When the Web spins us

Title: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion Author: Jia Tolentino Publisher: 4th Estate / HarperCollins Price: ₹599

Jia Tolentino’s book highlights the relationship between self-delusion and the Internet

The surreal sci-fi series Black Mirror has an episode called Shut Up and Dance in the third season. This episode features a teenage boy blackmailed into crime by a hacker . The episode has an arresting line: “Pictures hang about on Google like a Gypsy ***ing curse. There’s no cure for the Internet, you would never go away.” This eerily and prophetically summarises what’s been happening to the Internet and endorses what many of us think about the maladies of the World Wide Web.

The systems and processes that comprise the Internet have grown and spread so big, far and wide that they have essentially become too huge to fail, with the all-encompassing nature and alarmingly penetrative influence making our societies virtually uninhabitable.

Individual identity

The first casualty in the Internet era is the ‘I’ or the individual. The Internet brings the ‘I’ into everything, writes Jia Tolentino in Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, arguably one of the best books on the impact of the Web on society. “The Internet can make it seem that supporting someone means literally sharing in their experience — that solidarity is a matter of identity rather than politics or morality, and that it’s best established at a point of maximum mutual vulnerability in everyday life.”

This is a bizarre form of identity politics played by the Internet where every individual is cajoled, coerced, psychologically prompted and blackmailed into a world of self-delusion. Here, individuals take strange and curious political positions in order to be seen in sync with the order set by digital forces, and expect to be rewarded for their performance. Twitter is a good example of this, where people mouth instant opinions and express solidarity to causes they hardly relate to or know about; the very process of airing those opinions provides a convoluted and vaguely discernible sense of accomplishment. These ‘cause-junkies’ are among the many byproducts of the Internet, and the ubiquity and acceptance they receive in myriad societies reflect the wrong kind of power the Internet wields on people and polity.

Information overload

Such changes are now omnipresent. But they are more apparent and evident in the US, where Tolentino lives and works. She is a writer with The New Yorker and has been tracking Internet and its influence on society for sometime now. The reason Tolentino cites for writing this book is pretty interesting: “... because I’m always confused…” One of the most striking characteristics of contemporary Internet is the confusion it creates among its consumers. The Web spins information of many hues and its many channels supply them to people instantly, without bothering to wonder even for a nanosecond whether the targets really need them.

In fact, this information often becomes soulless and sans a sense of justice. “Knowledge without justice ought to be called cunning rather than wisdom,” said Plato.

The Web doesn’t offer wisdom. The Internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of the problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving, observes Tolentino. “And, more important, the Internet already is what it is.” According to her, it has already become a central organ to contemporary life. It has already rewired the brains of its users, she writes, returning us to a state of “primitive hyper-awareness and distraction” while overloading us with much more sensory input than was ever possible in primitive times.

This hyper-awareness takes its targets to a world which attempts to monetise the overload of information provided. The Internet has already built an ecosystem that thrives on exploiting attention and monetising the self. So all these ‘hyper-aware’ individuals throng to various markets and try to fish out benefits — be it political positions, cultural importance, financial gains through endorsements or becoming an influencer, etc. In other cases, as we Indians may know, these selves penetrate social groups as preachers and pontificate on almost everything under the Sun, eventually becoming brand ambassadors of fake news and digital voodoo.

Determining ‘self’-worth

All of this happens because the Internet makes the ‘self’ seem so important, that its consumers fail to attribute any realistic value to it. The way websites are structured is also problematic. For example, even the smallest hyper-local story is displayed as prominently on the Web as the main news of the day. Both carry hyperlinks of same length and may have the same wordcount. It becomes difficult for the consumer to gauge the importance of the news, unlike in, say, a printed newspaper, where the very way in which the news is displayed (local news will be several inches smaller in size) can help the reader assume its importance in polity. So (un)naturally, when it comes to attributing value to one’s self (read opinion), the Internet forces the individual to go overboard and exaggerate.

This process of self-delusion is evident in all the actions done by us as consumers and negotiators of the Internet. Even though we seem to require an audience for this performance, that soon ceases to be a requirement. Or a make-belief sets in. As Sherry Turkle pointed out in her seminal work, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, when humanity nears its “robotic moment”, online realities replace offline ones.

For instance, people believe they are together and in the company of many, while in reality they are alone. When the virtual replaces the real, the deluded self stops asking the pertinent questions, such as “why am I doing what I am doing”, to start with. Therein lies the rub.

This crisis of the self has been explored in many other ways by a clutch of writers, including Will Storr, whose Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us tried to dissect the self-esteem industry and trace its umbilical links to predatory capitalism. Tolentino’s work, unearthing hitherto unheard, insightful and radical ideas about the Internet and self, introduced a new paradigm to digital studies. In fact, the book, with its refreshingly daring prose, introduces a new language to social criticism. Trick Mirror is the Black Mirror in print.

Published on August 12, 2019

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