Hi folks! Sorry the posts have been a little less frequent lately.
Among other things (mostly involving summer), I’ve been writing this three-part post on how the internet has gone to shit and how a long-dead radical philosopher can help fix it.
In this first post we head back to 17 century Germany where we find out what happens when a stoned Frenchman rips apart reality (don’t worry, he puts it back together again)…
Once Upon a Time…
Bristling and crass, the Bavarian wind rushed along the cobblestones of Neuburg an der Donau’s near-empty town square. A man gathers his robes tight around him as he runs across the square toward his residence.
He crashed through the door, kicking it shut, falling back against it. Relieved to be sheltered from the bitter winter. He shuffles to the cockle stove where the heat embraces him.
As the colour returns to his skin, his mind drifts.
Then the visions came.
History would surmise the visions were induced by the intense cockle stove heat. But the man in the robes, Rene Descartes, was known to enjoy the occasional spliff (one of his many unconventional habits).
While the cause of Descartes’ visions are lost to history, the effects of what he saw that day, in the winter of 1619, would echo through history.
You see, Europe at that time was rediscovering the long-lost knowledge of the Greeks and Romans. Knowledge that had been abandoned during the centuries’-long fighting that marred the medieval period.
Now emerging from those dark days, science was advancing at break-neck speed. The invention of Gutenburg’s printing press was fuelling innovation in science and technology by sharing discoveries across Europe and the known world.
But Descartes, the famed engineer, lawyer, mathematician and mercenary, wondered as he sat beside the stove tripping balls and thawing his bones, whether all this knowledge was built on a deception.
What if the earth didn’t go around the sun because, in fact, the earth didn’t exist at all?
Our existence, Descartes reasoned, is premised on what we experience through our five senses. If a devious god were to trick our five senses, we may all be living in a false reality, blissfully unaware.
Existentialism for Matrix Fans
Not only had Descartes called into question the foundation of all knowledge and existence, but he’d stumbled upon the plot to some of Hollywood’s highest-grossing movies – everything from The Matrix to The Truman Show. Or, as philosophers know it, existentialism.
Luckily for us, some twenty years’ after Descartes had his visions, he resolved this perplexing flaw in science by famously proclaiming, “I think, therefore I am”.
Doesn’t sound like much, does it?
Here’s how it works: If we really were being tricked by a Matrix-style grand deception (devious gods), we wouldn’t have the Neo-like ability to question whether we were being deceived. As that would be pointless.
So our ability to question our existence is proof we exist and we are not being deceived by Agent Smith-like robots bent on turning us into human batteries.
I am able to think, therefore I know I actually exist.
I think, therefore I am.
Gods of the Internet
Descartes’ worry of a Matrix-type deception came at a time of rapid technological advancement on the back of an explosion of information sharing. Sound familiar?
We too are in a period of massive scientific advancement.
Baked or not, Descartes’ mind would blow at the sight of our laptops and iPhones.
He would marvel at the vibrant digital universe we’ve created out of 1s and 0s on the world wide web of endless possibilities.
But he would likely worry too.
He might sense, like some of us do now, that the online world we have created is built upon another grand deception.
A Not-So Excellent Adventure
Imagine yourself sitting around the cockle stove with our friend Descartes.
He offers you a toke of Barvaria’s finest skunk weed, and the next thing you know you’re on an excellent adventure, Bill-and-Tedding your way into the future.
In 2019, it seems everyone is online all the time, absorbed in a digital world with impossibly high standards of beauty and wealth.
A world where people are subject to subtle psychological manipulation to channel their views toward one agenda or another – though rarely toward truth.
You and Descartes find a world where emotions like outrage and envy are grown like mushrooms in manure then traded for profit or advantage.
You’re shocked to find how addicted we are to our online lives.
How we sometimes cannot eat without first posting a pic or how we present our holiday lives as our everyday selves #blessed or how we rush to judge and shame others to soothe the status anxiety that seeps into the gap between our online selves and our real lives.
You wonder if Descartes’ Matrix-busting break-through has been forgotten.
And if it has unknowingly been replaced by a new maxim:
I scroll, therefore I am.
In next week’s post – How the Internet Broke our Hearts – we leave Descartes behind and look at how the ‘devious gods’ rule the internet.
We’ll see how the new digital reality is being forged and how it is not just splitting from the real world, but changing it too.
We’ll learn what really powers the internet (no, not Mark Zuckerberg), and about the death of facts and why seeing is no longer believing.
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