The philosophy that explains why social media fuels our “techxistential crisis”

On social media, who we are is the absence of everything we could have been.
On social media, who we are is the absence of everything we could have been.
Image: AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov
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Our modern world is a funhouse mirror that distorts our sense of self through our perception of others.

Think of how much time you spend evaluating yourself online—those thoughts you have each time you scroll through your news feed: It’s so cool that he’s doing that, you think, …but I’m not doing that.

Treating the internet as our mirror only limits us to our perceptions within it. We change our style, shift our perspective, and update our statuses when we peep something we don’t like in our reflections or when we see others staring at us. Each alteration is then evaluated by our audience, which can also never be large enough. This results in angst and isolation and an erasure of identity, not unlike what we feel in our own consciousness without the web—those internet-less moments of existential panic felt waiting for a plane to land, or taking a shower, or falling asleep.

When we look at content designed to influence us, at selfies of supposed perfect moments eclipsing perfect filtered scenes, we can only be insufficient. The power of the post controls us through our yearning for lives that could have been our own. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls this blurring of real life and imagined life the hyperreal, which always leads to eventual boredom.

Sound familiar?

These digital lives are ones we cannot live. While they are accessible almost constantly, they are impossible to actuate, because they are only our intermediated fantasies. Even if we believe what is posted is true, we publish and consume through insufficient forms—without the creator’s intent or process or influences—and are then left with our impression mashed up with our own consciousness. This leads to irritating inspiration, an impossible story, an awareness of our own lacking.

In other words, a techxistential crisis.

The wanton search for the best self outside of ourselves is best defined by 20th-century philosopher Jacques Lacan. His concept of the Ideal-I is someone you aspire to be but whom you will never become. It is the byproduct of recognizing yourself in the mirror, which comes as a result of self-awareness.

On social media we collect these unreal selves’ perfection and curate it—but you can’t be someone else’s reflection. So, we impersonate. We flip ourselves, and we too begin projecting people we are not. The cycle continues.

In this way, social media has made both our dreams and fears more tangible and tappable. We perform the Ideal-Is we so crave—we screenshot and repost and remix all of them, each of whom feels realer and better than actual life. Compared to the abstract concept of ourselves, this manufactured reality is an illusion over which we have control. We can be multiple people, over multiple channels, even at the same time. There are so many ways to exist online that we don’t have to be ourselves anymore at all.

This misbelief is eroding us. We’ve been told teenagers have more anxiety than ever. That the internet causes incurable loneliness. It’s one thing to host personae on a feed, but the Instagram delusion that they are us—or they are our enemies—makes us hate ourselves.

The internet can be a beautiful world. We just need to find some self-control by freeing our digital selves, a concept that was written about recently by Wired’s Nitasha Tiku:

“I learned about these newsletters on Twitter, discovered podcasts through Apple, and read about anonymity while logged into a Chrome browser on an iPhone, no doubt drowning in cookies. But when every aspect of our behavior online is surveilled and monetized, the prospect of clean living sounds sweet.”

If portals to the digital world are so exploitative, she asks, why not create better ones?

Let’s call it The Sublime. It could look like the role-playing video game Second Life—except it’s more like Nth Life. Instead of playing as a Sims-like stranger, you could simulate thousands of versions of yourself in an attempt to discover your Ideal-I. Are you a car junkie? A yogi? A musician? You could program the system with your ideal life metrics and goals. Are you searching for value, worth, happiness, fulfilment, passion? What are your salary, family, commute, hobbies, vacations, and love life like?

Of course, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft have been petri dishes for self-experimenting since the late 90s. In 2013, Slate reported about a study that found “men were more than three times as likely as the women to gender-switch” their avatars. While the behaviors of someone in the physical world undoubtedly affect his or her avatar in the digital world, researchers have found the opposite to be true. This is called the Proteus effect, in which we conform our behaviors based on our digital personae.

Trying selves on for size has only improved with technology. vTime allows you to socialize with friends or strangers in the setting of your choice. AltspaceVR allows you to play games as customizable avatars. And Dreamscape Immersive puts you as protagonist in the movie of your dreams.

But The Sublime would move roleplay away from the soft stuff of experience and attempt to add science and logic, combining data and context to the same types of personalities we project and scope through social media. Each variation could be based on the genetics and history of your existence so far. It’d be more like being able to “play” Instagram—program yourself as your main profile, your Finstagram (your “fake Instagram”), your vision board, but also all the other accounts you follow. You play God to ultimately become yourself.

This is not entirely science-fiction. The Monte Carlo simulation has been around since the 1940s and is used widely by financial advisors to forecast every possible market reality by combining historical data and statistical projections. By modeling unreal future outcomes, financial advisors are better able to make decisions in the moment or set goals for the real years to come.

What’s to say we couldn’t one day do the same socially? As computers collect more data about us, and as artificial intelligence forges connections across those data, it’s feasible to think we could calibrate this system to foretell ourselves. (That is, if we could somehow create the supercomputing systems required to process such massive amounts of data.) In The Sublime, we could check in on our Ideal-Is as they exist, but also fast-forward to see what the future may look like if we continue down their certain paths.

Remember that car junkie/yogi/musician thought experiment? We might find that the gearhead has fun until vehicles become autonomous. The guru is ripped until she hurts her back. The guitarist loves music but hates his unpopularity—and therefore himself. Maybe we’ll find out that the YouTube star in the yogurt ad really had the right idea all along—or maybe we’ll find that we were correct to have lived our lives the ways we did. That life is the outcome of what happens. That who we are is the absence of everything we could have been.

If technology develops to the point of being able to play out every version of ourselves online, what does that mean for our real lives? We might look at the simulation hypothesis for an idea. The theory states that our lived experience is actually a computer replication created by some other-worldly race, testing out its own hypotheses on us like an Earth-size game of The Sims. Of this theory, futurist Ray Kurzweil says in his book The Singularity is Near:

“If the world we’re living in is a simulation on someone’s computer, it’s a very good one—so detailed, in fact, that we may as well accept it as our reality. In any event, it is the only reality to which we have access.”

Simulation theory helps us define a “base reality”—our realest real. In Kurzweil’s mind, we have no other option to then accept this world, the physical one you’re currently reading this in, as our base. It’s the cool touch of your desk or phone. The smell of a workmate’s lunch or a subway stranger’s perfume. This world. The only one you’ll ever really get.

In the end, like saints, our simulations in The Sublime could inspire us. We could prototype our actions and decisions in the virtual world to work out how to do what’s right—or more right—in the objective one. We would have evidence—or at least rationale—for how to make choices that bring us closer to a world in which we’ll want to live.

On social media today, we perform inert personae who, in the end, don’t help us become our basest best. So let’s take control, and play ourselves instead of others. We can seek the sublime in the only place it might actually exist—the internet—and test how to live our lives. Maybe along the way, we’ll learn what living really means.