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Virtual Dissolution

Maryna Lazareva says don’t be just a digital fish in the aquarium of social media.

The human world has noticeably shifted to the field of digital technologies and virtuality. Everyday life is filled with information technologies that penetrated our workflow and our leisure time, technologize individual thinking, and break the essential connection between humanity and nature. Today, people prefer to spend their free time in cinemas, bowling alleys, cafés (preferably with free access to wifi), rather than go to the forest or on a picnic. Even our nature trips today must be comfortable and protected. Preparation for them is more like preparing for battle, involving packing anti-mosquito sprays, umbrellas, awnings, barbecues, chairs, dishes, toys for children, tablecloths, blankets, mobile phone chargers. We prepare for all the possible surprises of nature and try to equip ourselves as much as possible to meet this irrational and disordered world. And even after all this preparation, we spend our time not talking with our friends, but looking for the best locations for photos, which we then post as quickly as possible on social networks. The mentality seems to be that if you don’t share photos from the picnic with ‘social friends’, then the picnic might just as well never have happened. Unfortunately, however, under such conditions, it really didn’t happen: we spent the lion’s share of our efforts on completely secondary things; noticed the beauty of the natural world exclusively from the point of view of it making a good photo; and half-heard the stories of our friends, who, while ‘on a picnic’, were at the same time immersed in the world of virtuality.

A View To Remember

Today many people try to capture every step they take with photos, because otherwise their friends might get the impression that they don’t have a life. So although Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Telegram and other social networks are overloaded with photo content, nowadays a photographer needs to report to the public each day. A post should not be so much written-up as photodocumented. Photo-editing apps, in turn, have become incredibly popular, because they help us ‘create’ the life that we want to demonstrate to others. We might live in a slum and dress in shabby clothes, but our photos on social networks make our lives look like fairy tales.

Children’s holidays, weddings, birthdays, and all other life events must be vividly presented as part of this ‘dream’. What matters most is how your holiday will look in the photo, not how the holiday goes; food should first of all be ‘presentable’, not delicious; smiles should be in the photo, even if not necessarily in reality; clothes should be luxurious, not comfortable. The main goal is the wow effect, not quality of experience. If you want to impress your wedding guests with a multi-tiered cake, no problem, if no one can guess that most of the tiers are cardboard. If you want to present your friends with a grand celebration of your child’s birthday, no one will see that behind the photo smiles are hidden insults and quarrels. So we play for the public, posting incredible photos of out fairy-tale life on the net, trying to create the illusion that there are no problems, headaches, worries, or difficulties. The worst part, however, is not that we deceive others, but that we deceive ourselves.

Our lives are more and more like those of fish in an aquarium: everyone can look in, and everyone’s knocking on the glass, demanding attention. We have become exhibits. And generally speaking we are happy to show ourselves, to put ourselves in the most favorable light, to pose for unfamiliar people who do not care at all about us. After all, everyone is focused on themselves.

Unfortunately, this self-focus cannot be interpreted in the sense explored by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). He wrote that a person who focuses on himself tries to hear the voice of his own being. Instead of this, the self-focus of the digital age is a painful obsession to highlight one’s self as effectively as possible against the background of mass anonymity. But we quickly forget the names of modern internet ‘heroes’, because tomorrow new ones will take their place. We may also forget that our own names and lives are just as fleeting, as we stubbornly try to engrave them in the world of social networks. We somehow believe that if enough people hear about us, our lives will matter. On our overpopulated planet, fame at least seems like some achievement. But in fact, we waste our lives and time on short-term pleasures which turn out to be ghosts.

So we’re lying to others and to ourselves. We’re tearing ourselves away from reality and plunging into a world of fantasy. We play for the public, dissolve into the lives of others, distort and break the connection between humans and nature, between human and human, and between each human and himself. We spend effort, time and money to impress others with the ‘special effects’ of our lives, forgetting that the ‘performance’ will soon end and we will be left alone with ourselves in a world of emptiness and oblivion. After all, indifference to the inner world – to moral self-education, self-development and personal growth – will lead to spiritual impoverishment, which will be waiting for us when we’re left alone with ourselves.

Alienation In Cyberspace

The problem is that we’re looking for the meaning of our lives in the wrong place. We are always alone in the face of death, despair, and infinity. Existentialists back in the twentieth century, and in particular, Heidegger in Being and Time (1927), paid attention to this problem and noted that people frequently chase the wrong values. Instead of hearing his own being, focusing on his own self, catching the moment here and now and living it, a person dissolves into the absurdity of the public world, erases his own personality (to the delight of the masses), closes his ears, and angrily dissociates himself from all thoughts that can disturb his peace, including thoughts about death, despair and loneliness. The anonymous mass is indifferent to us, but we stubbornly wait in front of it in search of glory and applause. We fall, collapse, degrade ourselves, while gleefully falsely photodocumenting this process. It’s a shame to call yourself a human if your behavior is reduced to monkey antics in front of cameras, performing tricks and posing for the amusement of a mostly anonymous audience.

We’ve also largely forgotten what it’s like to make something with our own hands. By and large, we no longer cook, knit, build, or draw. We are alienated from the results of our activities, from the labor process itself, from our own essence. Perhaps we don’t even want to waste time preparing a family dinner, because advertising shows us a world without worries in which every housewife can order ready meals without ruining her manicure. But our consumerism devalues our labor and turns it into a pipeline process. We have become a kind of ‘office plankton’ who blindly perform our duties, dreaming of completing the working day as quickly as possible. Today not everyone gets pleasure from what they do, and few are lucky enough to find a job they love. Meanwhile time is running out as our pursuit of our ghostly aims gets faster and faster. As a result we catastrophically fail to invest in our own lives.

