Online: The internet is everything, the internet is nothing
I just had the pleasure of reading Paul Miller's most recent dispatch from the real world, in which he ponders the difference between the "meaningful" and "meaningless" parts of the internet. And as usual, he's got my brain gushing with thoughts.
While I'm not sure where Paul ultimately lands -- he leaves much open to question -- I'm eager to respond to some of the implied conclusions presented in the article: namely, that parts of the internet exist "only to serve and perpetuate the internet," and that these things are somehow meaningless as a result. (Unfortunately, I will have to enjoy the fact that Paul cannot read this, which gives me liberty to respond pointedly -- unless of course someone prints this forum post for him).
In his article, Paul cites a recent article from Tim Kreider in the July 1st issue of The New York Times, in which he offers the choice observation: "More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn't performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I'm not sure I believe it's necessary." Firstly, this is a deeply depressing notion on a personal level. Consequences aside, why should the value of a human pursuit, in this case one's profession, be directly tied to its tangibility? Is a cobbler somehow more important for society than a philosopher, because she fashions leather objects rather than dabbling in metacognition? Alas, this kind of attitude long preceded the internet: Socrates, the "gadfly" of Athens, was sentenced to death for irritating those in power with controversial ideas -- a fate he would have likely sidestepped had he chosen the life of a humble farmer.
A lack of something to hold onto hasn't always discouraged the human mind from thinking beyond the apparent limitations of the "real world" -- if it did, I doubt we'd have left the caves as a young species, let alone produced something like the internet. So I am skeptical that tangibility has a necessary relationship with meaning. (And in fact, I would think that most of our folk understandings of meaning tend to de-emphasize the tangible: in love, or morality, or god, et cetera.)
More importantly, I don't think the internet is all that intangible. While we may not notice what goes on in the human body underneath our primary experience, or what's happening in some distant server when we look at a web page, the physical reality of these things is a precondition of them existing at all: like self-consciousness, the internet does not exist in a vacuum apart from physical reality. The internet also does not exist apart from human beings.
It's difficult to talk about meaning without also talking about personal identity, and by virtue of its pervasive use, the internet is a powerful source of identity.
When we talk about someone we friended on Facebook, or about a great new idea for a website we have, or a well-reviewed restaurant, we're not doing something "extra" outside of our own existence: we're merely acting in the world. Those who don't use the internet are actors, too -- they just act differently. They speak a different language. They have different habits. The digital divide is real, but it's not the only divide. Every generation has its own language, its own shared experiences, distinct from those that came before it. The only thing that's changed in recent memory is the rapid advancement of technology -- technology that has made our world less mystical and more ergonomic.
Our personal judgement on meaning is deeply associated with our identity. For many of us who grew up with the internet, it's a powerful part of our identity. For those who didn't, it's not. Neither is a "correct" standpoint.
I suspect that Paul feels the same way, or at least recognizes this. He asks: "will a future generation chuckle at me while I maintain a concept of the internet that was conceived in the dial-up era?" The answer is a resounding yes -- and they'll probably even look upon it with disdain, the same way many of us in the connected age dread the idea of having to toil in ancient fields our whole lives, never having the benefit of the World Wide Web, or electricity, or even paper money. "We've got it better than our ancestors," we tell ourselves. "How could they have possibly lived without refrigeration?" Our ancestors might have similar questions for us.
I recall a conversation in my family from years ago, at our lake house in Michigan: my aunts and uncles were reminiscing about their childhood, and how when children wanted to play with friends, they'd simply stand outside their houses and yell up at their open windows. "Nowadays kids are so sheltered," they said, "they call each other on the phone and set up play dates with parents." The group unanimously agreed that they were pleased to have been born precisely when they did, rather than 50 years in the future.
The only problem with this kind of personal meaning is that it can't be extended: each generation's memes and behaviors are self-contained and complete. This might sound like a gross oversimplification, or a descent into absolute relativism, but I simply find it to be the nature of reality. Nobody I grew up with missed calling out to their friends in open windows, because it never occurred to them to do it -- and they couldn't have cared less about what their parents did. They awoke in a world that was different from the one inhabited by their parents, and their identities responded and developed with it. Nowadays, it seems like the generational gap has hastened: the lives of hyper-connected people who grew up before the iPhone and after the iPhone might even be significantly different.
But the distinction between the internet as a "virtual" place and a "real" place in terms of meaning is false: the two are not opposed. The internet -- the one Paul speaks of, beyond long snakes of fiber and data centers -- is only real. It's a human invention that exists only for the people that use it. Whether the internet is important is a different matter entirely -- and a question that can only be answered by those who use it and give it meaning.
Each individual, and each generation, will have their own answers.