of a touch screen yet we are more alienated than ever. Instead of learning how other humans do human, we retreat to echo chambers that validate our emotions and beliefs while proudly proclaiming that we are self-made. And we see no contradiction or paradox in our discourse because, to us, people on the other side of the screen aren’t really people but a faceless, malleable, and ever-growing crowd, a limitless resource we can tap into by triggering the right emotion.
The advent of magic online money has made some of us so terribly greedy we’ve cannibalized human hearts until outrage started replacing empathy.
Dehumanizing people because theirs is a digital rather than physical presence is the very opposite of what the internet was supposed to do. It was going to be our interactive window on the world, an upgrade on television that would not just entertain the brain but engage it and build bridges between us. Instead, we’ve empowered all matters of ills, from alternative facts to fake news to random braggarts who have made a business out of selling shock and outrage online rather than promoting dialogue.
Worse still, their relentless appetite for fame and fortune mesmerizes us; as we blindly consume their every social media utterance, they lull us into a false sense of familiarity and authenticity. Because they broadcast themselves to the world several times a day, we feel we know them. In some cases, we might even grow attached to them as if they were our friend; we’re so desperate for connection we forget we’re just metrics, another data point. When they tell us they built their own success alone and from nothing, we believe them even though there are footprints on our backs, our pockets are empty, and our eyes are tired.
Why pretend any of us can go it alone when we cannot even spend a few minute without our handheld devices? Humanness is all about communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing, which is why we fell so hard for social media in the first place. And yet, the digital mirror is an evergreen surprise; every day, we’re coming face to face with our reflection for the first time. We simply cannot get enough of staring at ourselves.
Welcome to the internet, our collective house of mirrors where nothing is exactly as it seems, not everything we read or write is true, and aberrations abound. Humanity is so busy pointing the finger and mocking itself it may well have forgotten (how) to think.
If the first commandment of the internet is not to believe everything we read on the internet, how many of us actually apply it when it isn’t a job requirement? Instead, we conflate realness and truth without batting an eyelid, reasoning that those who bray the loudest must have an important message if they won’t shut up about it. And we love stories so much — especially personal narratives of endurance and bravery in the face of adversity we can draw inspiration and hope from — we no longer care whether they’re factual or fictional.
Mostly, we keep our fingers crossed someone somewhere has figured out how best to do human by now because we’ve been trying since we were born and we still haven’t got a clue. So whoever presents us with the miracle listicle we need to overcome, transcend, and self-actualize, we’ll gladly let them have our hard-earned cash and hand over our credulity, too.
Being alive is exhausting so we lurk in the shadows online, alone, looking for answers on how to grow the self but we actually don’t want to connect with anyone in particular because we wouldn’t know how to have a conversation that doesn’t revolve around the self, the so-called “cult of me”, the “monoverse”. Although we are the aghast architects of our own loneliness, its ruthless relentlessness still shocks us; we lack self-awareness as much as we shun accountability.
But what’s the point of holding ourselves accountable when we can make money hand over fist coming up with the most hyperbolic narratives and ridiculous formulaic filler content that constantly stimulates fury? Ours has become a high-toxicity environment teeming with outrage niches built and maintained by those who have zero interest in facilitating debate and discourse as it is much easier to peddle hatred than humility, much easier to cry wolf than to take a long, hard look at ourselves.
Because we can, we are typing and publishing words that mean absolutely nothing, recycling clichés to keep algorithms fed without adding any value to the global conversation. Instead of engaging our hearts and minds to think out loud in print, we pilfer ideas from message boards like Quora or Reddit and call it “research”.
And then we come up with half-baked theories so edifyingly improbable we get that little more removed from reality, that little more estranged from our peers, that little more convinced that we are the one we’ve been waiting for, our very own superhero.
I tried to hold my own hand for five years and it nearly killed me. So when anyone posits that all it takes to lead a happy, fulfilled life is self-love then the hubris of their self-deception is utterly dumbfounding and a public hazard. What happens to those who are so mentally vulnerable they would believe and sign up for anything promising them relief and it fails, again? How can anyone feel comfortable profiting from disempowerment?
That’s not using writing as alchemy to build a better life, word by word, by flipping the script, it’s actively contributing to the downfall of humanity as we cash in on despair. Again, this isn’t what the internet was created for, at least not according to the man who invented it.
When we enable and empower this kind of behavior, is it any wonder we end up so inured to any human experience that isn’t ours only extremes cause us to react until we become numb to them, too? Is this why so many of us feel adrift, lost, without purpose, and so soul-crushingly lonely we’d rather declare we’re self-partnered rather than own up to our people deficit?
Look, we are a society not a collection of individuals leading perfectly parallel lives. Like it or not, our lives intersect in innumerable ways therefore our actions always impact more than just us, much as those of others impact us. That’s why (r)evolution is never the work of one person but of many like-minded people. There’s much comfort to be found in knowing it’s quite impossible to go it alone; it means other people will come along at some point, hopefully soon. How about taking a tentative step toward them, to lessen our loneliness and, who knows, perhaps theirs too?
Would we even have language(s) if we weren’t meant to live together? Would we even have the internet if it weren’t meant to help us radically transform our society? And what meaningful change(s) might we create if we combine the two to restore dignity to our shared humanness instead of turning ourselves into circus freaks for clicks and bucks?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.