Boats against the Current
The internet, like space exploration before it, was heralded as a new frontier. But much like the final frontier, the electronic frontier failed to realize the dreams of its more idealistic proponents. These two American projects laid claim to the legacy of our founders: the American Dream has always been inextricable from the pursuit of a new world. However, neither of these new frontiers was ultimately very frontier-like at all.
The space program was meant to open up an infinite frontier onto the unexplored cosmos. Instead, it served mostly to reflect our world back to us with its satellites and observatories. The scope of our world stayed the same, now more surveilled and more manifestly static than ever before. Our efforts to reach beyond our planet ended up being a harsh reminder that we are alone among the stars, bound to the world that birthed us.
Similarly, the Internet was meant to open new vistas beyond the social order. Instead, it has reflected our world back to us. Perhaps the outside was too cold and lifeless, much like outer space. Whatever the reason, this failure to deliver has rendered our social world more uninspiring and stagnant than ever.
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When you browse the Internet you might look to celebrities and online personalities and be struck by the distance that separates you from them. You may think you want what they have. But perceived differences in an Internet-mediated world obscure the commonality. All are made smaller by the force of abstraction. No one, not even those at the top of the social hierarchy, experiences life in a meaningfully different way. We all have the same mundane view from the top.
The Internet is rightly called the final frontier, because even after outer space was conquered there was still room for inward exploration. The Internet has given us all the perspective of those few astronauts privileged to see Earthrise, but something more sinister has happened here. Because the Internet has subsumed the social order, it has colonized imagination itself. In its provision of a virtual double to our world, the Internet has rendered imagination impotent. To dream in an online age, an age in which the digital expanse has subsumed and outstripped imagination, is to alienate oneself from reality. All lines of flight lead back to the same alienated form of life the Internet provides.
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In his later years, F. Scott Fitzgerald began to sour on the American Dream. “Her dominant idea and goal,” he wrote of America, “is freedom without responsibility, which is like gold without metal, spring without winter, youth without age, one of those maddening, coocoo mirages of wild riches.”1 America has since made this mirage manifest. Like the fantasyland of Las Vegas, the Internet gives us the illusion of total freedom as it ensnares us.
The problem is that we’ve accepted a reduced, virtualized life enticed by the promise of a more dynamic social order. But this dynamism cannot engender genuine freedom. It is all confined to the unfreedom of a mediated existence. Our humanity is only reclaimed by subverting the paradigm.
Like an astronaut turned botanist, we must again appreciate the richness of mundane, earthly species of life. We must reconnect with our genealogy, our inherent groundedness, the uniqueness of our historical roots all staged on this world we call home. “So we beat on,” as Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway concludes, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”2