How We Failed the Internet… So Far

Your last email could have traveled 900 thousand miles in the time it took you to read this. Almost the instant you text, post, or Tweet, your friends and family know what you’re doing. Via video apps they can even be there with you. This is the Internet’s space- and time-crunching power. To be two places at once.

It’s difficult to overestimate the potential value of such multiple, simultaneous perspectives. But if we humans are evolving in the commonly understood sense — that is, not adapting but advancing to a higher level of civility and civilization — don’t we need a tool that grants this kind of perspective? A tool that breaks barriers of time and space and allows us to experience what others experience, opening the possibility of deeper and widespread empathy. And then action.

Somehow, that doesn’t sound like the Internet we know, does it?

Look, for example, at the most popular videos on YouTube in 2013 and 2014. They featured parodies, dance numbers, commercials, and gags.

For the commercials the raison d’être is clear. The rest? Why do these videos even exist?

Neal Gabler provided part of the reason in his 1998 book Life: The Movie. The invention of movies, he said, gave us the perfect outlet for our narcissism. We became Homo scaenicus — man the entertainer.

From that perspective it’s not a surprise that Kevin Allocca, the trends manager at YouTube, began his 2011 TED talk by saying “we all want to be stars.” By then YouTube was already a leading enabler and addiction of Homo scaenicus. Today that role has ballooned, as we collectively upload 300 hours of video to YouTube every minute.

No small part of that digital deluge is made in pursuit of becoming a celebrity — which Gabler points out is someone famous for being known. So narcissism and the hope of fame stoke the urge to upload.

But why do we so readily consume what others post? Although Gabler wrote about movies and TV, his answer seems especially applicable today, including to online video games. We gobble up this kind of entertainment, Gabler claims, because we’re constantly on the hunt for pleasure.

Narcissism + a pleasure-seeking disorder: What a bad combination. And what a lost opportunity.

The Internet is a tool that seems designed above all to help us understand others and to be understood. If we had to devise an ideal way to build bridges between different peoples, whether they are across the street or across the ocean, the Internet would seem to be it.

Yet all the posts, websites, and videos dedicated to education, art, charity, healthcare, and religion represent a pixel in a digital tsunami of porn, online games, blooper videos, and embarrassing photos.

Some believe that the technology itself is a problem. Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality, and MIT prof Sherry Turkle have given lonely but sage voice to the fact that “interfacing” with Internet-enabled gadgets cuts us off from the life playing out right before our noses. Sven Birkerts views our wireless technology as a scalpel that carves each one of us out of the real world and dices up our attention, leaving no place for imagination, art, self, or soul.

But these might be just the worries of the generation that lived through dialup and Yahoo’s first homepage. For the people who were born in the Internet age, isn’t it possible that Snapchats, Vines, Facetime, and Facebook present our greatest chance to fulfill our fundamental yearnings for sociability, attachment, companionship, affection, and most importantly belonging?

Jeremy Rifkin believes these are empathic drives softwired into us, and so dubbed us Homo empathicus. In his view these drives are the key to our evolving social bonds, which bring us together as we navigate the reality facing each of us: that life is short, fragile, and unique.

In an evolutionary sense, then, isn’t it possible that the space- and time-crunching tools of the Internet give us an unprecedented opportunity to extend these traits — and especially our empathy — beyond our neighbor to our entire global neighborhood? Isn’t it possible that these tools — our Snapchat and Twitter tools — can help us move to a new level of consciousness, a global consciousness?

Optimists ranging from the 20th century visionary Teillard de Chardin to today’s transhumanists would say that such a united, wired, complex, and adaptive consciousness is precisely what we need, not only to solve today’s problems but also to move toward fully realizing the essence and goal of life — and living.

Certainly there are positive signs that such an Internet-driven evolution is at least possible. Dex Torricke-Barton, the executive communications manager at Facebook, credits the Internet for empowering and expanding the global middle class, the cornerstone of a more united, peaceful, and tolerant world. The online community is gaining relevance and influence in local and worldly affairs, he says, thanks to an increasingly shared culture, free information, swift action based on that information, and nimble institutions that have the Internet wired into their DNA.

Torricke-Barton cites some beautiful examples of what has been accomplished via our technological connections, including the overwhelming online support for earthquake survivors in Nepal and the huge success of the ALS ice bucket challenge of 2014.

Unfortunately these and other amazing efforts represent but small drops in the virtual bucket that the online community loves to stare into. The most followed accounts on Snapchat belong to Kylie Jenner and her Kardashian sisters — each of whom epitomizes Gabler’s definition of a celebrity. The top 100 accounts on Instagram are nearly as vapid, with National Geographic one of the few exceptions. On Vine and YouTube, meanwhile, the leading attractions are comedians, pranksters, and video game commentators — amusing to some, but hardly world shapers.

The attention paid these people makes clear the massive hunger for sociability, attachment, companionship, affection, and belonging directed at the Internet. But it also speaks to the empty and addictive calories being served there. It’s fair to wonder, then, not just if but how deeply the networked life is distorting the empathic drives of those most enthusiastically plugged in.

Essena O’Neill — a former Instagrammer with over 600,000 followers — recently closed her account despite making impressive money as an 18-year old poster to the platform. Although she is a single example, it’s illustrative that she abandoned Instagram — not the Internet — because, she said, her online life was not “a candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention.”

O’Neill is an exception, not only for dropping Instagram but also for simply recognizing the effect it was having on her. Most don’t or can’t do either.

Is it that far of a leap, then, to worry that more than distorting our primary drives, our never-off connection to the Internet is also enhancing our drives toward self-interest and utilitarianism? And even aggression and violence?

We certainly see these tendencies flourish online, in trolling, shaming, and group think. These make clear that our relationship with the online world too often not only boxes out understanding, it crushes understanding. It turns people into objects. Commenters whose views we disagree with are not individuals expressing opinions, they are idiots to be condemned and silenced. The female reporter photobombed and swore at for the sake of a viral video is not someone’s sister, daughter, or mother, she is a prop.

The epitome of object making is, of course, pornography. In the relationship between watcher and watched, it eradicates humanity.

In his review of Auto Focus, Roger Ebert observed that “from its earliest days, home video has had an intimate buried relationship with sex.” In other words, we have always had a potentially dangerous relationship with the camera. It’s a wonderful insight in a discussion of a film about Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, who Ebert called “an empty vessel, filled first with fame and then with desire.” Crane’s life was destroyed not simply by his sad, unyielding real-life sexual compulsions, but by the fact that he filmed his sex life, as though in a hope for fulfillment, never satisfied.

Today, all smartphone owners are armed with cameras. The Internet, forever on, waits patiently. Still, it is a shock just how much pornography is produced, and especially how eager we are to share and seek it out online. The top porno sites stream enough video a month to fill millions of DVDs. And to dominate Internet traffic.

Of course the key here is that when we put the Internet to this kind of use we not only objectify others, we too become objects. When people are relegated to “things”, the chance for life-changing communication is snuffed out.

This is not the first technology we’ve misused to such results. But the two-way nature of the Internet held out such promise for something better — for sympathy, empathy, and informed action. And it still does. Certainly rays of this potential have shone. But the current reality is absent from Torricke-Barton’s state of the Internet address.

The tools we make are symbols of our god-like power to create. How we choose to use them is too often an example of our failure to live up to our potential. Whether you believe we were created by God or we evolved from stardust, ours is an elegant and wondrous story, and the Internet is our amazing invention. But how we’ve used the Internet so far has been, as the kids would say, an epic fail.

We’re better than this. Let’s aim higher.