Recently, Taylor Lorenz, internet culture reporter for the New York Times, was interviewed concerning what social media accounts she uses in order to be sure that she is keeping her fingers on the pulse of how young people are using modern technology. Ms. Lorenz responded by saying that she is on Twitter pretty much consistently throughout the day and that she also spends a great deal of time on Instagram and YouTube, watching a lot of YouTuber vlogs. She’s likewise in a lot of Telegram groups and Discord servers for different meme pages and influencers. Likewise, she also spends time in Facebook groups about celebrity news and pop culture, and usually spends an hour or more each day on TikTok.
Of course, it is Ms. Lorenz’s job to keep up on pop culture, and on how young people are using the Internet. Yet at the same time, it probably doesn’t take an extraordinary degree of imagination to conceive of the idea that this sort of blanket use of various Internet technologies is fairly typical of how young people today are using the Web. Otherwise, Ms. Lorenz wouldn’t be involved in all of her digital explorations to the obsessive degree in which she seems to be involved. That is, many of our nation’s youth are spending much of their day on their phones or PCs making sure that they have covered all the digital bases so that serious FOMO doesn’t set in and they risk missing something that they might consider important.
However, it seems imperative that amidst all this continual exploration of the digital world by the young, the question is asked whether or not all this Web-based exploration is the same as an investigation of one’s real world in time and space.That is, is the world inside people’s PCs and phones the same as the world they inhabit when they are offline. Or to stand the question somewhat on its head, is the belief that one is getting in touch just as fully with the real offline world of time and space when one is only online a significant delusion; one that might even lead us all, particularly those of a younger generation, deeper into unreality?
Unfortunately, it appears to be increasingly assumed by many people today that these two worlds – the online world and the real world existing in time and space – are actually one and the same. That is, many people assume that the information we are getting inside a small plastic screen is the same information that we would get as our fully embodied selves making our way through the world, with all its various sensorial experience simultaneously available to us. For instance, the misguided assumption that what we are in touch with while watching a video on YouTube is the same experience we would be having if we were watching the same events live in real time and space. Or that pictorial sites such as data art provide us with information just as completely as if we were learning about it through a lengthy passage of writing.
In the movie The Social Network, Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker, the founder of Napster who was heavily involved with Mark Zuckerberg in the creation of Facebook, excitedly exclaims, “People used to live on farms. Then they lived in cities. Now we’ll live on the Internet.” Let’s hope for all our sakes that his frightening admonition never comes fully to fruition.