arts
Virtual anxiety: The disturbing new reality of life online
Published 14th September 2017
Virtual anxiety: The disturbing new reality of life online
Amanda Levete is a RIBA Stirling Prize-winning architect and founding principal of AL_A, an international award-winning design and architecture studio based in London. For her September 2017 CNN Style guest editorship, she explored the theme of thresholds -- both real and imagined -- as applied in architecture and far beyond.

Olivia Sudjic is a London-based novelist. Her debut novel, "Sympathy," looks at the dangers of living our lives online. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
I was a few months old when the English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, dreamed up his vision of universal connectedness: the World Wide Web. That an individual could suddenly situate themselves within a global network, crossing geographical, temporal and cultural borders at will, was, to its techno-utopian pioneers, synonymous with radical, far-out, liberty.
The internet promised transcendence of the physical, but has developed into a no man's land where incomprehension, lack of ethics and insufficient regulation meet. This lawlessness at once part of its appeal and its central problem.
Currently, those who benefit most from the internet are those who run it, and Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg may soon run for president of the United States. His intimate understanding of the digital fabric of our daily lives, not to mention his contribution to the way the last election went, means he'd likely win.
Anyone who still thinks internet culture is superficial can wake up now. After all, what's so superficial about Facebook? It is deeply human to look to others, compare and copy. But to gratify natural drives to the extent social media enables is the same as binge-eating fast food because it is natural to be hungry.
I think of King Midas, and how everything he touched turned to gold. Do we want to be that app-happy? To live with the illusion of mastery over our environment and others, while becoming a prisoner of this power? To live without limits to our greed and selfishness, without personal boundaries, without control over one's selfhood and personal data is, to me, a scary place.
The internet promised transcendence of the physical, but has developed into a no man's land where incomprehension, lack of ethics and insufficient regulation meet.
The idea that the internet's mission is still about connection, making our experience of the world seamless, persists in the names of the digital companies breaking down the divide between two words to make a new one. Social media still professes to support an enhanced empathy for others and a more porous, better-networked self. While this may have been the case for some (arguably people who would have been nice to strangers anyway), there are plenty of racist, sexist, xenophobic, transphobic homophobes coming out of the woodwork every day for whom Instagram has apparently done the opposite. Well, that's life, you might say. And yes, it is: Real life and digital life can no longer be considered separate.
I read a description from the early days of the internet likening a chat room to a room full of people talking to each other while facing the wall. That early dream of anonymity is over. The further our IP address shadows us, the faster our images -- via Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), Snapchat and Periscope -- proliferate, the more our corner of the Internet becomes Plato's allegory of the cave. We grow used to distortion and normalize what once seemed strange. We do not feel the need to leave our cave. Increasingly, it will not occur to us to do so.
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And so we are corralled into groups whose ways of thinking and points of reference mirror our own, and we encounter fewer and fewer instances when we are forced to confront this. The rest of the time, we're in the dark, in a delusional kind of unity.
I'm young and my own cave's not so bad, so I'll try to be less gloomy. For three I used a university webmail service called Hermes. For the Greeks, Hermes was the emissary and messenger of the gods, the patron saint of roads and travelers. He was the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries, moving freely between the world of mortals and the divine.
I acquired my Hermes email address in 2007, when my relationship to such technology was far less ambivalent than it is now. Back then I rarely thought critically about it, if ever. Now I think about it all the time. I wrote a novel about it. I'm writing this.
And it, too, thinks of me. According to Facebook, for example, I'm very, very fertile, biologically and from a marketer's perspective: female, 28, with depleting ovaries and an insatiable desire to pee on sticks. Facebook has a far more detailed picture than that of course. In certain respects, its targeted advertising and algorithms know more about me, and how I appear to others, than I do.
To gratify natural drives to the extent social media enables is the same as binge-eating fast food because it is natural to be hungry.
This creepy feeling was what inspired me to write fiction. I see the connection between the way fiction writers appropriate and manipulate their material, reaching from the safety of their studies into the minds of those far away. The act of producing a debut novel -- a form of beginning and a staking of identity that requires one to stand on the knife edge between anonymity and exposure -- has played out many of the anxieties that I feel online.
I started writing my novel from the premise that another's mind is unknowable; that we ourselves are unknowable, that knowledge gleaned online is as subjective as our imaginations. Every act of imaginative sympathy has its limits, a source of tension that impels me to write.
But online those limits are forgotten, and so we don't strain against them. We no longer see ourselves or others as earthbound. We float in the cloud as we project our fantasy selves. We can forget to do the real work -- which is messy and dysfunctional, unlike a user-centric app -- of connection.
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Connection is manifestly no longer the mission of the internet. The telescope it once presented has swung, casting back on us, the searchers. What we see and how we perceive it is filtered by a medium we imagine to be neutral. Twenty-eight years on, we have crossed over into a place of tension as users attempt to negotiate the trade-off between privacy and convenience. The web is now monopolized by big data, the businesses that run on it, and inch by inch, our governments. Our daily lives, the choices we make, the votes we cast, the news we read and the things we buy, are all traced, nudged, predicted or inhibited based on who the Internet thinks we are. We have rapidly normalized unprecedented access to the lives of others, sanitizing and sanctioning what was previously unthinkable. But what does it do to our self-awareness, our way of seeing our own lives?
This personalization has resulted in a paradoxical feeling of depersonalization. My life, tracked and mediated by social media and internet algorithms in a myriad unseen ways, sometimes feels as if it's not mine at all. I feel like a voyeur pressing my face against the screen of someone else's device, or looking down on myself from above.
My life feels as if it's not mine at all. I feel like a voyeur pressing my face against the screen of someone else's device, or looking down on myself from above.
Until I began being bombarded with pregnancy-related ads, I rarely thought about myself in procreative terms. This is just one explicit example of the way in which web personalization, which underpins surveillance capitalism, has come to manipulate my thoughts. It's shaping my real as well as digital life, though the distinction is merely a revolving door -- a feedback loop that keeps on spinning the more we upload and click, irreversibly implicating ourselves in our own commodification, locking ourselves in to our respective filter bubbles.
This is where my ambivalence about living online, even as I am very much stuck in my own narrow corner of the Internet, gives way to an overriding feeling of fear. Of course, we all have inbuilt prejudices, cultural filters, a lenses of privilege or outsider status, but filter bubbles give us the fantasy of connection, and the illusion of floating through a world without rules. There are rules, but they are as mysterious and unfathomable to the average mortal as the whys and wherefores of Greek gods. Zuckerberg and his fellow Olympians make them up as they go along. All we know is that we must placate them. We make offerings and sacrifices. We trust them with our fates.
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In the '80s coming-of-age films I loved as a child, teenagers used music to transport themselves beyond the limits of their lives. My generation is the first to be given a smartphone for this purpose, yet in the so-called age of connectivity, my country has voted to cut itself adrift like a hormonal adolescent marooning themselves in their room, and I watch the news in horror at the increasing visibility of xenophobia and other divides.
Internet access is now serving the rise of populism, seeding mistrust of information and each other. Virtual public spaces increasingly entrench difference and shut down meaningful exchange. Online trolls use the screen both as protective barrier and as a chink in the armor of their victims. If it's hard to sympathize, that's likely thanks to online inoculation to suffering too.
Yet, simultaneously, marginalized groups claim safe spaces in the digital realm, lonely people share memes, and those who do not conform to cultural norms draw strength from like-minded individuals. And so, like Pandora's box, comes the ray of hope. As Tim Berners-Lee wrote: "It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want -- for everyone."
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