The Virtual Desert | John Power
In the film, the Social Network, a jubilant Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, tells Mark Zuckerberg ‘we lived on farms, and then we lived on cities and now we are going to live on the internet!’. This film, and that particular quote, encapsulated a philosophy of the Internet which had existed since the late 1990s, and had spread to the public by 2010 when the film was released. There was a virtual world, just around the corner, which would come to transform and replace the physical one that came before it, a change as profound and beneficial as the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions which preceded it.
While the political ideologies of the 20th century had failed to produce a Utopia on earth, and killed millions, the internet was a tool by which new societies could be made. They would be absent of the power hierarchies, controlled by corporate and state monopolies, which made life miserable in the physical world. John Perry Barlow, in 1996, wrote a declaration of independence for ‘Cyberspace’, where he warned the ’governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone/ You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather’.
Our perception of the internet, the giddy anticipation with which society welcomed the spread of social media, has completely changed in the ten years since ‘the Social Network’ was released.
Without necessarily having to understand the processes by which social media is unravelling society, it is fair to say that there is a common cultural consensus that it is having a deleterious effect. What is also common, a view that is shared by both the academy and the general public, is that this technological dystopia is inevitable. We are bound, because of the undeniable convenience of technological progress, towards a completely atomised and alienated society. The physical world will be reduced to takeaways, working from home and social media. We will live our lives vicariously through the virtual world, controlled by incomprehensibly enormous technology corporations with a complete absence of conscience or responsibility.
The utopia predicted by Barlow, and Parker, turned out be nothing more than a mirage in the sand. Instead, the now unstoppable virtual world appears to us a vast and never ending desert, without the nourishing rain of human interaction.
Elements of this apocalyptic worldview have already started to appear in contemporary society. Our physical world is warped by the tantalising chorus of visual stimuli which lurk beneath the surface of the ‘black mirror’ which we hold in our hands. Our perceptions of our bodies, and attractiveness, is dictated by a Darwinian process on Instagram, where the simulacrum we upload compete for likes and attention. Our political processes, and civil society, is undermined by algorithmic tendencies towards extremism and echo chamber.
At first, it seemed as if Coronavirus was a catalyst, which would speed up the process by which the virtual world would usurp the physical one. Our working lives would be replaced by Zoom calls. City centres would be changed forever, as the pressure to live near the office withers away.
What is more interesting is that world outside of work, where social media seemed poised to replace physical relationships. Already, mobile phones have become a necessary component to the modern circle of friends. We make plans, purchase tickets to events, all through virtual networks of communication.
With the advent of Lockdown, in March, arose a belief that the physical meetings could be disposed of entirely. We would never return to the physical world. It was not necessary to meet face to face with your friends, whose mouths had transformed overnight into geysers of toxic Covid phlegm. Instead we turned to Zoom, and spent spring evenings alone in our rooms drinking alcohol to the glow of laptop screens. We participated in online quizzes, downloaded the Houseparty app, and for a moment it seemed better than before.
The FOMO normally attendant to spending time on social media, the Instagram stories which detailed precisely how other peoples lives were better than yours, was gone now that influencers were forced to remain indoors alongside the unwashed masses. It seemed for a while that our lives, lived on our virtual networks, were made more comfortable when the physical world was reduced.
And then, it stopped. The Zoom quizzes melted away, Houseparty crumbled. It was if the entire country decided that loneliness was a price worth paying to avoid waking up hungover next to empty alcohol containers.
And our perceptions of what the virtual world can do for us, the inevitability of its usurpation of the physical, has been undermined completely. It almost seems like in this period of extreme social isolation, we have over exposed ourselves to the massive shortcomings which underlie the supposition that we will inevitably become an atomised and entirely internet dependent society. Rather like a juvenile delinquent who, when his father finds him smoking, forces him to smoke twenty cigarettes one after the other, we have become inoculated to the worldview put forward by Sean Parker. We have been forced to face the fact that drinking alcohol in your room in front of a webcam is not the same as meeting your friends in the local. We have no desire to truly live on the Internet.
Of course some aspects of the virtual world are more efficient. The way we work was already changing, and more people will be working from home after having the experience of life without dreary commutes and drearier colleagues. This modifies the blandest section of the rich tapestry of most people’s life, our work. It has failed to replace the principal element which makes life worth living, the relationships we have with our friends and families. We were not drawn irresistibly to virtual concerts, as much as the understandably desperate marketing directors of our doomed cultural industries might have wished us to be. Unlike the Hunter Gatherers, who picked up the plough and found himself fatter and more content, Coronavirus has exposed the internet for what it is, a mirage in a virtual desert drawing us to isolation and misery. It’s ability to warp our political systems and personal lives, can therefore be challenged.
Our present lives, and our near futures, have been made immeasurably worse by the pandemic. But perhaps we can retrieve from it a lens by which to view the future more positively. The Virtual world should be subordinate to the real one, a tool for enhancing the physical one, as opposed to replacing it. The Internet, as we already know, will not turn society into Heaven on earth. It is entirely within our power to stop it from turning into Hell.