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Digital Man

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books and culture

Digital Man

Two new books show how modern technologies are reshaping humanity. October 29, 2021
The Social Order
Technology and Innovation

Fake Accounts, by Lauren Oyler (Catapult, 272 pp., $26)

Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment, by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey (Princeton University Press, 264 pp., $27.95)

We’ve all heard how the Internet age is destroying attention spans, lowering IQs, anti-socializing everyone, accelerating polarization, and exploiting privacy for profit. These trends prompt a troubling question: what is the Internet doing to our humanity?

Coming up with an answer requires a close look at the modern scientific project. In his 1943 book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis notes that, when we talk about “Man’s conquest of nature” (usually through technological advancement), it’s never actually nature we’re conquering—it’s other people. Lewis doesn’t mean by this that we should reject all technological advancement. Medicine, modern agricultural techniques, and other developments have benefited countless people.

But the potential for weaponization is intrinsic even to the best of technologies, like medicine (as some pharmaceutical companies remind us). As Lewis notes, “What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by.” Some technologies are designed to directly affect others: contraception drastically shapes future generations. Bombs kill the living. Yet even technologies that appear harmless, like the “aeroplane or the wireless,” Lewis says, “can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods.”

So long as we view the natural order as something to be exhumed and examined for profit and gain, so long as material reality is putty in our palms, our exploitation of the world will culminate in humanity placing itself on the exam table. Lewis writes, “The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man.”

Modern science’s quest for control casts a pall on our digitized age and its own ambitions. What is the end goal, conscious or not, of the Internet and its architects?

Lauren Oyler’s 2021 debut novel, Fake Accounts, takes a magnifying glass to digital technology’s effects on daily life. With acerbic humor and discomfiting self-awareness, Oyler traces the habits that digital technology fosters in users. Her unnamed narrator is a young New York City-based writer whose “lazy nihilism” and aimless Internet wanderings direct her day-to-day existence. Oyler often revels in conveying the absurdity of digitally impulsive behavior. During one of many Internet “adventures,” her narrator says, “When I inevitably became disheartened with the men on offer [on the dating website], I tabbed back to social media, where I clicked on articles to open more tabs that remained there to jilt my attention for weeks, developing an even more peripatetic style of reading than I had before.” (How uncomfortably relatable.)

One day, after some rather shameless snooping, the narrator learns that her boyfriend Felix, who is evasive, perceptive, and only occasionally warm, runs an anonymous conspiracy-theorist Instagram account. This discovery is perplexing because Felix’s behavior has never indicated that he harbored strange beliefs about 9/11, presidential assassinations, or anything of that kind. After learning his secret, Oyler’s narrator fantasizes about confronting him. She imagines a dramatic breakup—but she procrastinates in broaching the subject until, suddenly, Felix dies in a bike accident (there’s a strange plot twist about this at the end of the book, which I won’t spoil).

After Felix’s death, the narrator impetuously moves from New York, where she and Felix had both lived, to Berlin, where she and Felix met. She can never quite explain her sudden move to Berlin to herself, but this doesn’t bother her much. She’s much more anxious about concocting plausible excuses for her move abroad to give to inquisitive friends. After a few weeks, boredom sets in, so she turns to dating apps. Bored with the normal use of the apps (messaging men and going on dates), she begins creating fake names and made-up lives for herself. She never explains why she decides to craft these fictional personas for the unsuspecting (and sometimes clearly troubled) men.

The setting for these events is less New York and Berlin than an iPhone and a computer. There’s a clear connection between the apathy and aimlessness of Oyler’s narrator and the omnipresence of the digital in her life. Constant access to email, Twitter, Facebook, dating apps, and Internet surfing creates uncontrollable curiosity about notifications and new content. Various online activities slowly consume the narrator’s sense of purpose.

Oyler’s book recalls a familiar truth: that our environment shapes our existential orientation to a profound degree. Woven into daily life, digital platforms inject their own logic into the basic structure of our thought. “Because our brains are so plastic and formable,” writes Matthew Crawford, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, “the grooves that we wear into them through repeated behavior may become deep enough that they function like walls.”

