I was on my computer browsing the internet while sitting in Discord. My friends played World of Warcraft. I was refreshing Twitter and YouTube, reading headlines, doom-scrolling: distracting myself without purpose and to no concrete end. I had no desire to join them, but I did have a desire to sit and listen as they formed memories that would forget my backseat presence. Their gaming was my white noise, the same way my parents need NBC blaring on their TVs: the white noise of other people.
To exit Discord and browse without the umbilical connection felt unnatural, alien, wrong. Even if I wasn’t in voice chat I needed the Discord window open on my second monitor. My friends’ usernames are burned into my LED screen. Why?
I wanted to understand my addiction, why I have to have Discord open on my second monitor while I type these words. To do so I have to zoom out, chop people up—including myself—into categories, and then reassemble them with conceptual stitches.
There are two types of internet users.
My parents are in the category of those who don’t live online. They use the internet as a tool. They turn on their tablets or their Mac, order their photos off Shutterstock, throw money at Amazon, and then log off. For those who don’t live online the internet has variable purpose but its execution is singular. There is a beginning and an end; a powering on, a logging off.
For those who live online the distinction between online and offline doesn’t exist. “We don’t use the expression IRL. We say ‘Away from Keyboard’. We think the internet is for real,” said Peter Sunde to his inquisitor, as seen in the documentary “TPB AFK.” The physical is secondary to the digital, the digital the primary quality. Those who live online wake up to blue light before sunlight, they put their phones in their pocket as they flush, their life has a user interface.
This is a Heidegerrian distinction: either you use the computer as a tool separate from yourself like a hammer, or you plop a chair down inside the tool and call it home.
There’s a tension between these two modes of living. Both claim more reality than the other: two nations yelling about territory across the channel. Careers have been minted by the distinction. But what both share in common is that their members are necessarily part of a community.
Community is an axiom of human nature: people who live online cannot function without belonging to a digital community. It’s a human need to feel part of something larger than yourself, even from behind a screen.
So that, the internet is best viewed as geography: a location in space and across time in which people work together towards a goal, and where individuality is built and reinforced. I sit in Discord because it’s homebase, pulling my seat close to the fire to share links with the tribe, prodigal son returning from his debauchery across the internet.
These communities are a radical departure from previous understandings of “community.” They are not the local Bowling League or a Boy Scout troop or the 4-H Club. These are not the nostalgic communities of Robert Putnam in “Bowling Alone,” the ones that foster civic engagement, democracy, and egalitarianism: people who live online don’t volunteer at soup kitchens. What digital communities volunteer is a constant, acceptable, saccharine stream of information, which is divvied up into digestible bits for members of the community to devour.
This is also true of villages, hamlets, and cities. The constant noise of environmental information is at all times overwhelming. Humans have to repress some information and prioritize other information to function. Society at large, and the communities within, tell us what information to prioritize in our wanderings, often with a lot of jostling from multiple parties all contending to dictate which information is most important—but always unified in their goal of partitioning information for the individual.
This is why moderation is so important. Moderators are the gatekeepers, with their fiery swords they make sure that no topic is allowed into the community which will disrupt its cohesion. The community must not be threatened.
If farming was the primary communal activity of agricultural society 10,000 years ago, then content farming is the primary communal activity of people who live online today. Content farming is the natural state of digital communities: the accumulation of and sharing of shotgunned information to be judged by the community’s attention.
What the community pays attention to is what gets to live: book clubs reward gossip, online communities reward content. That which is approved is allowed to grow in the soil, contributing to the community’s memory vault—coded in memes, references, quotes, and ironies. Even anonymous communities judge their members through sheer engagement; even the anonymous feel the sting of being ignored. That which receives no attention quietly flushes out and into the ethereal river of the web. (How many failed memes wait to be buried in the internet’s open graves?)
Attention is a limited resource and the constant silent war for attention between communities ultimately distracts their members. So, that distraction is the pattern of human association that defines the message of the internet as a medium, to loosely mimic the terminology of Marshall Mcluhan’s “Understanding Media.”
Each community tugs on our awareness, demands food in the form of attention. And it gets that food by incentivizing members to create information or consume information without concern for content or value. Information created with focused intent may be finer, richer, more complex—like a Brandbergh Concerto—but the time needed to create such rich information is far longer than the mixtures of noise and sense demanded by digital communities.
