There probably is room in today’s ideosphere for a handbook for living a balanced life in our ephemeral e-world. If course, for a great many humans (the majority? I think so, but I’m not sure) there really is no e-world, or it is a minor distraction from the non-e-world, or just “the real world,” as we used to call it: the world of material obstacles, daylight, parking spaces, water buckets, and so on. But for the other group – the group reading this, most likely – our primary reality is the one appearing on glowing screens and over little speakers. It is through these portals that we find the things to care about, to laugh over, or to occupy our attention. The aforementioned “real world” is, for us, a minor distraction from it. But life in the e-world is a different sort of project, and there may be some need to reflect on how to do it well.
Old philosophical habits suggest that one might distinguish two areas of problems in e-life: metaphysical (or epistemological) problems, and moral problems. The metaphysical problems have to do with what’s real and what’s true. And here, as in the real world, one can sort out appearances from reality. The person who takes everything on the internet at face value is of course mired in illusion, every bit as much as the prisoner’s trapped in Plato’s cave. We receive photoshopped images and videos, alleged polls and feints toward demographic studies, rampant misrepresentations of science and history, and artifacts of pure artifice. If we click along fast enough, we might not notice the overall incoherence or implausibility of the so-called world we are surveying. And if we communicate only with our fellow prisoners in the cave, musing over various images and lies, we will feel firmly convinced that we are engaged with some sort of reality. And indeed we are, in a weak way, since images and shadows are after all something. But it is about as content-free as information can possibly be.
The interesting problem – in Plato’s day as in our own – is how to find the reality in the midst of so many appearances. In Plato’s analogy, you simply break the chains and walk out of the cave into the daylight. But exactly how that metaphor is supposed to be cashed out is not at all obvious. We could of course shut down our internet and walk out the front door – but that dodges the question, since what we are looking for is advice for living in an e-world. A natural next move is to insist that we look frequently toward authoritative sources, and fact-check our impressions against them. And that is good advice – provided that we have authoritative sources to trust. The recent (and no doubt ephemeral) brouhaha over “fake news,” and the denial by public figures of the existence of “facts,” suggests that there is at least some distrust of authority, and there is some good reason for this. Every news source has to keep an ear out for clicks, and every news source funnels their content toward the loudest aggregate of clicking noises. What these means is that every source of content tries to engage our attention – and, obviously, what engages our attention may not be what we ought to be paying attention to. So authority gets us only so far.
So – in parallel with the philosophers of the early modern period – we might try to construct within ourselves some sort of method or set of principles to use as we go clicking about our universe. It is here that the need for some sort of handbook becomes starkly apparent. It would help to have some sort of epistemological oracle within us – what Descartes called “the light of nature.” But we don’t. All we can do is sort through our knapsack of Things We Have Learned Through Experience, and hope to find some general principles that might offer helpful guidance here or there. So, for example, we might consider:
- Big, dramatic changes are very rare, and when they are happening, they are typically seen only later by historians. So any internet sensations sounding alarms over the end of humanity, or promising new worlds, are probably illusory.
- People, on the whole, do things for compelling reasons. So when it seems that someone or some group has done something only to be evil, or out of sheer lunacy- then, in all likelihood, something important is being left out of the story.
- Generally, the world does not obey our wishes. So when you come across some news event that satisfies your wishes, it probably isn’t true – or, at least, there is something about it you should worry about. (This is another articulation of the Party-Pooper principle, which says you generally shouldn’t believe what you want to believe.)
And so on. Of course, these rules are not exceptionless: they are only guidelines for steering away from the improbable. And there are certainly more guidelines to consider. This is why a handbook would be so handy.
The other set of problems in e-life are moral ones. The unique conditions of e-life, which make it so different from “real life,” make it so that many of the people we e-encounter are people we will never meet face-to-face. We may “friend” them, or “un-friend” them, without ever having breathed the same air. But we still might feel as if we have come to know them, on the basis of what they have typed or posted, while knowing at the same time that how we present ourselves online is not always (ahem) a faithful representation of who we really are. Now if we took a moment to think this through, we would realize that we don’t know these people very well at all – and this realization might temper our reactions to them. We might be a little less likely to hate their very guts, or to love them to pieces, since after all we don’t really know them very well. We might adopt an attitude of polite and generally well-mannered distance – as, in my experience, people typically do when having to interact with strangers (in the “real world”).
It is comical to imagine real-world interactions mirroring e-world interactions.
YOU (at a store, looking at an item): Hey, I like this.
PERSON NEXT TO YOU: What an idiot.
YOU: Excuse me? At least I’m not fat.
PERSON: I’m actually not fat, and anyway, that’s not relevant to the point I was making.
YOU: Oh, you were making a point? Lol.
PERSON: If you’re not going to be constructive, go to some other store, like BigFuckingIdiot.com.
YOU: Your attitude is exactly how Hitler got started.
I think such interactions are extremely rare in the real world. People usually, if they interact at all, make some small talk or laugh politely over a small joke. But the above “dialogue” – or sling-fest – is not really all that rare in e-life (especially if you read comment threads, as you should not). Maybe it is because the e-world is insulated from punches in the nose.
One approach that might be considered – in e-life and beyond – is to consider how your response might make a conversation more interesting and constructive. This does not simply mean nodding, smiling, and imploring your partner to have a nice day. It means forestalling a controversy that is about to erupt by lifting it to the realm of actual discussion. So, for example, when you can see that a conversation is about to become a “Yes it is!” and “No it isn’t!” melee over climate change, one might wonder what’s at stake for the other person. “Before we get into it, why do you feel so strongly about this? What’s at stake for you in this?” (Do not add: “Did your parents beat you?”) If there is any good will at all in your partner, the interchange may become a conversation between two people rather than between two cardboard cut-outs of people. I know: probably not. But if there’s a chance to make it happen, we should try; and if not, get out of there, for no good can come of it. You’ll only be feeding your aggravation.