Interacting with the Real World

George Monbiot is one of my favorite writers. He writes on a variety of topics and he first caught my attention when he was writing a lot about environmental issues. Below is a large chunk of an article he wrote recently that he titled Screened Out. It’s primarily about how so many bad things happen when people make their online experience their primary way of interacting with the world.  Living in an internet bubble leads to all kinds of very bad things, including sexism, racism, and Donald Trump’s election. So after you read this, please find a way to talk to a real live human being, or go walk your dog, get out into the world, and get away from your laptop or “devices”.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 1st March 2017

Everything is possible. Nothing is possible. Nothing hurts any more, until the consequences crash through the screen. Immersed almost permanently in virtual worlds, we cannot check what we are told against tangible reality. Is it any wonder that we live in a post-truth era, when we are bereft of experience?

I’m prompted to write this for two reasons. The first is a fascinating and disturbing explanation of the bulletin board by one of its former inhabitants, Dale Beran. This is the forum in which many of the toxic memes of the alt-right grew, and whose vicious pursuit, through Gamergate, of women who have dared to develop video games rose into a new wave of misogyny. Its millions of members helped to put Donald Trump on the throne.

Is 4chan a clever invention by a group of fascist conspirators? No. It evolved organically among young, often jobless, often sexually-frustrated men, who sought refuge in a world of their own making, and live there through almost every waking hour. As their online world of ironic self-reflection expanded, their contact with the real world shrank, until nothing was serious – except their hatred of women. Depicting their mascot Pepe the frog in a swastika t-shirt, giving the finger to liberals and people of colour, is just a joke. So was the rise, on their shoulders, of Milo Yiannopoulos. So was the election of Donald Trump.

Like adolescent boys and man-boys everywhere, 4chan’s users, Beran explains, are “deeply sensitive and guarded”. They disguise this sensitivity with extreme insensitivity to other people’s suffering – of the kind that “only people who have never really suffered” can display. Whatever they do or say – posting swastikas, racist memes, incitements to bully and abuse – is just “for the lulz” (4chan’s word for lols).

My second reason for writing this column is that the same issues surround another online sensation: the output of the YouTube vlogger PewDiePie. His absurdist babble, adored by his 53 million mostly-teenage followers, evolved into giving a Nazi salute, inserting clips of Hitler’s speeches and images of swastikas into his shows, paying two Indian men to hold up a sign reading “Death to All Jews” and pondering whether Leslie Jones (the actor who was brutally bullied by Yiannopolous and his followers for the crime of being black and female in a public place) should be compared to Harambe the gorilla.

[Personally, I find PewDiePie (above) revolting. He is the sum total of the selfish white [and in his case, Euro-male] millenials who are totally self-absorbed and seem to dislike and mock everyone who isn’t them; so, everyone.]

Several people have explained to me that it was all just fun; he didn’t mean it. Which, to my mind, is exactly the problem. When the Holocaust, nazism and racism are so abstracted from reality that they become just another expression of ironic detachment, when moral norms collapse into knowing laughter, our defences against offline horrors disintegrate.

Breaking down the barriers of acceptability through humour is now a deliberate tactic of the far right. PewDiePie might see his “jokes” as harmless and fun, but they mesh with agendas that are neither. The Nazi website the Daily Stormer notes that PewDiePie “could be doing all this only to stir things up and get free publicity … it doesn’t matter, since the effect is the same; it normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies.”

Donald Trump does the exact same thing with his campaign rallies (still ongoing) where he continues to inspire the misogynist chants of “Lock Her Up” and more. He’s still fighting Hillary Clinton and apparently, all women, and so are his childish, cultish followers.

The shrinking of our contact with the tangible world has taken place at a speed to which we struggle to adapt, with consequences we cannot yet grasp. The outdoor childhoods – urban or rural – that people of my age enjoyed are seen by our children in the same light as mastodons and public hangings: exotic, frightening and impossibly distant. For those who still see the rainbow arcing over the town while everyone else is buried in their phones, life in the real world can feel lonely.

I suspect this has only just begun. Virtual reality is in its infancy. Once people retreat into the land behind the headset, in which they can no longer even see or hear what surrounds them, they are likely to become still less connected with the real world. Facebook’s attempt to make virtual reality goggles an indispensable tool for learning, watching sport, even consulting a doctor, explained this week by Adam Alter, is frankly terrifying. It threatens to turn almost everyone into what the Japanese call hikikomori  – people who have withdrawn so far into virtual worlds that they can no longer be reached by those around them.

This makes us, especially in view of advances in neuromarketing and cognitive linguistics, that are now being ruthlessly exploited by the hard right, highly vulnerable to political manipulation. In a fiendishly complex world, the only hope we have of assessing competing claims is often to draw on our own experience. Without experience, we are lost.

This is more fundamental even than filter bubbles and values ratchets. This is about what it is to be human, what it is to lose that essential element of our existence: our contact with the real world. The political, social and environmental consequences are currently beyond reckoning.

Besides sexism and racism, another thing this living mainly in the virtual world leads to is a total divorcing from nature. I grew up in nature and walking outdoors and so did most of my childhood friends. This led to our generation feeling connected to the natural world and to the environment. Do younger people feel that connection, and if they don’t, how can they feel compelled to protect an environment they feel no bond with?