So that, with the goal of partitioning information for their members, digital communities, to ensure their own survival, must increase the frequency of information that creates communal cohesion—the more information the community curates, the more its members engage with said community.
It’s difficult to estimate how much raw information is created daily, but we can use hardware production as a guide. David Holz, CTO of Leap Motion, wrote, “In the last 3 months ARM shipped 6.7 billion CPUs. That’s 842 chips per second. Compare that to 4.3 humans born per second. We now produce 200 times more computers per second than human beings.” Meanwhile, fertility rates around the world are dropping below the replacement rate, India being the latest, according to The Economist.
What I’m arguing is that people get distracted not only by their irrational behaviors—and the way algorithms manipulate those behaviors—but that our distracted behavior is primarily in the service of the digital communities that enable people to live online. The more digital communities they’re part of, the more information they’re exposed to, the more distracted they become. So that those who live online are necessarily torn apart, spread out like jam across the web, seeping into the cracks and then pulling back to see what tiny treasures have stuck, that they can share.
If we think of digital communities, and therefore some structural aspect of the internet, as an organic object which feeds on information, then the internet’s structure maximizes our distraction for its own ends. If you ask for what purpose, I say, why would there be a purpose beyond accumulation? This is not an object that behaves by human rules though it reflects human input, as say the environment reflects human input but humans are not in control of their environment. The internet is another environment with a weird inertia, and those who live online are its food. Gods don’t care about the health of those who worship them, just that they’re worshiped—such is one lesson from the Book of Job.
To live online is a lifestyle that cannot incorporate long term attention; goal-directed action is fenestrated from the nearest Windows home screen, because of the necessity of distraction for digital communities. Distraction is fundamental to the formation, maintenance, and persistence of digital communities, which enable people to live online. It’s a contradiction to live online without being distracted. No one who lives online has enough attention to paint the Sistine Chapel, though they might have enough attention to Photoshop themselves painting the Sistine Chapel.
A few considerations follow.
There’s the moral question of what information is ideal for any particular person, whether online or AFK: a question of curation. Maybe information curation is a virtue of online living, and what most people who live online need is a virtuous person to follow. These gatekeepers would be like Plato’s philosopher kings, guiding their community towards the good. But this seems fantastical: the slope slips easily into demagoguery.
Looking ahead, communities of distraction mean that the metaverse—should it exist—will be something flat and standardized, a lowest common denominator space which maximizes information production from its members—not because of Zuckerberg’s algorithms but because the inertia to create and consume more information flatlines individuality, and creativity under the rule of more. Winamp skins were unique; Spotify’s interface is ubiquitous. But making every house in the suburbs the same fosters communal identity, therefore neighborliness, therefore information creation and communal cohesion. Individuality is boiled away and what remains is the egalitarian white noise of distraction.
Also, schools should not be using iPads as a conduit for teaching, and it explains why many students don’t take to online learning. I hypothesize that children who excel at online learning live in households in which the internet is relegated to a tool, and strictly monitored so that it remains as such. It is not possible to live online and learn online without distraction. Why should we be surprised then that reading skills in America have declined, as reported by the Washington Post? A generation is being raised with limited introspection.
The attention of those who live online is rarely directed inward—that’s what solitude is for. Attention goes outward to the digital communities and their information. As Nicholas Carr discusses in “Online, Offline, and The Line Between,” thousands of years of philosophy and literature tell us solitude and walks in the park are good things in and of themselves—Einstein credits leisurely strolls for insight, though he also had Gödel for a companion. But those who live online don’t have access to solitude. Every experience is mediated through the ghostly digital communities that background online living. Hiking is interrupted by photos of mica uploaded, texted, shared. Jogs stop to finger a tweet for the machine. Goodbye introspection, those who live online are all extrospection. Is this better or worse? I leave you—and your community—to decide upon value.
And so I sit here writing and checking Twitter and my email and refreshing YouTube all while the friends I’ve known since high school yell at one another while playing a game that was released 15 years ago—are there no new ideas? I’m not playing, but with them as my background I wander like a nomad across the web. Soon, I’ll return with a link. If I’ve chosen well, maybe I’ll even distract them from their game.
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India’s population will start to shrink sooner than expected. (2021, December 2). The Economist. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/12/02/indias-population-will-start-to-shrink-sooner-than-expected
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