The coronavirus is the salient fact of life today, and I will address it in a minute. First, I want to talk about the internet and our inability as humans to simultaneously navigate it and display reason. For the mindset that permitted the establishment of such a fragile society as ours is the same mindset that is promoted by the internet.
In 1998, only twenty-two short years ago, before the internet was such a force and when Amazon, eBay, PayPal, and Google were just getting started—and when Facebook and social media had yet to be invented—a film called The Truman Show was released. Widely acclaimed, the movie depicted an entire self-contained town as the set of a TV show in which the main character, Truman, was the unwitting focus of the production.
Unbeknownst to Truman, whose life since birth had been controlled, groomed, manipulated, and filmed for the show, all the townspeople were actors who ran the stores and businesses to create the infrastructure and appearance of a “normal” community—the place where Truman was born, lived, worked, and prospered happily.
The town had an actual but imperceptible enormous dome over it; the weather and lighting were controlled, and every conceivable feature and dynamic within the town was part of an elaborate artifice to create Truman’s entire epistemology and determine his perceptions. The show’s producer had even given Truman a certain traumatic childhood experience that prevented him from being able to leave the town. All that Truman knew—his family, friends, education, religion, health, work, play, entertainment, news, prejudices, emotions, happiness, and reality—was the sum of the thirty years he had existed in the Truman Show’s world.
The movie is a powerful reminder of how malleable humans are and how vulnerable we are to being shaped by the circumstances and contexts of our lives. We tend to accept the realities we are presented with. The film is also an apt metaphor for “Webworld,” where increasing numbers of us live today and where everyone may have to live in the near future.
Webworld is that vast agglomeration of tools, services, websites, games, blogs, videos, podcasts, platforms, apps, and other online content—plus their dynamics and effects. If the label Webworld conveys a faint sense of otherworldliness, fictitiousness, or fantasy, it is meant to. If the term also seems slightly disparaging, it is meant to be. For a significant portion of the internet and its dynamics promote lies, fantasies, distractions, delusions, insanities, and other destructive effects.
We are a world today deeply in trouble, beset by major problems and realities in the practices of capitalism, technology, politics, media, education, and transportation. Related, the conditions and capacities characterizing the ecosphere and human nature and the magnitude of our overall human population all factor into the severity of our predicaments.
But it is the existence of the internet that may prevent humankind and societies from sorting out and surviving the challenges we face. Let’s outline the most toxic consequences of Webworld.
Every large problem we have today requires us to be wise, collaborative, forward-looking, generous, fair, informed, realistic, and humble. Yet, warped by the internet, the population as a whole is becoming less of all those things. We are becoming more silly, present-oriented, self-centered, impatient, misinformed, and opinionated all the time. We are increasingly apt to jump to conclusions, to be impulsive, to be unable to wait for more information, or to seek more context.
It is the entire internet—Webworld—and all the time we spend in it that is undermining our agency, our capabilities, and even our very ability to see what is happening to us. Lost in details, fragments, links, anecdotes, tweets, memes, video shorts, sensational bits, and infinite amounts of “news,” we are losing sight of the big picture. What is significant and what is not. To what we should give our attention, and to what we should not. Whether even to be serious at all, ever.
Slowly, invisibly, and incrementally, Webworld is capturing us, manipulating us, and promoting its agenda and the structures and ways of the economy and the world that it needs to prosper and expand. It cannot do otherwise, because the continuing success of its financial model depends upon us looking, clicking, linking, liking, tweeting, and buying.
Dis-integrating, dicing, grouping, and dividing us, Webworld is alienating cohorts of us from each other, putting us in “silos” or bubbles and thereby undermining our democracy. We are hardening our prejudices, falling into “us versus them” thinking, and doubting the goodness, motives, and patriotism of our fellow Americans. Reinforced by the internet, we think we’re right most of the time, and we’re apt to have a very poor understanding of ideas or people with whom we don’t agree. A critical mass among us is nearly dysfunctional politically, unable to countenance compromise or the idea that we’re all in this together.
The internet is also eroding our relationship to our physical bodies, our natural senses, the physical places we have created, and the natural world around us. Increasingly for users, the online world outshines and outcompetes the offline world. It is sucking up our time, attention, energy, and emotional resilience.
How does Webworld do all this? How could a force that barely existed twenty years ago have become the dominant feature of the developed world?
Well, invented by well-intentioned Silicon Valley software engineers, embraced by Wall Street and capitalism, and promoted by advertisers and “efficiency” advocates, the digital world was quickly recognized by the most established status-quo forces in society as an extraordinarily powerful tool for maintaining and enlarging their positions astride the economy and in all sectors of life. It takes an enormous degree of conformity, passivity, acquiescence, and order in the populace at large to sustain our heedless consumerist way of life. The internet and all its associated components and effects were a gift to those forces that cared most about keeping the population complacent, entertained, and spending. Webworld is unprecedented in its ability to narcotize the public.
As we work, shop, play, and browse on the internet, every click we make is recorded, tabulated, analyzed, and organized until a full picture of each one of us is created. This profile is continually added to and refined.
This data is being collected not to oppress us in any traditional sense. It is used instead to affirm us, steer us, influence our thinking, emotions, and behavior, and—importantly—to keep us online. In that sense, the digital world both seduces and tyrannizes us.
