Unreality and Inhumanity on The Internet

Viral Videos and The Vanity of Everything, Right Now

People are terrible.

As evidence I point to that kid whose smirking, blatantly racist face you likely saw all over the news last week. That boy from Covington Catholic. As further evidence I point to the fact I thought he looked like a racist jerk; the sum of what's worst about being white, male and privileged, and I did so on the strength of a few seconds of video. Still further evidence would be how vast swaths of the internet are still debating over which facts matter— if they matter at all—in the face of victory over ideological enemies.

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, observes how political life online is too often about "finding images that confirm your negative stereotypes about people you don’t know. It’s about reducing a complex human life into one viral moment and then banishing him to oblivion." And it's hard for it not to be. People are terrible, yes, but our unreflective devotion to our tools of pseudo-omniscience make us worse.

I think Ian Bogost’s article in The Atlantic is instructive here. It’s simply titled, “Stop Trusting Viral Videos”, to which I would add the subtitle: Pics and it still may not have happened. People seem to believe the camera is the ultimate arbiter of truth but they are wrong. Bogost asserts that “film footage constructs rather than reflects the truths of a debate” like the Covington Catholic controversy and believing otherwise is “bringing forth just as much animosity as the polarization that is thought to produce the conflicts cameras record.”

Bogost’s piece is worth reading in full, and I encourage you to do so, but my purpose here is to highlight the dangerous combination of a medium of forced perspective, film, and instantaneity of the internet. Consider this from Bogost:

had the clip been shot from the reverse angle, showing Sandmann and his classmates from the back […] the meaning of the situation would have also changed. No longer does the student represent the worst stereotype of white intolerance, but now he becomes a mere prop for Phillips, whose drumming reads as both pacifist in its delivery and reception.

We’re not talking about intentional editing here but alternative vantage points and how framing affects perception. Bogost doesn’t suggest this excuses the poor choices of those depicted but helps to “underscore how a slightly different video might have convinced the very same viewers who censured the Covington Catholic students to reach exactly the opposite conclusion.”

That we trust ourselves to make accurate snap judgements about events we didn’t experience and have mediated to us through the viral groupthink of social media platforms is… laughable? It would be funnier if it wasn’t also self-deluding and self-righteous. The truth should be sought, of course, but we need to slow down; we aren’t built for internet debates and neither, it seems, is democracy.

Shifting gears slightly, I think Alan Jacobs offers a helpful corrective for the presentism of our time. Jacobs says “the social media ecosystem is designed to generate constant, instantaneous responses to the provocations of Now.” So, what we need is something “American novelist Thomas Pynchon calls ‘temporal bandwidth’ — an awareness of our experience as extending into the past and the future.” Temporal bandwidth is described as “the width of your present, your now … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”

Jacobs suggests reaching into the past — by reading old books, principally — arouses “the suspicion that there’s got to be some better way,” which helps suppress “the thoughtless, knee-jerk reflexion that is a byproduct of our age.” Taking time to dwell in the past makes us less vulnerable to the cruelties and inanities of social media mobs because “you realize that you need not obey the impulses of this moment.”

The present is rarely infinitely consequential. But it’s hard to believe this when we live in the endless torrent of Twitter and Facebook feeds which demand humans live at the speed of Everything. Now.

Brooks closes his NYT column with this lament for life lived on social media platforms:

In this technology, stereotype is more salient than persons. In this technology, a single moment is more important than a life story. In this technology, a main activity is proving to the world that your type is morally superior to the other type.

The Covington case was such a blatant rush to judgment — it was powered by such crude prejudice and social stereotyping — I’m hoping it will be an important pivot point. I’m hoping that at least a few people start thinking about norms of how decent people should behave on these platforms.

It’s hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It’s hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humorless, semi-blind, joyless and grim.

People are terrible, yes, but where we choose to spend our time is ruining us. So, build temporal bandwidth. Slow down. Doubt the tidy, self-serving narrative. And Read old books, because Bogost is right: "Good answers just don’t come this fast and this easily."

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