Net Loss

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 5 April 2007

I’m a bit down on the Internet these days.

Sure, a lot of it has to do with that obsequiously pandering Time magazine cover—the one with the little mirror on it telling us all that each of us is the “person of the year.” That is, each of us connected to the Internet and throwing our photos and personal consumer histories up on the web for everyone to see. We’re supposedly undergoing a revolution because now, instead of paying for movie tickets, we can pay for computers, hard drives and access time—often to the very same media conglomerate we think we’re ripping off.

And some of my misgivings have to do with a recent mistake I made myself, posting to my weblog the fact that I had gotten mugged, and how that had caused me to reflect on my own participation in the gentrification of my part of Brooklyn. Diehard Brooklynites (no doubt harboring mixed feelings about whoever they may have displaced in order to live here and make it “cool” instead) went on something of a rampage against me, posting all sorts of nonsense on bulletin boards about how Rushkoff was leaving Park Slope because he’d got mugged. A few real-world newspapers even quoted fake postings in the comments section of my blog, mistakenly attributing those posts to me.

Adding insult to injury, some Zionist extremists (or their paid online shills) who don’t like me took the opportunity to create a “sock mob” effect —a term I coined to describe how one or two people can post dozens or even hundreds of comments online under different pseudonyms to make it look like there’s a mob of people agreeing to hate a particular person or idea. (Think Swift Boat Veterans, on a much smaller scale.)

So the Internet—the place where I actually grew up as a thinker and writer—was no longer a safe place for me to engage with others about the ideas that are most personally important to me. Even the “discussion” in the unmoderated comments section of my blog could at a moment’s notice turn as mean, vitriolic and ultimately fake as any conversation taking place anywhere online. The Internet didn’t elevate our discourse—it left us in the same pit we were in to begin with. In fact, the ability to conceal one’s identity, combined with the ability to attack others without ever looking them in the eye, has made discourse on the Internet even more prone to cruelty than in real life.

Meanwhile, on a daily basis, my inbox fills with messages from people I know and people I don’t. Everyone expects an answer from me the same way they expect an answer from the customer service department of the Gap. At least from me they get one. But am I making the most considered response I can? Of course not— for the most part, I’m simply trying to get through the stack of email and respond as sufficiently as necessary. But that’s not the way I want to interact with anyone—even if they’re treating me like the complaints desk. And it undermines the quality of the remaining exchanges with people whose queries really do merit consideration and response.

And all this keyboard activity has become quite draining. Back in the ’90s, I would log off the Well or a Usenet board feeling exhilarated by what I had learned and who I had “met.” Today I can’t get off the Internet fast enough. It’s as if my very chi is being absorbed by this pulsing datastructure—an avatar of the combined will of both humanity and the marketplace on each one of us.

We can’t help but want to respond when people reach out to us by email or on a discussion board—after all, there’s a real person on the other end of each transmission. But for me, anyway, it feels as if the transmissions themselves have been stripped of all prana—of all the nutrients otherwise associated with organic exchange. Think of the difference between teaching a person in a real bar how to play pool, and describing to someone in an email “how to play pool.” Almost the same information can be exchanged, but without any contact. Now, it’s not the lechery of live pool instruction I miss. Not exactly. What I miss is what one gets back during an exchange in person. The joy, the contact, the full range of subtle communication, is gone.

I’d argue that the data we’re exchanging —from pool lessons to political theories—are themselves just media for our social interactions. Yes, it’s great to have a cause to rally around, but for the most part these causes are excuses to rally. In our highly rational, highly time-pressured schedules, we need excuses to be with each other, from the woman taking a French class in the hopes of finding a husband to the guy taking yoga to check out girls in tight sweats. Somehow, the Internet convinces us that the content we’re exchanging is the end in itself—when it’s actually just a means to an end. And that end will never be found online.

I’ve been saying since the late ’80s—before the Internet really existed—that our networks are not a thing in themselves. They are a trial run, a social experiment: a way of practicing collective social engagement so that we might see whether or not such a thing is possible in real life. The Internet of the early to mid-’90s really was such a collaborative space, and a few of the projects that remain from those days, from Wikipedia to Craig’s List, still bear some resemblance to that earliest ethos of provisional collectivism.

But Wikipedia has now fallen victim, to some extent, to politicians and others with agendas, who change entries about their opposition to make them look bad. And Craig’s List has become increasingly difficult to patrol for scams and ruthless profiteers. Each organization has to spend more time and resources preventing abuse than it does doing the thing it originally set out to do. And that’s pretty much the definition of the “point of diminishing returns.”

I’m not signing off the Internet just yet. I need it for all the same reasons all of us do. But I no longer assume as much about the experiences I’m going to have online as I used to. I don’t take for granted the existence of a community on the other side the screen. I don’t read my email before my morning coffee—I wait until I’ve got my best psychological defense mechanisms in place. I don’t socialize online; I make appointments to socialize (as time allows these days) offline in some real place. Or even on the phone, which feels intimate compared to the asynchronous communication via computer screen.

I still refuse to believe the experiment in developing a virtual culture has failed. Even if the Internet doesn’t foster the gentle, compassionate, and open-minded society we might like to see in the real world, its descent into heated polarities, exhibitionism and profiteering should serve as an example of how even our best intentions can be undone. It makes us aware of how easily manipulated we are, how prone we are to excitation of the basest kind and how desperately we want attention from others. That is, each of the things we may dislike about the Internet—from its extreme forms of marketing to the cruelty and humiliation that pass as entertainment—are merely exaggerations of our tendencies in real life. But the Internet allows those tendencies to be rebroadcast and absorbed by us as if they were real—and they go on to influence the actions of individuals, organizations, corporations and governments in the real world.

People see an erroneous, venomous post somewhere, and can’t help but take in some part of that sentiment as justified or factual. Hell, I’m still getting emails from friends asking why I’m moving to Long Island, or why I denied the Holocaust—both completely fictitious constructions of anonymous Internet users that nevertheless trickle back out from the virtual world into the real one. A music reviewer I know became the recipient of death threats by phone and email after a band whose album she panned invited its fans—via their website—to go on the rampage. And we writers are a hell of a lot less victimized by these sorts of fabrications than the artists, scholars and activists who really stick their necks out, from Paul Krugman and Noam Chomsky to Tony Kushner and Al Gore.

The more monstrous thought-forms constructed online needn’t be allowed to feed back into the real world any more than the monsters of our nightmares need to invade our waking lives. They only lead to equally artificial extremes of thought and behavior — dangerously divorced from local, organic and social moderation. They grow into false polarities like the red-state/blue-state divide; they foment antagonism over religion and race; and they give license to the most ruthless marketers and profiteers.

Rather, we must remember that the expressions thriving in the online universe have been divorced of their connection to the flesh, the heart, and the neo-cortex.

Consumed in their raw form, many of them are toxic.