I recently encountered the claim that “the foundational sin of internet culture was pretending like online wasn’t real life.” A familiar claim to anyone who has kept up with what I once dubbed the Cyborgology school of digital criticism, whose enduring contribution was the introduction of the term digital dualism. Digital dualism, according to the the scholars associated with the website Cyborgology, is a fallacy that misconstrues the digital world as a “virtual” world in opposition to the offline world, which is understood to be the “real” world. The usefulness of the term occasioned some spirited debates in which I played a minor role.
I wonder, though, about the idea that “pretending like online life wasn’t real life” is somehow that original sin of Internet culture. At the very least it seems to me that the claim can be variously understood. The sort of pretending the author had in mind probably involves the mistaken belief that online words and deeds do not have offline consequences. We could, however, also take the claim to mean something like this: the original sin of internet culture was the mistaken belief that our online experience could somehow transcend our offline faults, flaws, and frailties. Or, to put it otherwise, the original sin of Internet culture was its peculiar brand of gnostic utopianism: the belief that digital media could usher us into a period of quasi-mystic and disembodied harmony and unity.
Of course, as we now know all too well, this was a deeply destructive myth: we are no different online than we are offline. Indeed, a credible and compelling case could be made for the proposition that we are, in fact, a far worse version of ourselves online. In any event, we bring to the digital realm exactly the same propensity for vice that we exhibit in the so-called real world although with fewer of the “real world” constraints that might have curbed our vicious behavior. And, of course, because the boundaries between the digital realm and the analog realm are indeed porous if not exactly fictive, these vices then spill back over into the “real world.” Who we are offline is who we are online, and who we become through our online experience is who we will be offline.
This original sin, then, this digital utopianism encouraged us to uncritically cede to our digital tools, devices, and platforms ever expanding swaths of our experience in the mistaken hope that down this path lay our salvation and our liberation. We burdened the internet with messianic hopes—of course we were bound to be disappointed.