The internet is a manifestation of our psyches—neither better nor worse

The internet is a manifestation of our psyches—neither better nor worse
Image: Thomas Hedger
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Twenty years ago, the internet inspired hope. Like a clever toddler full of promise, people thought it would grow up and change the world. Now, it’s a young adult with all the attendant problems, plus some. Today, we’re more inclined to bash the web rather than marvel at it, though we’re ever more reliant on it.

We’re addicted and feel, as addicts do, trapped, yet always wanting more. We imagine, or actually recall, a time that wasn’t like this one, when instead of taking a maddening route from one stupid and superficial website to another, we engaged deeply and meaningfully in real life. Or that’s what we tell ourselves.

However, it’s not clear that there’s any point distinguishing between “real life” and our current more virtual existence. They are already so deeply intertwined as to be one and the same.

In 2011, social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coined the term “digital dualism” to describe the fallacy of the distinction between the “virtual” and “real” worlds. “We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts,” Jurgensen writes on his blog Cyborgology.

This contention even has support from the stodgiest of institutions—the US Supreme Court. Last year, in Packingham v. North Carolina—a case about a state law that barred sex offenders from being on social mediathe high court affirmed that social media is the new “public square.” Access to platforms like Facebook and Snapchat is critical to participating in public discourse, finding employment, reading the news, and more. Barring usage was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, the court concluded. The new public space is not limited to time or place. As Justice Elena Kagan noted, “these sites have become embedded in our culture as ways to communicate and ways to exercise our constitutional rights, haven’t they?”

The web and the world, social media theorists and high court justices agree, are one. And this world, whether we judge it to be positive or negative, is simply a manifestation of ourselves. It’s human psyche made manifest, with the same psychological qualities we ourselves possess—in Freudian terms, that’s the id, the ego, and the superego. It is our common personality at its most crass and its most noble.

Michal Kosinski, a social psychologist and data scientist at Stanford University who focuses on computational psychology, told Quartz last summer that the internet only reflects who we already are. “The new global village is great—it comes with benefits of the old village, like community, but also disrupts old, small community hang-ups about acceptable behavior,” he says.

In Kosinski’s view, this new global village allows people who were outcasts in the classic small town—for example, people who identify as queer—to find communities that support them without necessarily leaving home. Now, we can more easily find and connect to our tribe, ones we might not have even known existed without the internet.

To blame the web for its toxicity, in Kosinski’s view, is to ignore history.

This webbed life

Despite, or because of, the fact that the web merely reflects humanity’s beauty and foibles back at us, society is increasingly disillusioned with the internet.

Here are just a few recent examples of articles that decry the web and highlight our newish disillusionment:

  • “It is a strange fact, verifiable by people still living, that the Internet was once thought of as a grand superstructure by which all of us would be elevated to a state of technological enlightenment. This is not how things have panned out,” writes Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker. He bemoans “the deliberate awfulness of social media” and calls Twitter “hell,” a constant source of “bad news and worse opinions,” which he hates but will not escape.
  • Alex Hern at the Guardian similarly criticizes Instagram, but not because it breeds negativity. “Instagram is supposed to be friendly,” he contends. “So why is it making people so miserable?” Hern argues that the problem is relentless positivity, people’s urge to present perfect images of themselves that do not reflect the messiness of reality.
  • Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, is “devastated” by the turn it’s taken—fake news influencing elections, data privacy breaches, psychological experiments on massive platforms that are used by billions. “We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told Vanity Fair in July. He called it “a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.” In October, the “father of the web” proposed that tech giants like Facebook and Google may have to be split up, or at the very least disrupted by some new, better player: “I am disappointed with the current state of the Web. We have lost the feeling of individual empowerment and to a certain extent also I think the optimism has cracked.”
  • Tony Fadell, founder of the smart thermostat company Nest and former vice president of Apple, speaking at the Design Museum in 2017, also admitted, “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world? Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can—like we see with fake news—blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”

But perhaps that’s just more of the same old Silicon Valley hubris. The same people who were once so sure they could change the world for good with technology are now ridden with guilt, believing in their power to do profound evil.

Blaming the hammer

In fact, it’s much more likely that the web itself is a neutral entity. What we do with the internet, where we go online, how it influences us individuallyit all depends on us and how we engage with it. The web has something for everyone—porn, shopping, news, art, charity. To blame the internet for society’s woes is perhaps no more valid than blaming a hammer for its ability to smash things.

And while it is true that platforms like Facebook and Instagram create reinforcing loops, we’re not actually powerless as individuals. We’re just weak, desirous, driven by the superficial, no different than humans have always been. 

Technologist and philosopher Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer and early internet evangelist who isn’t on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, contends that you should just quit social media. Cold turkey.

In his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier argues that engaging on the internet makes us feel bad because systems are designed to manipulate us by measuring our interests, anticipating our desires, modifying our behavior, and creating opportunities for advertisers.

