We shape our tools, and therefore our tools shape us.

– Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.

– William Gibson, Neuromancer, p.51.

Our new devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of the self, itself, split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology.

– Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, p.16.

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to you right now than people dying in Africa.

– Mark Zukerberg, (quoted by Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble, p.1.)

Distributed across networks

The digital and the physical have converged into hybrid spaces to the point that our very sense of self, how we identify as individuals and as members of social collectives, has inextricably merged with networks of digital information. We are constantly connected to unseen databases and the theoretically near-infinite network of the internet, which affects, alters and filters every aspect of our daily lives, professionally and socially, psychologically and spiritually.

It is now common-place for engagement with the physical world to be mediated and informed by a virtual layer of information. We may be physically situated in a public space, but our capacity to directly interact with it and with one another has changed – are we completely embodied or spatially aware in a place when our attention is constantly being diverted to the ever-present portal offered by our mobile device? And so its screen becomes an equally valid representation of the space we physically occupy, its interface our preferred way of being publicly present, and the information it provides just as true as anything else we see, hear or otherwise sense.

The internet (or memories of its use) is habitually and instinctively used to negotiate and understand daily interactions with the physical space of our lives. Our minds have become dependent on an external, networked database for memories and information both vital and trivial. Our cognitive psychology has been transformed by technological dependency and the ramifications are actually biochemical, neurological. This mediated, hybrid space is our contemporary social reality – a Baudrillardian simulacrum of an infinite degree that only permits undefinable degrees of realness, in which the whole notion of ‘realness’ seems distant and irrelevant.

We barely notice our daily lives changing. We must stay connected and up-to-date, and adhere to the professional and social demands of contemporary life. We accept these changes almost unquestioningly, recalibrating our lives as necessary, justifying our media and information consumption habits as our internet addictions grow increasingly insatiable. We fetishize endlessly more-capable gadgets, celebrating the convenience they offer as we move our lives into the net, corporatize our personal lives, broadcast even our most banal day-to-day habits to be tracked, and sacrifice our privacy as commodity of information to be traded in a virtual derivative-fund-like maze. And so the digital shadows of ourselves have become more real than we are.

Splintered cognition

There are always trade-offs with any new technology. Two thousand years ago Socrates famously lamented the popular adoption of writing as sounding the death knoll of memory, as creating “forgetfulness in learners’ souls.” Sixty years ago, Martin Heidegger despaired of the radio, and the hollow manufactured, intimacy and “distancelessness” it offered. As with its predecessors, the internet – with more than 1.5 billion users – represents a global socio-cultural revolution in communication and interpersonal behaviour: Like all previous technological shifts of significance, the internet is changing us.

We do not mean to denigrate the internet's celebrated attributes – how it serves as an integral mechanism for information dissemination and learning, social interaction and connectivity and an endlessly diverse source of entertainment and distraction. But the fundamental cognitive shift represented by the internet is hard to under estimate – its pervasiveness has a very real potential to make us more shallow and superficial thinkers, if we proceed unaware of the risks. As we increasingly network through ever-present mobile devices with smaller screens, conducive to consumption – far more ‘pull’ than ‘push’ – these problematic trends can only accelerate.

The illusion of control

Networked information technology provides malleable ways of organizing and filtering experience, encouraging individuals to believe they are in control – they create their own experience by choosing from layers of spatialised information and their tools are highly customizable, ready to be reordered and personalized to meet their preferences and desires. But how fundamentally are their options limited – how significant a role is played by technological determinism? No two people will have the same online experience, but they are all fundamentally the same – within a controlling framework and a dominant paradigm. Therein lies the paradox – while the structural organization of the web is fundamentally non-hierarchical and open, access has become more individualized and insular. With an illusion of control and the novelty of the interface, the latest gadgetry and other superficial variables, users are overwhelmed beyond contemplating or questioning where the data and information is coming from or going to, generated within what context or framework, and going through which subjective filters to end up serving whose ends.

Psyche in the simulacrum

Our increasing dependency on the internet has had a significant psychological, emotional and social impact, affecting a significant segment of the population problematically. Networked technologies provide a endlessly renewing refuge from the banalities of daily life, a psychological sanctuary but ultimately unfulfilling escape. Dysfunctional craving for constant connectivity is further exacerbated by broader, normalizing trends in public life, including a celebration of hyper mediated workaholism, unsustainable consumerism, and a corporatist agenda for commodifying personal data and social conformity. As our web profiles have evolved from a consequence-free playground of fantasy avatars and nick names, to the web 2.0 era of social media profile pages chronicling what purports to be our real lives, our lives have moved online in a very emotionally and professionally involving way. In the words of Sherry Turkle: “On social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves but our profile ends up as somebody else – often the fantasy of who we want to be. Distinctions blur. Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. […] Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allow us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”

Corporatized connectivity: the virtual triumphant

But the web is no longer strictly virtual – it has become more real in that it has real life consequences, often ridiculously disproportional – planning a virtual riot on Facebook in which no property damage incurred, can now land one a jail sentence in the UK. The anonymous hacker facing a potential 15 year prison sentence for hacking a municipal website for half an hour. The web has turned into a commodified, corporatized space of optimism and euphoria with no dislike button, a transformation that has coincided with the rise of the Riddelin generation as media barons and major influencers of online product. To succeed in a society which celebrates the triumph of the virtual over the real, an individual has little choice but to personally adopt and normalize these values into their everyday lifestyles for their own well being – being over-exposed to media or over-connected hardly seems possible from such a perspective. Nicholas Carr is right to describe internet usage as “an ethic of the industrialist.” The global economy casts us not as responsible citizens with balanced, sustainable lifestyles, but as machine-like businesspeople, entrepreneurs and consumers, speedy and efficient, always networked, always busy, always on. It’s what Jean Baudrillard would have called hyperreal, “a simulacrum raised to the second power” Or as put by Sherry Turkle, “life in a media bubble has come to seem normal.”

Next Section: Counter-Strategies