Alienation also manifests itself in our relationships. Recently I happened to observe a couple walking in the park. Instead of communicating and enjoying the view, they spent the time on their phones. The girl took quite a long time with the camera, posing in front of it in different ways, while the guy played a game. They didn’t talk much, didn’t kiss much, and weren’t interested in what the other was doing. How could it happen that gadgets have become more interesting to us than our loved ones? And this applies not only to young people: there are thousands of mothers who text with their girlfriends but do not pay attention to their children; or husbands who only play games on their phones and ignore everything else around them; or children plugged into a world of pixels instead of learning about the real world or playing with their real friends. We might say that the modern world has created conditions in which a person enjoys only one advantage of the freedom-responsibility pair, completely ignoring the second aspect. In our brave new world, no one takes responsibility for anything! For example, we can delete our comments at any time – which frees us from responsibility for the consequences of our words. Along with the others (a faceless, anonymous mass) we hype certain events and shout our approvals or condemnations, but do not take into account data verification.

The habit of behaving in this way in the virtual world is eventually transmitted to the physical world: we begin to care exclusively about the external wrapper, forgetting about the inner world and moral values. We are the Pharisees of the twenty-first century.

Virtual Dissolution
Virtual Dissolution by Cameron Gray 2023
Please visit ParableVisions.com and Facebook.com/CameronGrayTheArtist

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

Our lives have shifted to the sphere of virtuality and technology, attended by an alienation from people, nature, and ourselves. However, in 2020 humanity faced a problem unprecedented in our recent decades of continuous progress. The coronavirus has forced us to re-evaluate our lives and values. Until then, we were predominantly looking for a chance to sit comfortably on the sofa while we could travel freely through virtual space. But having received from Covid the opportunity to study or work from home, communicate with friends through social networks and video conferences, or attend the theater in our pyjamas, we found out that we sorely lack live communication. So some of us now gladly go for walks in parks, sit with friends in cafes, and even want to return to the office, where our ‘physical’ colleagues will call us for coffee.

The truth is, you don’t know what you have until you lose it. We lost the real world, until we were almost sick of our computers and gadgets. So oddly enough, the coronavirus has restored the popularity of parks, hiking, and picnics. Parks haven’t been filled with so many people in a long time.

In an article for Philosophy Now back in 2021, ‘Truth & Alienation in a Covid World’ (Issue 143), Alex Duell noted that when he tried to understand the situation in which humanity found itself in 2020-2021 with the coronavirus epidemic, he returned to the topic of separation – from nature, from others, from one’s self. He argued that no Zoom can replace live communication between people, and no picture can replace the real view from a mountaintop. By breaking our physical connection, the epidemic put at risk not only the health of our lungs, but also our mental wellbeing. After all, the technologization of communication, of the work process, of friendly gatherings, church services, even interaction with nature, deprives a person of his own essential characteristics, even as it pulls him out of the real world.

But perhaps the pandemic has helped more people realize that we cannot fully capture the beauty and unique moments of the natural world digitally. No photo will give us the sensations we experience in a moment of direct contemplation. The same can be said of a person’s life: no matter how many incredible photos we take, our life is not in them, but rather, is here and now, in the moment. Photos can remind us of our past life, they can make us think about the fluidity of life; but they themselves are not life itself. On the contrary, we need to fully grasp every moment, feeling, worry, fight, and live. We should stop looking at our lives mainly through the screens of gadgets and cameras, and finally open our eyes and feel our being in all its rich variety, because no photo-editor apps can compare with the grandeur and beauty of nature and life itself.

Hide Your Life

In classrooms, on public transport, in cafés, on the streets, and even on dates, we see people constantly looking at screens. They’re dissolving into virtual being, not noticing their friends, the smile of a passerby, the colors of the rainbow in the rainy sky. But dissolving into the being-in-the-virtual-mass, with the desire to please them – to earn their likes and follows at all costs – turns the individual into a surrogate; a ghost who does not live, but functions. Through the coronavirus era, the insignificance of humanity and of our technologies was clearly outlined in a setting of the terrible consequences of irresponsible activity and inept use of technologies. It’s a terrible medicine; but perhaps it will help humanity rethink its direction, values, and attitude to nature. It needs to be emphasized that the problem is not that people are trying to make their environment more comfortable: rather, we have stopped noticing the beauty in things, or appreciating the greatness of nature. Nature once again turns into an object of human activity that can be used for one’s own purposes without worrying about the consequences.

Instead, we need to realize again that uniqueness permeates the natural world. Every sunset, every cloud, every leaf is unique. But instead of enjoying this diversity, people try to impose order and consistency on the world by forcing it into frames and algorithms, through capturing it in photos. We stubbornly proclaim humanity the ruler of the world and exalt ourselves, not realizing that we are making ourselves, not masters of nature, but parasites and enemies of it. So we must return the human to himself and to nature.

It seems therefore that the only way to live our life authentically is to hide our life: from others, from social networks, from the ghostly values imposed on the individual by the faceless masses – to live, in Heidegger’s understanding of that term: to hear one’s own being, to feel one’s own essence, to be terrified about death… This ‘show’, the aquarium of culture, will never end – in contrast to one’s life. Is the show worth the cost?

© Maryna Lazareva 2023

Maryna Lazareva is an associate professor and Head of the Department of Humanitarian Education at Lviv National Environmental University, Ukraine.

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