What Does Real Life Look Like?
The internet is not a place.
The most important thing currently on the internet is “The Infinite Conversation.” This is a never-ending conversation between filmmaker Werner Herzog and philosopher Slavoj Žižek. As a pop-up informs you when you first navigate to the site, “Everything you hear is fully generated by a machine. The opinions and beliefs expressed do not represent anyone. They are the hallucinations of a slab of silicon.”
The conversation between these two avatars of interesting thinkers – already two of the most parodied in the headier corners of popular culture – is surprisingly believable, even frequently insightful. Artificial-Herzog and artificial-Žižek hold forth on everything from cinema to technological progress, from Marxism and the potential for revolution to the possibility of an afterlife.
The back-and-forth is, as promised, never-ending. Repeated visits over time to the URL will see you inserted right back into the middle of the conversation as if artificial-Herzog and artificial-Žižek never stopped talking. Because they didn’t.
And yet, none of this is what makes “The Infinite Conversation” the most important thing on the internet. What puts this website head and shoulders above literally everything else is how it makes the listener long for the chance to have real-life conversations once again. Not through posted comments or tweets, not through your computer screens via Zoom or Skype or Teams or anything like that.
No, the kind of face-to-face conversations where people lose track of time and themselves. Where no topic is off limit because no topic has been decided, where we can collectively ponder and daydream. The kind that we now see rehearsed and acted in films and TV shows as we stare in wonder at this uncanny valley version of our lives.
“Wait, where are they?”
“A café. You remember those.”
“Yes of course, but how are they so comfortable?”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re talking with no particular purpose. Neither of them look impatient. They’re not impulsively checking the time or checking their phones for an email from their boss or anything like that.”
“Wow… yes, that is strange.”
“Are they trying to accomplish… anything?”
“It doesn’t look like it.”
“Not particularly believable, is it?”
“No… but it still feels… familiar?”
“Maybe. I was going to say it seems… nice?”
It is appropriate that “The Infinite Conversation” launched right as Elon Musk began his tenure at Twitter. Musk, who is essentially turning Twitter into his own personal popularity machine, is succeeding in getting many of us to just log off where all the haughty pleas to “just log off!” have failed.
The reasons are various – that those of us who stick around on Twitter are more at risk of harassment, that Musk’s cavalier “free speech absolutist” mentality is going to let all the Nazis back in – but really there’s no such thing as a bad reason to leave Twitter. Everyone knew it was a hellsite well before this particular try-hard huckster showed up. But for myriad reasons, all of them insidious, all of them connected back to social media’s ability to keep us hooked with a perpetually broken promise of authentic expression and community, we have stayed.
Some have decided to jump ship to another platform, in particular one named after an extinct proboscidean. The promise of it being “decentralized” is alluring to plenty, though as Ben Tarnoff points out in his most recent book, decentralization and centralization alike are more or less neutral promises in and of themselves. What is more appropriately centralized in one instance may be better decentralized elsewhere. In the context of a privatized base – the actual cables and fiberoptics on which the internet relies – and a superstructure designed to operate like a massive mall of the senses, it seems only a matter of time until this space too becomes hellishly toxic.
Perhaps, then, extinction is preferable? Nihilistic it may seem, but it’s not like Twitter would be the first platform we’ve watched twist in the wind as its clout dwindles. More than likely it will be destined for the same fate Facebook is already adjusting to: just one in what amounts a series of message boards, albeit with many more right-wing assholes crawling around. Those of us who keep returning to Twitter won't be putting the same stock in it we used to. And it is hard to imagine it as the kind of place that can so vigorously demand we get feverishly lost in each other’s reactions and the reactions to the reactions.
Indeed, we should hope most sincerely that the internet stops being regarded as a place at all. It’s a jarring realization to have but it is nonetheless prescient. These platforms, networks, websites and forums that have proven so decisive in our lives, none of them actually exist. The only place where any of them take up actual physical space is, frankly, in our minds, in the weight we’ve somehow all agreed to give them. If it sounds a lot like the realization that seems to repeatedly foist itself upon cryptocurrency and NFTs, well, then you’ve figured out something that the modern tech bro clocked long ago then instantly forgot.
Sure, by now it may be trite, downright sanctimonious to wish the internet play less of a role in our lives, but that may be because the internet has been such a collection of morbid gestures and poses for such a very long time. It’s no coincidence that its rise has been alongside that of such phenomena as “pseudo-public space” and the like, illustrating just how severe commodification and policing have warped our ability to experience and move through our own lives.
We might have to admit, then, that what lies past the silicon hallucination won’t be particularly inviting. It will be harsh, claustrophobic and cavernously lonely at the same time, the kind of place where, should you reach out your hand, you aren’t certain whether it will grasp someone else’s or just more empty space. It certainly won’t be the kind of place where we will be able to sit for hours on end with friends old and new to wonder and ponder over a few glasses of wine, talking philosophy, film, literature, politics, art, or whatever else our minds want to engage. Unfortunately, that world, like everything else, will have to be fought for, and not through the medium of the pile-on.