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How Real Is the Online World?: How Technology Is Supplanting Reality

Could you imagine a world without the Internet? Even for people like me, who had no Google or Facebook — or even Gopher — when we were children, the offline world we once knew almost feels like a hazy dream to some of us now. I only vaguely remember what life was like when “research” meant biking to the library to do term papers and social activities were strictly limited to hanging out at the mall.

Sometimes I wonder if those analog days ever really existed at all. Whenever the memories wash in, I have to struggle to remember certain details, much the same way I do when I wake up from a dream with strange bits of dialogue still clinging to my lips. Did I really sit and have tea with Justin Bieber and Sigmund Freud in a field of purple posies? Likewise, I reach into my memory and wonder if my first crush actually existed. I lost touch with him so long ago because he lived far away and long distance calls were expensive. But was he real? Was he false? The dream and the memory from the past both occupy the same fuzzy space in my brain. The only evidence I have that Matthew truly existed is a letter that I still keep in a box in my closet. It’s a sacred piece of postal mail, a love letter he wrote completely in long-hand. It’s in tatters now, but the bad penmanship and beautiful sentiments are still there, as is a very faint scent of Drakkar Noir, his brother’s cologne of choice that he pilfered and spritzed on so long ago.

What will today’s generation have to remember its youth? Can you save a text or status update in perpetuity? Will typed-out LOLs and Facebook tags have any staying power? Even if they did, will they be considered invaluable, even precious, to the people that receive it? I’m not entirely sure. These days, a lot of people get hopelessly lost in their virtual activities, writing and changing status updates and uploading pics, in a near endless pursuit to edit their life’s contents into the best version of their lives possible. But you have to wonder where the authenticity went. Is this really what reality has come to?

Recently, the Danish police made a major gaffe and accidentally DNS-blocked 80 major websites — including Google and Facebook — all because of a simple clerical error. It took hours to undo, but during that time, a big portion of people’s virtual lives were sealed off. Poof, just like that.

Then you’ve got Twitter handing over subscriber info to the Boston authorities. Objecting to this, the ACLU said “our client has a constitutional right to speak, and to speak anonymously,” adding that the prosecutors’ actions “infringed our client’s rights under the First Amendment.” And yet, many of us take things for granted, like the privacy of our online accounts, when they are in fact subject to the inclinations and judgment of the service provider.

Our online lives are such fragile things. And it might be a slippery slope when we give up so much of ourselves to them.

Case in point: Psychologist Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, gave an intriguing TEDTalks presentation about the social effects of technology (below). We spend a great portion of our days facing a screen, as opposed to other people. Even though we seem to be very satisfied by this, if we’re shortchanging others in real life because of it, we’re spending even less time with the one person who truly matters most — ourselves.

This is why she makes the case for solitude. The way we digitally connect to people — whether friends or “friends” — gives us the “the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” says Turkle, who published “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” last year. We keep seeking these things out to stave off isolation. But, she says, if we can’t let ourselves be alone, we’ll only wind up more lonely.

When I think of the topic of solitude, it feels almost odd. We’re never really alone, are we? Much like we might turn on the TV or radio when we get home, just to fill the void of emptiness, we turn to our gadgets to keep us company. And we’re so used to this, some of us can’t see how much of ourselves we’ve invested into it, this world that can so easily be taken away or compromised.

In contrast, I’ve held on to my old love letter for more than 20 years now. Matthew’s earnestness still moves me. It was awkwardly written, but wonderfully so. If he’d had endless opportunities to refine this, augment it, edit it, or worse — if he’d decided not to use the spectacularly bad cologne that I totally adored — it just wouldn’t have been the same. This was like a snapshot of who he was at the time. And even if the full-grown man he has become may want, he can’t ever go back and Photoshop that image into something else.

 

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As promised, here’s Professor Sherry Turkle’s TEDTalks presentation. What you don’t see at the clip’s end is the standing ovation she got here, in this room full of technologists. It’s worth a look, and maybe a “ponder.”


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Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...


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