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Philosophical Appetizers, Served in the Internet Cafe

In “This is Your Brain on the Internet,” we grappled a lot with the anonymous aspect of the Internet. Behind a veil on anonymity, we are given both extreme freedom and the capacity to be extremely destructive and hurtful. When we glance over sites that dwell in infamy like College ACB, the homosexual roommate scandal, and the Rebecca Black tidal wave, we’re confronted with a steaming pile of hatred that, for some, mars the entire experience of the Internet altogether. At the same time, though—and thanks to the same veil of anonymity, we are able to tap in to raw human impulse and expression when we can view these types of things under a different lens. Take sites like 4chan.org for example; although 4chan is home to plenty of hatred and ugly content, it fosters a unique community that has never quite been replicated before. These people are faceless, nameless, race-less, and are each no more and no less than one bleep on the radar. They have no incentive to express themselves in any way that wouldn’t be authentic, nor do they have any reason to conform to any specific norm or expectation of society (trust me). This, for me, is miraculous. As somewhat of a student of Philosophy, I’d like to take a look at what the Internet offers in light of some of the philosophical outlooks of Nietzsche, Freud, and the Existentialist tradition.

When Nietzsche wrote “The Gay Science” in the 19th century, the take home phrase was “God is Dead.” By this, he meant our capacity to believe in a higher God had died since the Enlightenment. Before we became guided by science and reason, we searched and trekked on spiritually—through God—and, for Nietzsche, the post-Enlightenment masses were living merely in the “shadows” of what once could provide universal values and morals. Religion and debate of this matter aside, I found the same type of critique interesting while considering what the Internet has done for us in the 21st century. In Cathy Davidson’s upcoming book, “Now You See It,” she ponders the idea of shattering the notions that we’d built up in the linear 19th century; after the assembly line was created, we formed our educational practices around that same linear development (curriculum: learn this, then learn that, then learn that). The Internet, a collaborative mega-mind, has made us realize that 21st century learners are collaborators. Sites like Wikipedia show us that we don’t need to provide incentive to help each other acquire knowledge, nor do we ought to be afraid of each other’s insights (re: Yahoo! Answers). So how does Nietzsche’s point about religion relate to the Internet? Well, it shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid to unlearn the things we have previously taught ourselves. Our human brains over time gain the ability to conceive of new ideas and new levels of learning; the Internet is just the next step in approaching the ways we deal we conduct ourselves as a people.

Back to 4chan: Freud, who postulates the Id, Ego, and Super-ego, would be thrilled to delve into the sexual abyss of 4chan’s random board. For Freud, our Id represents our unconscious and our most primitive impulses and desires. Some of these desires, actually, are extremely convoluted, backwards, and even Oedipal. That’s not to say that 4chan has allowed us to express these things—they are unconscious to us—we cannot conceive of them. However, 4chan represents pure expression, raw, sexual energy, and everything else that goes unfiltered. For Freud, the super-ego puts a societal filter on our word choices, thoughts, and moral conscious. The Internet, construed as one entity, is a person without a super-ego. Under the veil of anonymity, societal morals and whatnot are thrown out the window. Without the veil, we can tap into pure human thought and where our instincts actually lead us.

The Existentialist tradition reflects on personal importance, the ultimate inconsequentiality of our behavior, and the absurdity of our existence as humans that lie in dreadful isolation, subject to the laws of nature. I’d like to think that the Internet has opened a café for the isolated to bond together and collaborate, and that definitely says something for the future of our evolution as a species. If something like Michael Chorost’s “World Wide Mind” was created, could we eventually converge as thinking-beings and nullify the tenets of an Existentialist tradition that is still quite applicable today? That’s not to say we can change the tenets of our existence—yet—(cough cough, artificial intelligence), but the actions under our current conditions would be made in quite a different light. If we could communicate thoughts, rather than speaking in muddled and irritating words, would there be more metaphysical comfort to this absurd, empty existence?

I enjoy asking these sorts of questions, because there are so many outlets of the Internet through which one can channel philosophical ideas to reach a hypothesis about the future. The philosophers of the 19th century played in a much different ballpark than today—the ways of thinking were different. I can’t help but imagine how philosophical thought will change in the age of collaboration; will we count on the brave few to ask the necessary questions about our lives, or will we set out together to ask and act with regard to our future?

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