How the Internet is (Really) Changing Us

Everybody knows the internet changed the way people interact with each other. The various social networks such as Facebook or Google+, in particular, are there to help one connect with others — not just professionally, but personally, as well.

This had caused much distress in certain quarters. Many people are claiming that we are no longer truly interacting with others, as we did in the past. We no longer have real friends, they argue: Facebook “friends” (whomever decided to call them “friends” instead of “connections” or “members of your mailing list” was either the world’s greatest marketing genius or socially autistic, or perhaps both) are hardly real. They do not provide the social network, safety net, emotional support or intimacy real friends provide. More generally, our interaction with others in general became artificial. As long ago as 1909, in an incredibly prophetic story, E. M. Forster imagined an “internet”-obsessed community of people who interact with each other solely through screens from their home “pods” in “The Machine Stops” (naturally, one young man rebels…).

Others, in reply, point out that, first of all, the “good old days” were hardly that good. People were just as lonely and lacking in social skills before the internet; there is no reason to think that anywhere, except perhaps in legend, more primitive societies were actually more intimate. The internet’s ability to reach out to millions of people is an incredible boon; it might have made many internet addicts who interact with others only through screens and keyboards, but how many of them would be just as lonely otherwise? What’s more, who are we to decide what a community is? Who is to say whether the internet could not, in principle at least, supply the same sort of intimacy as face-to-face communications?

I believe there is a third possibility, pointed out in other cases by certain philosophers but not, so far as I know, emphasized in the case of the internet. Both positions above agree that there is a good definition of “community”, “intimacy”, “social group” and the like: the one that, say, sociologists or psychologists or laymen use. When people say that the internet is a “new kind of community”, they usually mean that Facebook friends, or one’s MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) squad members, and so on, fulfil some or most of the important functions of “regular” communities — that one can be equally intimate or caring towards someone one met only on the computer screen as one can be towards someone who one lives with, for example.

This may or may not be true, but a more basic question is: who says that the definitions of the “essential” roles of a “real” community are unalterable? Plato, for example, warned that reading will make memory weak, as society will no longer have the “living books”, the bards or shamans who tell the tales of the tribes’ history from memory. Kirkegaard, in the mid-19th century, argued that the invention of the mass press destroyed all sense of relative importance or hierarchy of knowledge, as everything is printed en masse regardless of importance or lack thereof. They may well have been correct; it is quite possible that memory was stronger before writing and society more certain of its values before the mass-circulated newspaper; yet we do not feel that we are, for all that, lacking in an ability to determine values or to use our memory.

It is of course always possible to claim that so much the worse for us: we are simply unaware of what we have lost — of the power the human memory can attain without writing, or the conviction in its beliefs it can have without the printing press. One often, indeed, wonders about the kind of faith that allowed men in medieval times to build cathedrals. Yet it is also true that there are changes to the better, in our concept of what gives someone a “good memory”, for example. Today, a real expert would often will not burden their mind with small details, so long as they remembers certain crucial skills — since they know where to find the small details to apply their skills with when needed (think of modern physicians). This allows them to be competent in a far wider range of activities than was possible in the past.

It is therefore possible that our very concept of what a community is will change: that it will be truly a new kind of community, perhaps lacking some of the (previously) seemingly essential qualities of what a “real” community is, and having others. Perhaps intimacy is overrated, and speed of information transfer underrated. There seems no a priori reason that what makes a community would not change.

This insight is not particularly new: the skepticism that certain statements — for example, statements about community essentially involving intimacy — are a priori true due to logical analysis of the meaning of the concepts has a long history, from Quine’s famous Two Dogmas of Empiricism, if not before. One can think quite easily about statements that were seen being a priori true due to the meaning of the concept, but turned out to be false or at least not obviously true after all: that man is a rational animal, women inferior to men, marriage is between two opposite sexes, and so on. As one philosopher pointed out, even a statement as seemingly obvious a priori true as ‘cats are animals’ could turn out to be false, were we to discover they are actually cleverly concealed robots sent here by Martians. But I do not believe it was applied to our case.

So it is not beyond possibility that the idea that guides implicitly both pro-internet and anti-internet positions — that community has certain essential properties such as allowing for intimacy, a web of support, etc. — will turn out to be false. It is quite possible for technology to change, not just our way of life on the “outside”, but our deeply held definitions of basic social and emotional concepts from the “inside”: from our concept of what is a community to that of what is our own self. Is this good or bad? That is, of course, a different story.

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv