The internet is the worst polis

The human condition, alienation, and the internet (in times of COVID)

[The polis] is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where [humans] exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly.

…To be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality…

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

Loneliness, and the human need to be seen

Humans cannot live solely in the private realm, where what we do has no significance to other people. The lack of a public realm — a place where we can show who we are to others — results in the mass phenomenon of loneliness. We need to present ourselves and our work, and be recognized by others, to know that we exist, and to know that the world around us exists. Without the ability to place ourselves in the world, we are unhinged.

The dangers of being seen / what makes a suitable polis

The problem with living in public is that anything we do or say has consequences that we can’t anticipate or reverse.

And so, society is organized in a way where we can show ourselves in public, but also minimize the risk of being alienated:

  1. The public spaces where we show ourselves are limited in size.

    For example, we may have a workplace of colleagues. For better or worse 👀, we’re recognized for our work labor; being ‘productive’ is uncontroversial and our significance as a human is validated.

    We have friends, families, or communities of limited size that are a safe place for us to see each other and to be seen.

  2. The public spaces that we inhabit are bounded in time.

    We can’t live in public all the time — that would be impossibly precarious.

In the pandemic, the only polis is the internet

With the pandemic has come the sudden dissolution of the safe public realms that we used to inhabit. In a time when we are living through and grieving profound changes and endings for ourselves and others; in a time when we need others to help us recreate and redefine our selves and our world the most, the only avenue of connection we have is this.

…and it’s the worst

The internet has always held the promise of fulfilling this fundamental human desire for public space and community.

But the internet polis is limited neither in size nor in time. This causes a variety of pathologies, some symptoms of which we can see now.

Collective (non)-thinking and collective punishment

There’s something about the unidimensionality of the internet — the flattening, encoding, and schematizing of people — that reduces us to entertainment for each other. Instead of seeing each other as full and complex humans first (as we do in person), we sort each other into boxes: reductionist group archetypes, in-groups and out-groups. In order to survive, it’s safer to belong to a group than to voice our particular thoughts. At best we can be part of the pack.

In this context we’re unable to truly think about or engage with the world; it’s too scary. We can share the uncontroversial without reading or thinking; we can present a reality that’s deprived of substance; build self-reinforcing structures of interpassive distraction; simulacra and simulation. And it robs us of our own humanity. What is me? What is us? What is something I recite in order to not have me and us destroyed?

Anti-social social media

Social media is not a social space — i.e., a time and space specifically dedicated to attending to one another; where people share their feelings and ideas; where we have some common experience as a base, even with strangers, and so, are inclined to see each other as humans first.

Without a space conducive to mutual care, it’s hard to build, and it’s easy to destroy. How much have we felt fear, guilt, shame, anxiety, jealousy, hostility, resentment, repulsion, ridicule, compared to how often we feel camaraderie, sympathy, respect, admiration, gratitude, attraction, hope, empathy, closeness, good? The internet is the substrate upon which these moods form, mutate, and accelerate. We are full of justified rage and fear, and we want to release it. The togetherness we build is fragile and fleeting.

It’s a system that feeds on the energy, anxieties, and vulnerabilities of the alienated — a system we (as the alienated) are all working to be a part of. We are searching for a path home. But to reach our own home we must become comfortable with what is complex and ugly in us; the contradictions, the ways our suffering shapes who we are; and we just cannot, on the internet.

Identity and performance

The identity with which we show up on the internet is to an unavoidable degree performed. In contrast to a polis where we can simply exist and be seen, everything we put forward (i.e. when putting together a profile page) involves choices about how we want to be perceived, and is inevitably for an audience.

We have no choice

Our only choice is between loneliness and these pathologies, which is no choice at all.

The internet is the most omnipresent, unavoidable, large-scale polis that we as a human society has ever seen. As we struggle to solidify our individual status within it, we carry ever-increasing anxiety under its constant threat of alienation. And we have made it indispensible. Unless we change its contours or our relationship to it, it may very well rip us asunder.

Where can we go from here? We must name the conditions which have brought us to this grim and demoralizing pass: where we crave togetherness, but together tear each other apart; where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are ever-present.

We must see and hold each other in our complexities. We cannot allow the forces that range among us to make us less and less human, to rob us of agency and ownership, to rob us of our humanity by robbing us of each other. We cannot waste the time we have together; it will be brief.§


References

  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958