By now you’ve probably watched “Welcome to the Internet”, Bo Burnham’s hilariously disturbing song about… well, the Internet. It’s funny, but I’ve stopped laughing at the jokes but still keep listening to it. If you haven’t already seen it and don’t mind some foul & sexual language, go ahead:
What I think is crucially and powerfully perceptive about this song is the way in which it lays out the Internet’s flattening power. From a human perspective, there are salient differences between all of the things Burnham sings about. From the perspective of your ISP, they’re all the same. Social media treats most of them similarly or cares even more about the things that are terrible, untrue, or focused on cultivating kindness and love. Even those things that are against this or that site’s Terms of Service still get typed into the same box and often have to be manually reported or moderated before they get kiboshed.
It is easy to forget that technology shapes us as easily and powerfully as we shape it, often in proportionate ways. Paul Virilo famously said that “when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash”, but the invention of the plane also brings about the joke about airplane food and the “destination wedding” and next-day shipping. Technology is our teacher; if we don’t ask what it is teaching us and how it is teaching us then we are doomed to be taken advantage of by people who can exploit that power. Or worse: we can be taken advantage of by our own worst impulses.
The Internet is teaching us that all of our impulses are equal. Would you like to see the news or any famous women’s feet? Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur? Do you like your pornography ethically produced and intersectional, or would you prefer something where the performer’s consent to portraying a fantasy of violence against her was obtained ambiguously? Obviously all of this is inseparable from a legal-political regime that is too optimistic about the power and potential of “free speech”, but never before in history could anyone shout “Fire!” in every theater simultaneously.
It is also inseparable from a socio-cultural regime in which one’s desires and choices are sacralized, where the rule that art and academia and many other forces want to promote is “As long as it doesn’t hurt someone else, do what you want.” This sort of total autonomy is insanity. Human beings are not very good at knowing what they want; this is why we have institutions and structures and hierarchies and holy books and authorities and most of all families. Human beings often do not want to take care of vulnerable people, which is why all of the above constraining forces are so focused on instilling into us the idea that some of your obligations are and will always be unchosen.
The demon is already free and wreaking havoc; the only option is for everyone to use this power of choice to deliberately and overwhelmingly reject the implicit premise of the Internet and its friends. We should and must not only care for one another, but build the institutions that allow us to care for one another, shape us to choose caring for one another over and against alternative choices, and force upon us the constraints that hinder our freedom such that we are free primarily to do good.