The intersection of two books has me mulling over a truly scary possibility.
The books are:
I haven’t actually read Trick Mirror yet, but I listened to an amazing podcast interview with her which was simultaneously exhilarating and profoundly depressing.
And it got me thinking...
Could it be that we are all the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, and the internet has landed on our shores?
I know this may seem like a stretch, but consider:
At first the Europeans who came over didn’t really mean any harm. They weren’t really even expecting anyone to be here, and they didn’t know that here was here.
And in general they didn’t start just killing people, not at the start. They kind of needed the native people to help them survive.
So it is with the internet and with social media. It wouldn’t be able to grow and mutate if it just started killing people right off the bat. There’d be way more alarm if people started dying as soon as they tried using Google.
One of the central thesis that Jia Tolentino talked about with Ezra Klein is something I'd never really had clearly in my head before, and I'm still struggling with it, but it's essentially the idea that the “winners” in the current internet economy are the ones that most successfully allow each individual to become attached to the online version of themselves.
That’s super clear with Facebook and Twitter, of course, but even is a common thread with the others:
- Apple from its earliest days told people that it knew you were secretly Pablo Picasso, or whomever, and that with the right machine you could make that clear. And without the iPhone, there would be no selfie.
- Amazon isn't just about getting you books faster, it’s about making you a star, and providing all the stuff that you deserve as a star, and even anticipating what you might want. That's the treatment that stars get.
- And Google is about making sure that you feel heard. When you search for something, you get just what you are searching for. It knows what that is because it so helpfully tracks everything you do and then makes predictions from that. It’s why privacy advocates are having such a hard time getting people outraged — most people like it when someone is interested in them, even when they know that interest is pecuniary. What do they care?
While the Europeans that came over did lots of actual killing, either directly or indirectly with Small Pox or the introduction of guns, etc., the thing that most completely killed off the spirit of the people here was an idea, the idea that land could be owned.
The tribes that lived here, in general, operated under the idea that the land can't be owned in the same way that sunlight or air can't be bought or sold. It was all a gift, to be treated as such.
Once the idea of owning land took hold, it was just a matter of time before the native way of life would be all but erased.
Reading that book about Red Cloud, visiting Pine Ridge and Standing Rock, I have limitless respect for the tribal members among us today. But I think even the two tribal members who were just elected to congress would say that one of the main points of the Tribes today is to remind us all of a time when people had respect for the land, and for the sweep of history.
One of those two is a 35th-generation (!) New Mexican, Deb Haaland. And when she was sworn in and saw Sharice Davids, the other woman who makes up the sum total of all the Native American women ever elected to Congress, all she could do was cry, and share a hug. (And then, in perhaps one of the most genuine moments ever on the floor of the House, used her younger colleague’s scarf to wipe away tears.)
Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Native-American women to ever serve in Congress, share a moment after being officially sworn in: pic.twitter.com/acIRC5hX20— Frank Dale (@fwdale) January 3, 2019
What struck me most about that moment, and the reason it tied together so much with what Tolentino is talking about, is that Haaland was being totally herself and in that moment as it happened. She wasn't putting on a show. She wasn't acting out the part of the person being emotional, she was just being herself right then and right there.
How rare is that these days?
Not just for members of Congress, but for everyone. We seem to all have been infected with the idea that the persona of ourselves that exists on the internet is the same thing as our actual selves. That's the dangerous idea, the one that — like land ownership for the native peoples — will be the one that dooms us.
The canary in the coal mine here is teenagers, who have grown up completely online. In an affluent society when all outward structures of resilience would seem to be stronger than ever, teens are ending their own lives at a rate that’s growing alarmingly quickly.
This is the warning, the one that seems to me to be coming down from the elders, and also from those like Tolentino who are much younger than me and can see the pernicious nature of the all-online culture from the inside.
The warning is that the most dangerous thing is not using the internet, but letting the idea take hold that the person who we are on the internet is the same as the person who we are in the real world. We are not.
So, what do we do to fix it? How do we avoid this massacre before it happens to us?
I don’t actually know, but I have some ideas. I’ll mull those over and try to get them here, soon, or maybe I'll just get off the damn internet and read another book from a local bookseller and have actual conversations with some people in person and not worry about how that conversation will translate into a tweet. At least I’ll try.
Wish me luck.