It’s not too melodramatic to affirm that our digital environment indeed does shape our humanity—not because the Internet is overwhelmingly powerful or uniquely toxic among all other technological developments in history, but because human beings have formable constitutions. Our social surroundings inevitably shape our sense of what’s important.

Humans aren’t pure malleability, though. We also have a nature, a set of essential qualities. Speaking broadly, we are all drawn toward something ineffable beyond ourselves. We often attempt to satisfy this need for self-transcendence with sex, money, fame, and other finite things, but they are not adequate to our need. When we’re at our best, we use our minds and talents to help us better perceive this hidden source of our wonder and desire. Digital technology’s particular tendency to form attention dependence and obsession with self-image ends up suffocating this native human quality.

In another recent book, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment, Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, both professors of politics at Furman University (and a married couple), outline an intellectual genealogy of why modern life can seem so trivial and vacuous. They interrogate the thought of four French thinkers—Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau, and Tocqueville—on the question of how human beings find contentment. Of these, Montaigne and Pascal considered human purpose most comprehensively.

Montaigne, whose irresistible whimsy is evident in his writings, is the architect of what the Storeys call “immanent contentment.” Montaigne accomplished this lifestyle “by disdaining no aspect of the human condition but partaking joyfully of all of it—books and horses, travel and love, food and art, talking with his daughter, playing with his cat, tending to the cabbages of his unfinished garden.” The Storeys explain that Montaigne’s key is “moderation through variation: an arrangement of our dispositions, our pursuits, and our pleasures that is calculated to keep us interested, ‘at home,’ and present in the moment but also dispassionate, at ease, and in balance.”

Montaigne wrote in an era of profound religious strife and violence. He sought to dampen people's passions over abstruse doctrines like transubstantiation by arguing, in effect, that all beliefs have flat moral equivalence, and no view is worth the sacrifice of daily pleasures. Coming at a time of widespread exhaustion from endless violence, his message struck a chord.

Montaigne’s laissez-faire posture has clearly enjoyed long-term success. Today, most of us no longer need to be persuaded not to care whether our being has an ultimate source and purpose. Adding omnipresent digital distractions to this cultural predisposition toward Montaignian-inspired indifference has further dulled humanity’s natural yearning for answers about existence.

The Storeys’ subtitle (“On the Modern Quest for Contentment”) might be a misnomer. Very few of us actually seek contentment. Oyler’s novel conveys the painstaking apathy that has set in among dwellers in the digital realm. As we’ve seen, it evaporates interest in life’s wonders—a development even Montaigne would abhor. But the book’s title, Why We Are Restless, captures a prevalent mood: we really are restless, and we lack the intellectual equipment to withstand modernity’s metaphysical void. Distraction and absorption in virtual reality become natural coping mechanisms when the portal to both rests easily in our pockets.

The Storeys, like Lewis, seek to nourish our natural desire to know the foundational truths of existence. Following Pascal’s example, they find that interrogating great thinkers is the only path out of the current cultural paralysis: “Conversing with such thinkers compels us to go beyond the cliches of our day and to encounter the framework of abiding questions that structures human life.” Indeed, “only those with a foothold in the thought of the past will have the perspective necessary to guide [our common life].” Pascal knew that chronic nonchalance was inadequate. Despite all our efforts to quell it, the innate human dread about our own inadequacies sets in.

For C. S. Lewis, the task of securing one’s basic intellectual foundation is a much more urgent task. He maintains that “if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt . . . to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis [such as biological necessity], is doomed.” Refusal to proceed on basic premises of reason means that we cannot proceed at all. “If nothing is self-evident,” Lewis writes, “nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.” When the foundations of knowledge have been abandoned for enough generations, philosophical dejection sets in, and we become vulnerable to whatever is most effective in consuming our attention.

Read together, Fake Accounts and Why We Are Restless provide a sobering but urgent reminder: if our educational and cultural institutions don’t nourish our native wonder about the fact of existence, other forces—likely the most powerful and alluring ones available—will educate us according to their own internal logic and purposes. Humanity might come to look very different if those distractions continue to reel us in.

Photo: d-l-b/iStock

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