Were we always like this? Precocious virtual conquerors. Facebook, WhatsApp groups are filling with so many of us seeking instant validation: each one a more concerned citizen than the next. It’s counter intuitive but, perhaps, this is how everything went wrong. Everyone a plastic activist, animal lover, tree planter, vegetarian or crusading meat eater. We should have changed the world for the better, except for the troubling evangelism of the unquestioning do-gooders—Us.
What were we before the age of the all conquering virtual alter-ego? Weren’t we self doubting…sometimes assertive…the instinct to lash out reigned in by false humility…the mantra to our lives look before you leap.
The virtual alter-ego is a chimera born in the age of information. Subsumed by information all day every day, with everyone having access to the exact same information as everyone else, its birth was inevitable. At first it lived in a parallel dimension online. Gradually, it percolated into the world outside and now it controls even governments, having upturned established ethics.
Thanks to the virtual ego, now we can be whatever the heart desires; the information to rebuild ordinary selves into activists/amateur campaigners of one kind or another available for the price of internet access.
But in such an environment, the lay person in search of a new religion or new identity is not able to vet most of this information, to distinguish between truth and lies. Secondly, as the experts will tell us, to which we remain wilfully blind, knowledge arrived at through scientific research and consensus is never static, it is constantly updated. But most of the ideas that form the virtual alter-ego today is based on inadequate or outdated consensus from years ago unfortunately still available online.
Thirdly, the virtual ego thrives on feedback loops set up by twitter and comment boxes below every article, blog and report online. The nature of the internet changed from a passive online repository of knowledge to an active often activistic tribal library meant to be interactive, which has instead emboldened entitled readers.
Information is not erudition, which is knowledge that imbues the owner of that knowledge with a scholastic aura, often used for social one upmanship. Information was supposed to get us out of our bubbles. But something happened when we made all this data visible to everyone. What we politely term ‘interaction’ and ‘sharing’ is really people jousting, jockeying for attention. When someone decides to post a comment publicly under an article or report, however innocent, it is a virtual alter-ego announcing itself to the world.
Fourthly, all of the above has led to the demonisation of journalists, people trained to assess information, sometimes by journalists themselves who have embraced the virtual ego for propaganda in the era of devalued experts.
Outside in the world, it is, despite appearances, all the same as ever, that is, no one really knows everything. But riding the wave of the search engine era, the virtual ego is certain it can know everything. This feeling is constantly filtering into the real word causing chaos. Here false confidence has replaced false humility, with every acquaintance producing the theatrics of Usain Bolt without the concomitant brilliance.
Information available at fingertips does not equal painstaking research accompanied by deep insight. We are blissfully unaware of the problem with information, that however it may present itself, that although it might look like a tsunami, most information will always be like the tip of an iceberg. What lies beneath is a mystery, and largely unknown. It was always impossible to know everything, and it still is, because fact is fluid like in its behaviour. But in the virtuosphere, false confidence made us feel comfortable about our intelligence, secure about arguing with avatar acquaintances, picking apart experts in their chosen fields, sometimes rightly, but mostly not.
Ubiquitous information became the background code to our lives as in the classic film The Matrix (1997). What we see online now, the over-the-top self expression, is people trying to extract meaning out of the code, mostly unsuccessfully, leading to easy, short-cut solutions. That’s how we get listicles, pithy internet wisdom and collections of coincidental dates and mirror-number occurrences doing the rounds as forwards. We didn’t know it, but we were merely extracting astrology from the code. So much of what is churned out is of this nature, we the people investing our belief in things that haven’t gone through basic fact checks.
To extract deep meaning from this code requires patience and time, qualities absent in the virtual alter-ego. Right now it is satisfied, simply skimming the surface, ceding its astrological prowess to big corporations and surveilling states to spin the information any which way they want.
The parallel life online ushered in a democratic dystopia altering the very idea of self, with the iceberg-tip nature of the virtual medium rewarding only dominance junkies. We have all had that one domineering friend, or two, the ones who always feel threatened and need to put others in their place. In the age of instant information, the whole world is that friend.