A few weeks ago, I sat in a metal folding chair and looked at content on my phone for eight hours straight for a performance piece called Work Day. During this marathon session of online gluttony, I lost my ability to contextualize the information being continuously presented to me. All content became equalized.
I read the breaking news that Michael Cohen was agreeing to a plea deal, watched an Ariana Grande make-up tutorial and several Lebron James highlight reels. I scrolled on as Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight counts of fraud, read event invites for art openings, birthday parties, house shows. I looked through photos of friends relaxing in Central Park, Cal Anderson Park, Venice Beach. The national prison strike began that day, and I followed the developments only seconds before I watched a woman I once knew attempt to catch a grape in her mouth. My eyes dimmed a little, and everything became blurry for minutes on end.
The platforms I was using to interact with the world rendered all context of these events and actors moot: I was numbed into seeing everything in my limited virtual space on the same level. As I kept scrolling, navigating the well-worn paths of stories, influencers, tweets, status updates, retweets, meme accounts, and secondary meme accounts, everything began to hum with that anesthetizing backlit sameness. People I grew up with, celebrities, ASMR stars, former partners, fluffy dogs, professional athletes, contemptible government officials—I saw them all evenly.
Those of us who grew up with the internet hold dual citizenship in the real and virtual worlds. We are the first generation to have unfettered access to both. Using the tools afforded to us—open source software, equitable coding programs, online forums and communities, and expanding social networks—we actively shape and circumscribe our digital spaces as both creators and consumers of seemingly unending content.
Just like the tangible “real” world, however, the digital tools and platforms afforded to us are limited according to the power dynamics between the makers of the space and its occupants. And so, our online citizenship comes with as many responsibilities as freedoms. Principle among these is our obligation as an audience: we must constantly remind ourselves that the internet encourages us to be as passive as possible. I am not sure what an active citizen of the virtual space looks like—one who comments on every photo or interacts with every group is not necessarily active as much as they are engaged. Perhaps an active citizen of the virtual world is one who deliberately turns it off and takes action IRL. Unfortunately, the majority of us sit idly in our chairs, phones in hand, scrolling, until it’s time to turn out the light.
The other day, I read an essay bemoaning the habits of the lazy, phone-obsessed millennial. The omnipresence of screens—and our addiction to them—was argued to be destroying the novel as we know it, as a vehicle of storytelling. The novel fosters empathy amongst its readers, but the internet, by virtue of its endless sprawl, has numbed the empathy of its users.
This is the troubling paradox of the digital space: the facility with which we access content and information denies us the context and points of comparison needed to fully understand the hierarchy of the events around us. What I mean to say is that we have the access to so many more people than anybody had even 20 years ago, but we lack the deeper understanding of these other people that could be gained from, say, interpersonal interaction. We say we are more plugged in than ever before, but the internet has dimmed our ability to create a hierarchy of understanding and empathy so vital to being human.
We have unlimited access to people all over the world, from walks of life so different from our own. Movements like #blacklivesmatter and #metoo would not be possible without the far-reaching platforms we use, but the same vehicles that allow us to connect and engage with a larger diversity of people than ever before also risk barring us from empathizing with them.