“Maybe it’s time to start asking questions about exteriority; to switch from the corner to the phone, from the introspective essay to the online profile”
I used to ask the internet everything. I started young. In the late 1980s, my family got its first modem. My father was a computer scientist, and he used it to access his computer at work. It was a silver box the size of a book; I liked its little red lights that told you when it was on and communicating with the world. Before long, I was logging onto message boards to ask questions about telescopes and fossils and plots of science fiction TV shows.
I kept at it for years, buying new hardware, switching browsers and search engines as needed. And then, around 2004, I stopped. Social media swallowed my friends whole, and I wanted no part of it. Friendster and Myspace and Facebook—the first great wave of social networking sites—all felt too invasive and too personal. I didn’t want to share, and I didn’t want to be seen.
So now, 10 years on, Facebook, iMessaging, and Twitter have passed me by. It’s become hard to keep up with people. I get all my news—weddings, moves, births, deaths—second-hand, from people who saw something on someone else’s feed. I never know what’s going on. In return, I have the vain satisfaction of feeling like the last real human being in a world of pods. But I am left wondering: what am I missing out on? And is everyone else missing out on something I still have?
Virginia Woolf famously said that on or about December 1910 human character changed. We don’t yet know if the same thing happened with the release of the iPhone 5—but, as the digital and “real” worlds become harder to distinguish from each other, it seems clear that something is shifting. The ways we interact with each other and with the world have altered. Yet the writing on this subject—whether it’s by social scientists, novelists or self-styled “internet intellectuals”—still doesn’t seem to have registered the full import of this transformation.
Speculation about the impact of technology on our present and future runs toward the extreme and the contradictory. Techno-utopians clash with techno-sceptics; extravagant claims of human perfectibility lock horns with dismal tales of cultural decline. This oscillation between…