We Have a Reality Problem

In the early 1990s, when the internet was still in its structural infancy, and its influence on broader culture was widely underestimated if not entirely unknown, Howard Rheingold already knew enough to predict where this newest technology would — and wouldn’t — take us.

These lines from Rheingold’s nearly thirty-year-old book, The Virtual Community, have been on my mind for over a decade:

“What does it mean that the same hopes, described in the same words, for a decentralization of power, a deeper and more widespread citizen involvement in matters of state, a great equalizer for ordinary citizens to counter the forces of central control, have been voiced in the popular press for two centuries in reference to steam, electricity, and television? We’ve had enough time to live with steam, electricity, and television to recognize that they did indeed change the world, and to recognize that the utopia of technological millenarians has not yet materialized. An entire worldview and sales job are packed into the word progress, which links the notion of improvement with the notion of innovation, highlights the benefits of innovation while hiding the toxic side-effects of extractive and lucrative technologies, and then sells more of it to people via television as a cure for the stress of living in a technology-dominated world. The hope that the next technology will solve the problems created by the way the last technology was used is a kind of millennial, even messianic, hope, apparently ever-latent in the breasts of the citizenry. The myth of technological progress emerged out of the same Age of Reason that gave us the myth of representative democracy, a new organizing vision that still works pretty well, despite the decline in vigor of the old democratic institutions. It’s hard to give up on one Enlightenment ideal while clinging to another.” — Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community

When I say I’ve been thinking about this passage for over a decade, I mean that literally. Ten years ago, I reflected upon how Rheingold’s perspective had aged after, then, almost two decades. What stood out to me in 2011 was his connection between progress and economics. I noted that ideas of progress are carried by economic activity, which means that ideas that don’t easily bind to wealth-building don’t easily bind to culture. Or in other words, capitalism promotes technological change more than technology changes capitalism. That is not a good thing. And, it was as true ten years ago as it is today.

What strikes me now is how that same idea plays out within a much more developed technological culture. In 1993, Rheingold’s assessment would have probably struck the average person as academic. Intellectually persuasive, perhaps, but not especially relevant to day-to-day life. After all, in the year Rheingold’s book was published, there were an estimated 15 million internet users worldwide. That was less than half of one percent of the world’s population. Back then, they measured internet usage by file requests — that alone tells you a lot. But to be specific, those file requests had increased to an average of 400,000 a month. Total. In case you’re not sure, that is not a big number by today’s standards. It’s tiny. Today, there’d be as much point in measuring the internet in file requests as there would be in measuring a life in blinks.

1993 also happened to be the same year that the New York Times published its very first story on the World Wide Web! In it, Mitch Kapor (the creator of Lotus), offered this somewhat ironic quote: “For me Mosaic was a turning point. It’s like C-Span for everyone.” C-Span, of course, is “famous” for providing every American with unfettered access to governmental proceedings or, in other words, revealing how boring running a country can be.

That’s where Rheingold’s thirty-year-old assessment of the internet takes me now. We have gorged at the table of technology for long enough to be bored by even the notion of a new technological layer, but our addict’s muscle memory has us loading up our plates still. We understand the connection between technology and economy — now better than ever — and yet we see bizarre signs of dissonance everywhere. The person who virtue signals about one thing while keeping the other technological conveniences they enjoy — the ones that put neighbors out of work, fatten oligarchs, and erode meaningful boundaries throughout the world — very much in their blind spot. The person who rants about tearing down the system on a video recorded, processed, and uploaded to the system. The person who rebels against the government and shares the pictures of them doing it.

Unlike the tea party of 1773, where a hundred men dumped £9,659 worth of tea overnight so the city would wake up (literally) to see the symbol of their discontent floating in the harbor, 2021’s sedition was performed for a rapt audience in real time, with a tatooed QAnon shaman draped in animal pelts ransacking and shit-smearing the Capitol alongside wealthy Instagram influencers who flew in for the spree on their private jet. Whether they saw the rebellion as a historical act of defiance or just another batch of content for the feed is not so easy to parse. There is evidently a pretty wide and messy spectrum of participation, with those who drove in vans full of explosives, ready to zip-tie hostages and execute the Vice President on one end, and those who loitered nearby while flooding the internet with the same-old MAGA hat kissieface selfies on the other. And somewhere in there are the people who went to the trouble of printing up “Civil War” hoodies, the people who erected a massive cross and a gallows — a truly spectacular unforced error of irony — and sadly, the people who died in the brawl.

Who was rebelling and who was vlogging? Legally, it doesn’t really matter. They were one and the same this week. But when we place this moment within the longer narrative of culture, progress, and technology, I think it does and will matter quite a bit.

Rheingold lamented the common hope (“ever-latent in the breasts of the citizenry”) that technology will solve past problems without creating new ones. Of course it can’t do that. And in some respects, new problems signal progress as much as new solutions do. But when I re-read his words — “ever-latent in the breasts of the citizenry” — I think not of a hidden, concealed, existing-but-not-yet-manifest hope, but a hidden, concealed, existing-but-not-yet-manifest reality made possible by thirty years of the internet. And not just one latent reality, but as many of them as there are people who express them and agree. A clustering of ID and ego-born realities legitimized by the shine of a technological package and the easy endorsement of a like or share.

I wonder what sorts of defenses will be mounted in courts on behalf of the YouTubers, Twitchers, and Instagrammers who stormed the Capitol. Will it be that they didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong? That they didn’t know they were committing treason and not just creating content? Or will it be that they actually were not able to know the difference? As far-fetched as insanity pleas typically are, I wonder about future defenses that the increasing density of our filter bubbles may afford. Time will tell.

The internet has been the object of every kind of criticism and blame you can imagine. Certain corners of it more so than others. Sometimes the complaint has been that the technology gives voice to the profane. Sometimes it’s that the technology worsens inequality. Sometimes it’s our humanity we are worried about, and how using technology rewires our brains in the image of the machine. All these have had their time in the critical conversation. But what of the role technology has in simulating a reality within a reality? When it does this, it does it invisibly — wrapping itself around a person — without an edge or boundary that anyone can see or trace. These simulated realities create and shape minds just as the outer — the real — reality does.

It is often said that “there are two Americas,” a metaphor highlighting cultural and economic divides. But there aren’t just two Americas. There are thousands, if not millions, of Americas. Sorting the real from the simulated, the legitimate from the illegitimate, the American from the seditious, is, in theory, a job for a kind of technology. And yet, what strange, metastatic chaos future would such a technology create?

We now have a reality problem, created by a culture which has irrevocably fused with its technology. And just like any symbiosis, one cannot survive without the other.