Lanier sums up the sinister purpose of tech companies in an acronym—BUMMER. It stands for Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into Empires for Rent. He contends that social media platforms need us to keep coming back, so they’ve designed tools that accumulate data about us, then give us more of what moves us most to create wealth for the platforms. BUMMER platforms are more than just a bummer from Lanier’s perspective—they’re infringing upon our health and happiness, eroding political and social discourse, curbing our free will, and turning us into, well, “assholes.”

But as Lanier points out, we can quit using platforms that make us sick. And if we don’t, that’s perhaps because resisting technology’s changes and complaining about them is a thing humans have always done.

In his 2016 book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, Calestous Juma of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government argues that skepticism about technological innovation is essential to being human. “Resistance to new technologies is heightened when the public perceives that the benefits of new technologies will only accrue to a small section of society,” Juma writes.

So perhaps what worries us about the web, the reason we now feel dread where we once saw promise, is the sense that a few major players—the tech giants and social media influencers—are benefitting more than anyone else from an experiment meant for all.

Controlling the mechanism

This brave new world, which we think is so very different from the world our forebears knew has unique elements. But our response to it is perhaps as old as time. As Lauren Oyler writes in The Baffler, we’re kidding ourselves if we’re nostalgic for some other era when we used time more wisely. She writes:

A refrain among my peers and colleagues—“what might I be doing if I weren’t looking at Twitter all day?”—presupposes that deep down we’re not really like this, that there’s some substrate of reality beneath this manic and useless activity, a noumenal world in which we accomplish tasks or experience leisure without tabbing over to our curated roster of news and opinion every five minutes. But the fact is…. if I were writing to you from 1880 or 1930 or 1975, I probably would have spent all the time I used this week to collect retweets and passively monitor the online activities of people I’ve never met to instead pace or stare at the wall or flip through old photo albums or call my friends on the phone or whatever else it is they did to procrastinate before the flagitious rise of the gig economy. 

To avoid the web altogether would be like riding a horse in New York City after the introduction of the automobile. You might be fine, but it would become increasingly impractical. And there’s a price to opting out.

Novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith aren’t on social media, for example. Franzen has been widely derided online with the hashtag #JonathanFranzen hates for criticizing a society he won’t participate in but insists on analyzing in literature, while Smith’s effort to protect her writing from toxicity and critics may end up making her irrelevant in a culture that largely exchanges on the internet; it’s difficult to understand and describe the world when you refuse to engage with it. Meanwhile, Rupi Kaur, the premiere Instagram poet, owes her literary career to social media; hers is the more common route for the postmodern writer. 

We are not the internet’s prisoners. We are responsible for finding healthier ways to engage with the internet. If you find Facebook depressing, maybe ask yourself what you see in others’ lives that you want to change about your own?

“On social media, people often paint overly positive pictures of their lives,” Erin Vogel, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry, told Oxygen. “They don’t necessarily lie about what’s going on, but they usually don’t tell the full story either.” 

What’s problematic is something deeper, something that we’ve known grappled with since biblical times: We covet what our neighbors have, and envy lives we don’t even understand. 

People in three parts      

While some of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s work has been criticized, his model of the mind has survived and made its way into common parlance. In Freud’s view, the human mind is divided in three parts: the id, ego, and superego. The id is the instinctive and impulsive part of us we are born with, a primal self driven by basic desires and emotions—sexual craving, hunger, anger. The ego is strategic but not moral—like the id, it wants to maximize pleasure but the ego also tries to balance the primal desires with the demands of society. Finally, the superego imposes morality and values.

The web has elements that activate each of Freud’s designations. It’s true that the web has a dark side, with markets where guns and sex and drugs are sold. However, the dark web didn’t create crime or depravity—it simply made a virtual place for the kinds of things some people do in the physical world.

The ego’s desires, too, find a place online. Our constant consumerism and our boastful social media presences are evidence of the ego at work. We are beasts hungry for validation, feeding a part of the self that can’t be sated.

Finally, there’s the superego. And that, too, manifests on the web in efforts to unite for good causes. GoFundMe and KickStarter campaigns are used to fund medical treatments, support social movements, and contribute individuals who become important public figures.

More manifestations of the superego at work on the web are efforts to save lives in the face of human-created or natural disasters, even in the simple desire to connect with others near and far, in our expanded view of ourselves as part of a global culture.

Nothing new under the sun

Everything that happens now in our hyperreal existence is an expression of the human mind, which has always been capable of dreaming up horrible and glorious things. What’s new is that we have a tool that allows us to tap into and record the collective consciousness, its darkness and its light.

We need not despair that the internet will destroy humanity as we know it because humans have never been that awesome. Instead, we should be asking ourselves how to live better in light of the tools and knowledge we do have, how to manage ourselves and develop the skills to cultivate a more illuminated consciousness.

Perhaps it’s much simpler than we think. Maybe it’s as easy as minding ourselves, each of us individually, considering our contributions to the web as a communal act, seeing that each tweet and post and photo is creating a record that we share and that has the power to influence others exponentially. If we came to understand the internet for what it is, our village, our group project, our public square, we might be more inclined turn it into a very nice place to visit.