Reality is different these days. It isn’t just that we have the tools to experience reality differently, or augment reality, by affixing a Meta Quest headset or an Apple Vision Pro to our skulls. It isn’t just that we have the ability to quantify reality, through smartwatches and heart rate monitors and step counters and sleep trackers, or that we have the ability to manipulate people’s perceptions of reality, through social media filters so ubiquitous that there is now a whole cottage industry of plastic surgery devoted to making people’s fleshly faces match the selfies they post on Instagram. Nor is it just the fact that our social world includes the conversations we have with virtual personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, whose soothing voices greet us when we come home, or remind us of the weather.
All of these, of course, play some role in the seismic reimaging of our selves, and our world, that the Internet — in particular, smartphone-enabled online culture — has engendered. But the shift we’re experiencing is bigger, and more totalizing, than any single phenomenon. It’s a spiritual shift, maybe even a metaphysical one. Reality, now more than ever, is contingent upon our own personal, collective, and sometimes even unconscious desires.
In A Web of Our Own Making, Antón Barba-Kay, a humanities professor at Deep Springs College in California and occasional contributor to this journal, offers a robust and comprehensive account of what, exactly, is going on. In a dense and penetrating book that feels, both in ambitious scope and granular detail, far more magisterial than its three hundred pages might suggest, Barba-Kay has produced both a convincing, citation-rich compendium of our digital experience, and a compelling piece of constructive philosophy. It is a philosophy that takes seriously the Internet’s reshaping of human life — of the new ways we’ve come to understand our bodies, our relationships, our material nature, and our increasingly “data-driven” perspective. And it is a philosophy that offers, if not a cultural-level rejection of the morass, then at least the possibility of a personal way out: an escape Barba-Kay represents not as the breaking of an addiction nor an individualistic move toward wellness, but rather an existential — perhaps even the existential — choice.
“If media are latent with political possibilities,” he writes, “they are also latent with specific metaphysical assumptions.” A Web of Our Own Making may be the single best resource for understanding these specific assumptions — the metaphysics, we might say, of life in the Internet age.
The book does the bulk of its early argumentative work by forcing us to confront the all-encompassing extent of smartphone culture, in every aspect of our lives and relationships, even as Barba-Kay teases out the philosophical links between the different usages.
Some of these observations, though apt, aren’t exactly new — that the possibility of tracking our steps for so-called health reasons distorts our relationship with a simple country walk, that the fundamentally data-driven nature of smartphone culture “is such as to translate larger human questions about how to live into technical puzzles that may be ‘problem-solved,’” that Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds have become a saccharine way of capturing our limited and precious attention by distracting us from the less immediately rewarding elements of being human.
But the fusillade intensity with which Barba-Kay produces these inconvenient truths renders them impossible to ignore; from the details we start to perceive, little by little, the devil. As Barba-Kay writes, “digital technology is training us not simply to a new sense of what is real and really good, but to a new understanding of the contrasts within which we see that reality.” In other words, our awareness of what the virtual world cannot do has made us hungrier for those elements of reality from which we have not yet become alienated.
If reality is changing, it is because, for better and for worse, our lives are increasingly determined by one specific vision of human ingenuity: a vision that valorizes those elements of human life we freely choose (or think we do) over those we once saw as given to us — our bodies, our families, our communities. Digital culture functions today as the Enlightenment cosmopolis once did: as a fantasy in which society reshapes itself along the lines of affinity. “If settled norms, practices, laws, and places are our roots, digital culture is uprooted and uprooting,” Barba-Kay writes.
At the same time, we continue to express allegiance to [digital culture] because digital technology has become our clearest metaphor for universality as such, for humanity, for the global village, for what is always everywhere the case…. By giving us access to new kinds of self-determination, identity, and voluntary power, digital technology is our most vivid instrument of freedom. It offers an experience of time that, by dissolving ties to place and history, allows us to begin again.
At its best, this disembodiment becomes the ground of new and liberatory kinds of communities, which are bonded together in love and mutuality rather than mere circumstance. This in turn offers opportunities to dismantle the old hierarchies of birth and blood. But, as Barba-Kay reveals, the realm of the virtual operates less on human freedom — on our carefully ordered reason, say, or on our virtuously tended affections — than on a different kind of human bondage, one that arises from our own desires.
