Ambiguity in the Age of the Internet

As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it. 

– Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

Normally I love the Internet, but sometimes I get the sense that an overwhelming tidal wave of all that it encapsulates has come crashing down on our collective consciousness. Spend thirty minutes “surfing the web” and do your best to retain your sense of self. The more I aimlessly wander down the rabbit holes of media that prostitute themselves across my screen, the more I degenerate into a glazed-over zombie, hungry and manic yet lacking any sense of purpose. In this state of mind, it’s easier to be pulled into the downward spiral than to slap myself awake, and I quickly feel full and exhausted by the wretchedness of all that I have consumed.

Now, I suppose I’m lucky in that I only half-heartedly feel the way I just described. When spending time on the Internet doesn’t make me feel like a flippant drone of a human, I tend to feel the opposite way. As my mind absorbs information that suits its needs, euphoric tingles move through my fingertips up to my brain – I’m in the right place at the right time, and something clicks – the search is over. Indeed, this is symptomatic of an Internet high, the addictive rush that keeps us all enslaved to our glowing rectangles. This relationship of dependency is the kryptonite of my generation. Our search feeds us and destroys us, and it is endless.

When taken in tandem with all the writing I’ve read about the “condition of the twenty-somethings,” my personal experiences and the experiences of my friends have led me to believe what the herd belives: that my generation suffers from an emptiness and lack of sense-of-self. It seems we have more difficulty than other generations reconciling the improbability of our existence. As the products of so many coincidences, perhaps we feel unnecessary  – an afterthought to the quite distinctive conquests of the 20th century. Aside from the Internet, what does our generation have to cling to as ours? Who are we, and what do we stand for?

Simone de Beauvoir at work.

In a happy coincidence, I recently found an old print of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity in a box of books that my neighbors were getting rid of. As I picked up the book, it felt distinct in the way that only a philosophical paperback can feel – light in form, but heavy with the weight of the world. On the cover, a plain woman with a pointed and somehow restless gaze looks out into the world in front of her. On the back, the description teased me: “de Beauvoir penetrates at once the central ethical problem of modern man: what shall he do, how shall he go about making values, in the face of his awareness of the absurdity of his existence?”

Reading de Beauvoir, I was struck by a thought that, despite seeming quite obvious in retrospect, had not yet made its way into my conception of the world. The discovery, depressing though it may sound, is this: for as long as humans have strived to be happy, we have made ourselves unhappy. We will work and work to become what we wish to be, never capable of accepting the truth that who we are now is real, and who we will become is only an idea. All of history has been like this – wars have been waged and people have died, all because of what we wish to become. Leave it to a philosopher to point out the obvious fact that who we will become is nothing more than a projection of our search for meaning and purpose. And, akin to my relationship with the Internet, that search can only be defined as endless.

Click this illustration to read Nathan Heller’s article on the New Yorker’s website.

As Nathan Heller writes in his recent New Yorker Article, Semi-Charmed Life, “Today’s twentysomethings aren’t formed of special clay but are merely a reshaped version of old material.” Yes, our generation has quite similar anxieties to the anxieties experienced by our parents when they were in their twenties. However, thanks to the Internet and the social media apps that have ubiquitously come to consume my generation (me especially), it seems we have been made to examine ourselves from quite a strange angle. What does it mean to judge our own successes and failures when Facebook and Instagram shove the successes of others so aggressively down our throats? How do we thrive under these practically competitive ecosystems of self-reporting? Sure, the Internet has made us smarter and better, but it has also added a thick layer of ambiguity.

I’m no philosophy buff, but it seems like the main practical takeaway from The Ethics of Ambiguity is that only by accepting the here and now, and by being as happy as I can be with that which defines me presently, can I attain a satisfying existence. Working towards a future self is well and good, but it will never make me happy. It’s an intriguing idea – a balance of hedonism but with a certain existential awareness – and it intrigues me. If I stopped scheming and searching and attempted to unmask the ambiguity of my existence, would I finally feel like I had ended up in the right place at the right time?

If there’s one thing that the boundlessness of Internet culture has taught us, it’s that the world is one unbelievable clod of dirt. Having been born into such a complex and miraculously functional place in space must have been billions of times more unlikely than winning the lottery in any potential universe. And yet, here we all are. Perhaps humans were better at dealing with the absurdity of our existence before we could see it so clearly, manifesting its improbability through the ever-expansive World Wide Web. As de Beauvoir writes, “Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men.” We want – no, we need to justify that which we cannot explain. Through the Internet, we see each other and we feel the pulsating currency of our own existence. We shout into the wind, and hundreds of voices shout back, we are all here! I just wonder if we’re really comforted by this hive mentality, or if it’s time to take some personal space and figure out how to get back in touch with who we each are, where we stand in history, and what it all means. Does this mean I’m about to go deleting the Instagram, Twitter and Facebook apps from my iPhone? Hardly. Simply put, I’m comforted by the realization that unless time stops and the world ends, who we twentysomethings are and what we stand for will inevitably be decided, and the people who live 100 years from now will find different ways to over-think their existence and make themselves unhappy. De Beauvoir once likened human life to a game that can be won or lost. To emerge as winners, we should try to treasure the ambiguity of our generation now, before it slips away.

2 thoughts on “Ambiguity in the Age of the Internet”

  1. Sarah E
     ·  Reply

    I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you for posting it. Back to my ‘net ennui…

  2. Peter D
     ·  Reply

    Very thoughtprovoking, Willard. Thank you for sharing! To me the internet isn’t new in the context of “ambiguity”, it embodies that same tough balance that existed before the internet, between the inifinite potential that our human freedom affords and the finite factness of our physical condition and being confronted with other people. It’s just that the internet exponentially expands both of those directions; we can be sucked in and pursue whatever we want, but we’re also constantly confronted by other people and real barriers. It makes me think that establishing values, understanding our purpose, etc does not come down to the difference between having internet or not, or being online all the time or not, but something deeper that must exist in our approach and understanding to every situation both online and off.

Leave a Reply