One of the social concerns stalking the Internet has been its perceived artificiality — there’s still a stigma to things like virtual reality, Facebook “friends,” and Internet dating. After all, these things aren’t real. They’re artificial. They represent a separation from reality that’s either strange or alarming. One overall concern has been that such immersion in this artificial realm is separating our children from reality, lending an artifice to their perceptions of important social connections that won’t serve them well into the future. The despair over this continues to this day. But is it all that carefully considered?
In a brilliant little essay, Justin E. H. Smith writes on his Berfrois blog about the Internet, and this supposed separation from reality is dealt with in a way that slots the Internet as not something new and different in how it abstracts humans from reality, but simply as something that makes the distinction between humans and nature cleaner. After all, many of the human institutions we believe to be part of reality are, in fact, artificial — libraries, schools, museums, and bowling alleys are all the result of human artifice and invention:
. . . human institutions only exist because they appear to humans to exist; nature is entirely indifferent to them. And tools and vehicles only are what they are because people make the uses of them that they do. Consider the institution of friendship. Every time I hear someone say that Facebook ‘friendship’ should be understood in scare quotes, or that Facebook interaction is not real social interaction, I feel like asking in reply: What makes you think real-world friendships are real? Have you not often felt some sort of amical rapport with a person with whom you interact face-to-face, only to find that in the long run it comes to nothing? How exactly was that fleeting sensation any more real than the discovery and exploration of shared interests and sensibilities with a ‘friend’ one knows only through the mediation of a social-networking site?
Smith makes wonderful points about how the Internet has been satisfying and consolidating long-held human desire to have all knowledge and experience at our fingertips — and with Wikipedia turning 10 this year, an encyclopedia that is not only bigger and more current than any ever conceived, but more importantly, improvable — we may have realized the dream. And while the changes are seen by some to be apocalyptic, Smith finds his experience to be quite different:
I resemble more the casualty of an opium war than of a nuclear war: I sit in my dark den and hit the ‘refresh’ button all day and night. When I go out, I take a portable dose in my pocket, in the form of a pocket-sized screen.
The artifice we’re familiar with — the book, the journal, the library, the “friend” from (town, work, business, and school), and the grocery store — is being changed by the Internet because it’s an invention that reinvents artifice, takes it to a new level. And that level is one from which we may find ourselves more clearly separated from nature, for the sake of nature, than we’ve ever been able to be before.
We may be in a new place, but we’re on a path we’ve been on for centuries.