There’s One Thing We Still Haven’t Learned About the Internet
And it explains every one of its broken promises.
I got the internet at 12. So that means I’m an oldie, I’ll be one of the last to remember what it was like for it not to be there.
Humanity opened up to me when that first 28k dial-up modem screeched to life. It would tie up the phone lines, you know, that modem; even from its earliest iteration, the internet was a thing that threatened our communication with those closest to us, even as it connected more of us to each other.
We were so naïve that we turned our kids loose to have fun on that thing. I still remember the first time I spoke to someone over the internet, in a Napster chat room. I couldn’t have been older than 13 or 14. I was lucky, but not everyone turned out so well, having been made vulnerable to the whole of humanity’s worst instincts with almost no supervision.
There was a promise we were all given then, and which has remained a prime fixture of any conversation about our modern web of connectedness. It was that this was an extension of the world; that what was true in the world was true online, and vice versa. It was the vice versa part that we got so tragically wrong.
Experience does not lie. Hit in the head by a baseball, one doesn’t downvote the existence of pain or crowdsource alternative theories of air resistance. Things around us are just true.
The internet, though, was a buffet of endless choice realities. Its craven libertarianism would prove useful once or twice, but it would come at the hands of a very real erosion around what it meant for things to be, to happen. And we slept through that erosion, imagining that the dream state of those early days was a reflection of the real world we’d find on waking, or at least that any meaningful differences would shake out in the wash.
We’ve begun now to wake from that dream, and to understand that things really are — and always were — a certain way, and that, in returning to the physical, we are drawn to embrace a notion of the world that has, however implausibly, become out-of-fashion: that ultimate truth exists, and that reality is its bible.
To aggravate the problem, the web has taken a wrecking ball to conversation, and many of us have simply lost the ability or the motivation to even talk about these things. As we all know by now, our modern glut of information is yoked to a perpetual shortage of attention. There’s just too much to keep track of, too many people to be, too many profiles to update or comments to fling at wrong people. We just can’t.
We made up our minds from AOL onward that we’d accept the consequences, because the benefits were worth it. Maybe they were. I’ve always thought so. I saw huge promise in it, and of course, I wouldn’t be this person without it.
But we all know what it’s like for younger versions of ourselves to choose a path for us that we will later find unmanageable. Our kidselves couldn’t have known the problems that they were creating for us to solve years down the road. It’s the same with the web’s (mostly unwitting) architects. They never knew what it even was to be human — we’d all learn that later, or at least start to care about it more—so they couldn’t have built a system back then that took it all into account. And today, we pay.
You’ll say that we’ve been exploring the human condition as long as we’ve existed, and you’d be right. But look at where you are now. These words would never have crossed your feed before. I don’t matter, and you don’t know me, and it doesn’t matter. This is one of the central innovations of the web, and it’s where we diverge sharply from our former selves.
You read things now from nobodies all the time. Reddit, the front page of the internet, is a hotbed of nobodies saying things about which people, nonetheless, do care. It didn’t used to be that way; without a Name, you were a fly on a windshield, wiped away with a smirk, if you were acknowledged at all. I think we can agree that giving the voiceless a platform for expression is a good thing. On the other hand, something like the rise of white supremacism on the modern web can swiftly betray such a benefit’s startling double edge.
Everything is a trade-off, sure. But I’m not interested so much in whether we’d rather not have the daily brushfires of mass delusion scorch our collective discourse, but instead in whether we’d rather be different kinds of people than we have become. Whether in creating such a platform, we were somehow always going to have to surrender our prize to worse versions of ourselves.
Tech seems keen to the idea, at least in principle, of rediscovering humanity afresh, offering us near-daily mea culpas and platform redesigns to help us curb our baser instincts. But even on Silicon Valley’s best day, it can feel like the game of such understanding is being fielded by a team of profoundly lost people.
One of our biggest blunders was that we never decided to address our innate tribalism before we unleashed a global network that amplified it to the moon and back. Some genies can’t be put back in the bottle.
The solution to this, we have of course convinced ourselves, is to simply wish for more wishes from the same genie.
We’ve got to stop thinking of the internet as an extension of who we are, and start to realize that it’s an agent all its own, a nonhuman brain, in a way, that foists on us between the lines a cruel, unspoken agenda: It wants you to stay.
It wants you to stay, telling you that you’re better for it, a better human, a better global citizen, a better mother or programmer or chef. That if you only scroll or click a few more times, you’ll have it under your belt, whatever it is. But the thing we still haven’t learned about the internet is that it doesn’t want your fulfillment, and it never did.
And it will never deliver it.
You can’t be satisfied. This is the one true thing about life that the internet will resist teaching you at every turn. Because to learn it is to vaccinate yourself against its primary motivation. You’ll spend less time with it. When you’re not aiming for perfection, nirvana, utopia, when you’re just trying to remember what it felt like to breathe and rest, then the internet is a tree without fruit.
My question isn’t whether you would have figured all this out sooner if you’d just unplugged, but whether these observations would have seemed as meaningful or necessary if we had all just never plugged in to begin with. Maybe it all could have been avoided, or maybe hindsight is 2018.
Maybe you’re like me. I just want us to learn how to be human again, to get back some of what we knew before the wires crept up and told us we had to be a certain way, or write in more concise paragraphs, or take our selfies from a certain angle, or that our worth lay in sponsored content or third-party analytics.
It’s all so specific, so fleeting. There is something that it was before, and always has been, to be us, and we’re forgetting the long game, focusing on things that are only true inside the trans-Atlantic tubes of the internet, but that won’t outlast it. (Ha, outlast the internet, you’re probably thinking.)
Life can be something it’s not, this was the promise I saw at age 12 as I double-clicked the yellow running man and plugged my ears. It’s the promise I see again on the other side of this intractably connected pseudo-life.
But I’m tired. The fatigue this way of life has caused is real, and the fact that this sentiment is such a baldly tired restatement of fifty other thinkpieces shows how deeply and tragically acquainted we’ve become with this ambient anxiety. But maybe, just maybe, it also shows that we’re keen to it, and that in waking up, we’re ready to change it.