The internet is more than a place
Think of the internet, for a second. Many of us will have a physical notion of the internet, given to us by science fiction: that the internet is a physical place that one can go to, where the rules are different, where society is different, where physics may be different (think the Matrix).
This seems like an outlandish concept, and yet it has totally infected our discourse. We talk about cybercrime, about cyber-bullying, about being ‘on’ or ‘offline’ as if the internet is a different, physically separate and that certain kinds of actions can emerge from it specifically. ‘The Myth of Cyberspace’ talks about how we invented this concept of a cyberspace in order to deal with our inability to conceive the complicated coding and engineering that goes into the internet. But this abstraction of the internet has blind-sighted us to the way that the internet affects us.
In “Is Google Making us stupid?”, Carr argues that the internet has changed the way we think, making us focus more on ‘staccato’ methods of reading/thinking/contemplation, rather than the deeper forms of reading/thinking that occurred before the internet cannibalized all other forms of digital media. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore” says one of the writer’s friends.
Worrying about the effects of the internet has become an ‘in vogue’ thing to do recently. It has led to an “Offline movement”, which insists that we “move away from [our] computer screen[s]…deactivate, log off, unsubscribe”. But the very language of the Offline movement tells us that we’re looking at the internet, and its effects, in the wrong way, a way that is connected to our idea of there being a ‘cyberspace’ which we can leave.
The internet is more than a place; it is a way of thinking. We can see this whenever we help our parents/grandparents access their email, or whenever we see a teenager say “omg”. This is the feeling Carr has, that someone “or something, has been tinkering with my brain”. The internet has changed the way we use language and created a whole new concept of text, which is so accessible that it has become defanged. And the way that the internet has changed the way we think is larger than act of using the internet.
The Offline movement reminds me, as a child of the 90s, of the ‘turn off the TV’ movement. I was told throughout my childhood that my imagination was dulled by the fact that I watched TV, as if turning the TV off and existing in the real world would undo the show I’d just watched. But my imagination wasn’t changed by turning off the TV—I still thought about Pokemon, or Batman, or the Power Rangers, just as much as I did when I had the TV on. This is because the affect that TV has is larger than the state of watching TV—TV similarly is more than a place, it is a way of thinking.
So the statement that the internet is an ‘online’ that we can ‘unsubscribe’ from is self-contradicting—it attacks the influence of the internet just as it uses the language of the internet. It doesn’t ask us what the problems of the internet are, it doesn’t suggest a radical alternative (those would be too hard)—it simply continues this view of a cyberspace that we can wipe our hands of and leave. But that’s impossible—the online has changed the way we think EVEN THOUGH it is an imaginary place. To reject it we need to ask how it’s changed our thought rather than opting towards its similarly imaginary alternative, the offline. By looking at the internet as a place we can leave rather than a whole system of thoughts and actions, we consign ourselves to continuing the problematic aspects of the internet while in the process of attacking it—the very purpose of the newspeak that Orwell talked about and which Bernays commodified.
And to that, I say ‘lol’.