Virtual. Cyber. Avatar. These are the kinds of words we still use to describe the internet, and by extension our interactions with each other when we use it. They speak of fantasy and unreality, of a place disconnected from the gritty business of real life. But why isn’t the internet considered part of our real lives?
Most of you reading this use the internet every day for everything from communicating to banking to entertaining yourselves. There are nearly two billion of us doing so, with another two billion on the way by 2020.
And yet you still hear the refrain, “Look at what the internet / chat rooms / Facebook / Twitter is doing to people — no one even phones their real friends anymore.” But why is talking on the phone necessarily more “real” than chatting to someone on the internet?
Yes, the human voice has a special quality that chatting via text cannot ever replace. And yes the fine art of conversation requires you to be able to hear each other. But what about the millions of people who video chat with each other via Skype every day? That doesn’t count I suppose.
“But the internet is all about anonymous name calling and teenagers poking each other on Facebook – that isn’t real!” you may cry. Yes, a lot of the internet is still about those things, but more and more of it is about real relationships between real people. Tens of millions of people who are now happily married met on the the internet. Tens of millions more make a living working on the internet, just as I do.
And how do we even define “real” anyway? Through our senses? We can certainly see and hear the internet. We can’t smell, touch or taste it – at least not directly – but it is a portal through which we can discover new things to smell, touch and taste. And we can definitely feel it, or is that thrill of emotion when an old flame or a long lost friend finds you online not genuine?
Perhaps the most concrete way to define “real” is the affect it can have on people’s physical lives. We all know the internet can make you rich, make you friends, even get you laid. But can the internet land you in jail?
It can if you’re Joshua Ashby, the 20-year-old New Zealander who will be spending the next four months behind bars thanks to his behaviour on Facebook. His crime? Posting naked pictures of his (recently) ex-girlfriend on the site in a fit of drunken rage.
He wasn’t even the first person on earth to be jailed because of his activities on Facebook. That dubious honour fell to a Moroccan named Fouad Mourtada who impersonated the king’s younger brother, Prince Moulay Rachid, as a protest against the lack of civil rights in his country.
Nor was he the second. Harry Bruder, a 54-year-old plumber from Florida, landed himself in the clink after using Facebook to harass his wife with friend requests, in violation of the restraining order against him. It may seem extreme, but a fragile, battered spouse deserves not to be terrorised, regardless of whether it’s via the internet or not. To her the harassment was very real.
No one understand the power of the internet to change real life better than teenagers. A new trend in teenage users of social networks like Facebook is called “super-logoff“. It involves literally deactivating (rather than deleting) your profile each time you sign out so that it essentially disappears from the site. You then reactivate it again when you are online.
Why would they do this? Because they want absolute control over what is said about them online, and super-logoff is one way to achieve that. Another is “white walling” – deleting every single thing you post after each session. That way you can control what happens to anything you share, because you are online to do so. Try telling these kids the internet isn’t real.
The problem with continuing to neatly separate the internet from real life is that it allows people, often important people like governments, to ignore what happens out there in “cyberspace”. And it also allows the tiresome Mother Grundies to continue moaning about “the youth of today” and how society is falling down around our ears.
Even if you swallow the received wisdom that modern people are more selfish and isolated than previous generations, you are confusing cause and effect. If society is changing for the worse it is despite the internet, not because of it.
A much more useful distinction is between the online world and the physical world, which are increasingly mirrors of one another. That at least puts them on an equal footing, and opens up the possibility for more rather than less interaction between them.
Will the online part of our world ever replace the physical? That is the territory of science fiction, and not particularly pleasant sci-fi at that. There are people who believe in the “singularity” – a kind of digital rapture in which we will all upload ourselves into the global super-computing network and live forever as bits and bytes.
I find that highly doubtful. Then again some virtual 18-year-old in 2150 is probably chuckling as he scans this with his virtual eyes, and adds it to his cyber essay about the foolishness of 21st century tech writers.