(ESSAY) What We Misunderstand About the Internet by Natalie Cortez-Klossner
In this essay, Natalie Cortez-Klossner ventures through the overwhelm of Web 2.0, asking questions of value, aesthetics and digital ontology with suitable detours through Google, Webkinz and that pesky term, 'cyberspace'.
> The other morning, I Googled ‘is the internet controlling our lives?’ A sea of media coverage flooded my screen: ‘the illusion of control: How technology rules our lives,’ ‘how to know if artificial intelligence is about to destroy civilization,’ ‘social networking sites may be controlling your mind – here’s how to take charge,’ and ‘technology is destroying the most important asset in your life.’
> Overwhelmed, I closed the tabs.
> Not sure what led me to Google my digital angsts. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of the current state of the internet. You can tell this by my question — ‘is the internet controlling our lives?’ Underneath the textual surface, it screams panic — panic, that the relationship between the physical and virtual is ever-changing. Shopping malls, video stores, and restaurants have turned into e-commerce, streaming services, and delivery platforms! The web has been unchained from deskbound family computers to handheld smartphones! The internet has shifted from a space of leisure to the main space of work, education, and social interaction.
> That evening, I reopened the tabs, questioning why I was overwhelmed by the results.
> I’ve found myself sceptical of the internet these past few years, viewing it as a breeding ground for humanity’s worst instincts and desires. Who’s not to be overwhelmed in this golden age of content and the ever-increasing data-driven ethos? Born in the mid-1990s and mainly raised in the developed world, I’ve felt the effects of coming-to-age during the digital revolution. Two decades have brought a cyber economy guided by an attention obsession, online labour, and surveillance capitalism. With digital success has come addiction too! Psychological research has proven that approval stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is connected to addictive behaviours. Users on social media get dopamine hits from digital praise such as likes and applauding emojis. This phenomenon is what keeps us coming back and back to our posts – seeing new likes and comments.
> I was never sheltered by Silicon Valley’s technophilia, nor was I dreaming of being a neo-Luddite. The reopened tabs voiced something entirely different — a paradox. I took my worries to cyberspace, the thing that I was pushing against. Was I expecting answers from Google, or from people using the internet?Consider the question that started this reflection — ‘is the internet controlling our lives?’ It suggests I asked Google a question and it answered me. I would have said ‘Google told me...’ about the results. I was personifying a search engine, rather than viewing it as a tool for humans. We forget that the internet is a medium, in the artistic sense of the word. It’s a vehicle and material a person or a collective of people make and use to create something.
> Aha! All the doomsday articles were written by humans like myself, organised by an algorithm of sorts. Even if AI wrote the article, a human programmed it. Google isn’t one source. The search engine wouldn’t exist without the contributions of humans. Not to say that the internet is an earthly paradise — but to attribute intrinsic value, morality, and responsibility to a medium is useless. There are beautiful sculptures cast of iron and controversial iron memorials; we’d never dare say that the iron is controlling us. The element doesn’t have higher power and legitimacy over the craftsmen who use it to create sculptures.
> Science fiction writer William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his cyberpunk novel Neuromancer(1984) as ‘a consensual hallucination experienced by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.’ Yes, a hallucination! We, humans, are so naïvely entranced by the illusion that Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and the internet are respectively, a self-governing entity. We are at awe at the complexity behind the screen. We ignore that the internet is an embodied experience; the internet is an extension of the bodies of billions of ‘operators.’
> Present cultural assumptions have blocked a collective understanding of the internet as a medium. There’s an ever-increasing bias to see the virtual as separate from reality, an assumption referred to as digital dualismby Nathan Jurgenson. Our contemporary zeitgeist is built on this illusion of separation. Even if our collective imagination saw the internet as a medium, we’d need to understand what to do with that medium. Like a writer who uses the medium of text understands that the order and rhythm of the words are more important than the grammar. Accepting that the internet is a medium is only half of the battle. A context must be built around it!
> I understood the context in which Webkinz.com was built around as a kid — the bridging of the physical and digital divide. I might be succumbing to the cliché of looking at my favourite late 1990s and early 2000s games through nostalgia-tinted glasses, but the game introduced an entire generation to personal expression via a computer-generated reality. Webkinz like Neopets, Club Penguin, and The Sims, introduced us to the idea that our cyber actions can show up on our screen as an immersive sensory experience. The online world was just the means or medium.
> I went on the site every day of the year 2007 until I either forgot my password or grew out of playing the simulation game. Webkinz are stuffed animals with an eight-digit code on their tag; with the code, you can join a cartoon-style game called ‘Webkinz World’ where the plush toy is virtually brought to life. I remember my Webkinz fondly, a Koala Bear with a white stomach and big triangular nose.
> My physical Koala was entangled with my digital one. The online counterpart never took from the toy — it added an intimate dimension. I used my impulse to actively control what my Koala did without losing sight of the plush toy I brought to school. If anything, the simulation was almost more real than the plush toy. As in, I was the curator of my virtual world: I bought furniture, chatted with friends, worked for KinzCash, washed and brushed my Koala, and played a variety of games. Webkinz World was one of my first experiences in which the body I occupied online drastically differed from the one I presented in everyday life. Yet, the cyber version of my Koala existed because I existed. I never left the ‘real’ to join the ‘non-real’ that was Webkinz World.
> Up until October 2019, Ganz, the company that owns Webkinz, kept doormat accounts available if an ex-user logged-in after years. Users on social media have made countless memes about how their Webkinz are dying somewhere in cyberspace. This news is a testament to human agency or at least human agency considering the internet. If I’d remembered my password before my account got deactivated, my Koala would exist once again because of my input.
> Webkinz is an earlier testament to humans being the most integral part of the internet despite all the doomsday rhetoric. If people play on Webkinz, Webkinz exists. If people post on Instagram, then Instagram exists. If people contribute to The New Yorker, then The New Yorker exists. User-generated content is just that, user-created, non-existent without the human. As Apple’s 1980s slogan goes, ‘One Person, One Computer.’
> We initiate physical space by interacting with it like we initiate cyberspace by interacting with it. Space doesn’t exist as a container to be filled with things, but space exists because of human feedback. Webkinz World is a reality because of one million young people interacting with the interface. The internet is an instrument for us. Netscape embodies this in their 1994 slogan, ‘the web is for everyone.’ If we think of cyberspace in these terms, we challenge the existing belief that the ‘internet is controlling our lives.’ The internet is for us because it’s a means of expression and communication.
> Reframing our relationship with the web allows a push against the idea of it as a chaotic wild-west arena. Cyberspace is a public common moderated by a network of individual people. Emile Durkheim (a founder of sociology) wrote that society not only transcends the individual but also transcends the physical. Society can be a nonphysical human collective, like cyberspace. Computers that run complex mathematical formula act in ways that culture has traditionally acted. Information — people, places, objects, and ideas — is digitally sorted, classified, and ranked. Even given the algorithmic complexity, we’re still creating the content organized. What you decide to produce is ultimately up to you.
> We should stop prescribing consciousness and power to cyberspace, but instead to the people who operate and contribute to it. When we personify the internet, we tend to objectify the humans in the situation. Take the example of how corporations in the United States are given personhood and the subsequent exploitation of workers. We need to start defining and understanding the internet with new vocabulary. This could be thinking of the internet as a medium or space, or some other grander concept. Only then will we tear down the fake border standing in-between the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’. We will finally feel less disoriented and fragmented by embracing the intimacy between us and the internet.
Text and image: Natalie Cortez-Klossner