The virtual world is constituted of a series of choices — the ones we make when we click or tap, and the ones made by the people who design the clicking and tapping interfaces. In that sense it is a desire-fueled world, and mapping it out as Barba-Kay does manifests a kind of geography of what we think we want. But what appears at first glance to be a world of freedom — in contrast to the vulgarly limited, obsoletely mortal world of meatspace — turns out to be a world defined by our own personal limitations: knowledge we tell ourselves is objective when it is actually freighted with our intent; connections we tell ourselves are necessary when they are actually willed. In attempting to create something that accurately reflects reality, we have created a mirror image of our own selves.
The counterargument here would be to note the sheer variety of seemingly objective information that virtual life makes available to us. We have the capacity to look up, at a moment’s notice, the life cycle of a fruit fly or the square footage of Idaho or the fifty-sixth digit of pi. But, Barba-Kay argues, it is precisely the dazzling availability of such information that renders it so unstable; inevitably, the information that reaches us succeeds in doing so because we wished to seek it out, because its veneer of “objectivity” correlates with the story we already want to tell.
Writes Barba-Kay: “This outsourcing of human judgment to data is also a form of the primitive impulse to idolatry: a heightened reverence for something that we desire to trick ourselves into forgetting we have made, a desire to obey ourselves writ large.” Even numerical data, within reach of our fingertips, becomes instrumental, evidence in the service of our own self-accounting. We seek out the data, the studies, the science, that confirm our own felt sense of what is really true. We use it to legitimize and then to proliferate our own intuitions. Reality has become what we wish it to be.
It’s telling that — as Barba-Kay notes — Google’s original product name was “BackRub.” At first offering objective rankings of the most relevant search data, its design eventually became a model of quasi-erotic responsiveness, its goal to use your search history and algorithmic exploration alike to “put your own words in your mouth, before you’ve had to go to the trouble of completing the thought.” Virtual space, whether or not it’s explicitly pornographic (and, of course, so much of it is), is an erotic playground, a place where desires are sated and then slacked, consummated without ever being fulfilled. We are presented with simulacra of control, of what Barba-Kay calls “obedience,” from the websites we choose to browse to the ever-more-quantified “real life” we circumscribe within the bounds of the trackable.
And yet, both to our immediate frustration and perhaps our long-term relief, we are not completely subsumed into the virtual realm. Whatever makes us human, Barba-Kay suggests, also affords us the ability to distinguish between desire-fueled simulacra and the real — and to desire the latter.
We hunger, ever more furiously, to close the narrowing gap between that simulacrum and the real. As Barba-Kay puts it: “the power of the virtual is to continually evade our grasp, even as, in thereby tantalizing us, it recasts our terms for what is real.” Indeed, whole industries of “self-care” have arisen out of the shared necessity for a material existence offline. Think of the popularity of expensive scented candles, which produce a highly customized and curated experience of the “real world,” and which are arguably as much a product of this new kind of virtual landscaping as our Instagram stories.
Beyond “science says”
Barba-Kay is explicit in the links he draws between the erotic and the virtual. Just as sexual desire is characterized by the uneasy interplay between unconsummated desire and full possession, so too is our virtual life defined by its asymptotic relationship to intimacy. Among the more disturbing trends Barba-Kay highlights is the enormous popularity of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos on YouTube, in which “actors perform … purring monologues of care … in the authoritative roles of boyfriend or doctor.” In a world where our experiences, our desires, and our internal sensations are the only arbiters of reality, there is little difference, when it comes to heart rate or brain waves, between performance and the real thing.
This divinization of human desire, pacified by what Barba-Kay calls the “spiritual opium” of digital technology, is indistinguishable from self-worship, in which all moral realities exist downstream of our own internal perceptions of what we want, and how we are satisfied.
But then again, Barba-Kay reminds us, there is love. He is seemingly a moral realist, and his vision of self-giving love, of love as attention to that which stands outside and beyond the self, underpins his philosophy of reality. Our responses, on a legal or policy or individual level, to the crisis of the real must begin by understanding the relationship of virtuality to reality as analogous to that of pornography to love. One satisfies the immediate hungers of the self; the other opens the self to a being that is outside its own limited stance. One reflects us; the other changes us. Whatever reality can be, or should be, in a post-virtual age, it must encompass the other as fully as it embraces the self. In this embrace, reality may become less authentic, to use an expressivist phrase, but it will almost certainly be more true.
“Where once it was occasionally possible to opt out of ‘reality’ (by taking drugs, say),” Barba-Kay writes in the book’s perhaps most chilling line, “it is now increasingly necessary to think about how to opt in to it.” And we need to. It may be the most important decision we make in our lives.