Taking advantage of the limitations, weaknesses, and proclivities of human nature, the platforms send us content, search results, and newsfeeds all tailored by algorithms to build on our personal online history and data profile. The process is subtle and seamless, and it results in highly addictive online experiences for us. We are delighted and reinforced. Hardly anybody can resist the internet’s incredible responsiveness; we love being the seeming master of our own media and information world.
And even our partial awareness of this con is nonetheless no match for the dynamics and algorithms of the internet. Before long, regular internet and social media users have unwittingly participated in constructing a bubble—like Truman’s dome—around themselves. Tapping our fears, anxieties, traumas, emotions, intellect, perceptions, vanities, desires, and more, Webworld imprisons and conditions us. Dominant cultures and societies have always tried to create a pliant people—now Webworld has done so in spades.
This criticism is not meant to deny the good that the internet has done. Obviously, it has been wonderful at connecting people, spreading knowledge and communication, and—especially during this COVID-19 crisis—permitting millions of people to work at home and thus stay safer. But the admittedly shocking reality is that, on balance, Webworld’s effects have been far more poisonous to the overall health of society than we have been able to counter.
Today, increasingly, there is no boundary between Webworld and the “real” world. We are in Webworld all the time. And steadily we are connecting more objects, processes, and systems to it. We are constantly enlarging our reliance on and vulnerability to it. Why is there not more alarm about this? Well, in addition to the natural difficulty of recognizing the dangers in an unseen and seemingly evolutionary unfolding of a technology, we have at work the standard processes of epistemologies that are both formed and unformed—and those being formed.
If you are older than forty-five or fifty, you may not be sufficiently alarmed by Webworld; your epistemology was formed largely before the internet achieved its hegemony, and so you still possess some distance, agency, and independence-of-identity from it. You can feel not threatened by it.
And if you are younger than thirty or thirty-five or so, you may not be sufficiently alarmed either. You had to learn computers, games, apps, and social media to proceed through childhood, school, college, finding work, and navigating life and possibly the gig economy. Growing up alongside and within Webworld, you formed an epistemology that organically contains it. It is infinitely familiar to you—it is not some new and powerful element added mid-life—and so you feel no threat from it.
Today more than four billion people are connected to the internet. Facebook receives tens of billions of posts every day. Twitter manages 500 million tweets a day. YouTube loads 500 hours of video every minute. And that is just the tip of the traffic. The staggering amount of material online defies all attempts—both human and technological—to purge it of destructive content. And it just overwhelms humanity with its effects. Its corrosive impact on the human mind is simply unraveling and disarming our best, higher powers.
And mind you, these have been the consequences playing out on the one or two billion people of the United States and other relatively developed nations—people who invented the internet, developed it, refined it, adopted it, disseminated it, and gradually integrated it into societies already technological, materialistic, and speedy. We grew up with the internet; if anybody should have been able to handle its “disruptions” and its disorienting world, it should have been us. If we think it is undressing us, just wait until Webworld more fully plays out among the remaining five or six billion people spread across the globe in diverse societies that may be primitive, uneducated, poor, religious, authoritarian, or in conflict. They are utterly unprepared for the whirlwind that will challenge their societies, their ways, and their minds.
Before the appearance of the coronavirus, we were well along in the process of transferring all of society into Webworld. We were in the process of being seduced or conditioned into creatures with insufficient discernment, little true freedom, and only the most superficial of choices. Not all of us, to be sure, but enough of a critical mass of the population that we were not going to be able to respond to the economic, political, technological, and environmental conditions that were and are building to threaten society’s continued existence.
It is possible that the virus may change our responses. I feel a slight hope.
Humankind—but especially post–World War II so-called “Industrial Man”—has always had a hard time being rational. After 1945, when the basis for human inventiveness, creativity, and energy was transformed from the requirement to satisfy the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and a living to the luxury of pursuing desires such as material objects and bigger lifestyles, the way was open for us to go off the rails. Advertising became a yet greater force, and acquisitiveness and broad consumerism were born. We built a house-of-cards economy that depended for its survival on every average citizen spending his or her paycheck. It was reckless and insane, and it required us to be irrational.
With the coronavirus bringing economic activity to a halt, we all see now the fragility of what we have built. And we created that system long before the internet. But whatever pre-internet follies we were embracing, whatever irrationalities we were displaying, once Webworld came along it was game over. For the internet enlarges and facilitates the worst potentials in human nature. It defeats the possibility of any widespread development of wisdom, clarity of sight, or concept of limits.
A year from now, the coronavirus survivors will be a more serious people. We will need to rebuild a society. There is a chance we won’t be as reckless and irresponsible as we’ve been. Humbled by this catastrophe, people may possibly see with fresh eyes all the dysfunctional realities in our systems of capitalism, politics, technology, and land and resource development, among other things. Perhaps Webworld will be seen for the epistemological menace that it is.
Nineteen years ago, for this very magazine, I wrote an article warning about the coming climate crisis. I said that we had better get working to address it. The article’s last paragraph read as follows:
Many observers have speculated that only a major, dramatic, and irreversible environmental catastrophe on U.S. soil will cause Americans to focus on rescuing the global environment. We all can work to prove that a catastrophe is not needed.*
Well, in nineteen years, we did relatively little, and unsustainability spread pretty much throughout every feature of the ways we organize society. Now, we’ve got our catastrophe, although not exactly an environmental one yet. How will we respond when it is over? I hope that we will realize what is important—and what is not.
* Brian T. Watson, “Eco-Rehab.” Free Inquiry, Fall 2001.