Many causes combined to produce the US Capitol insurrection on January 6. In the immediate aftermath, most of the blame has been assigned to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. Those inclined to look deeper connect the spark of Trump’s words to the tinder of extreme polarization that accompanied his presidency. Subgroups of Americans increasingly live in entirely different worlds from one another.
This is more than a metaphor. We—in the United States and throughout the world—have actually and quite literally lost the ability to interact and coexist in the common world we once shared.
I’m not just talking about conflicting worldviews, radically differing perspectives, disparate education, or political party polarization. I am talking about a specific, simple, everyday problem that has led to and reinforced all of these broader social and political causes. This is a problem so pervasive, so ubiquitous, so powerful, and so subtle that most of my readers probably have no idea what I’m about to say.
I’m referring to what I call the 50/50 problem: more than 50 percent of Americans spend more than 50 percent of their waking hours living in virtual, artificial worlds rather than the given, created one in which their bodies exist. The 50 percent threshold represents a tipping point that renders dialogue, deliberation, civic friendship, and compromise extraordinarily difficult in any society.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, the period from 2004 to 2014 saw a dramatic increase in measures of political polarization. This period, which predates the Trump Era, corresponds both with the increasingly widespread use of smartphones (the iPhone was launched in 2007) and with similarly dramatic increases in internet use both in the United States and worldwide. The 50/50 point in U.S. internet use was reached sometime after 2004, most likely around 2015. During this same period of time, the percentage of Democrats who were ideologically liberal as well as the percentage of Republicans who were ideologically conservative both passed 50 percent as well. Correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causality, but in this case, I would argue the inference is warranted.
When most people are living most of their lives in worlds other than the real, common one they share with their fellow citizens, they are rendered unable to find common ground on issues of policy or principle. The studies have officially caught up to reality: the internet breeds a more thorough and profound social dislocation and crisis of information than humans have ever encountered before. Now, the outcomes of our internet-saturated society have begun to manifest themselves in politically obvious ways.
The Disembodiment of Consciousness
To many people, using the internet and its various tools—especially social media—seems utterly harmless. After all, you are reading this extraordinarily illuminating and insightful article on the internet right now. The natural reaction of most people to hyperbolic statements about the dangers of the internet is some degree of intellectual assent, coupled with a heavy dose of practical dismissal and denial. It is so useful that it can’t be that bad, right? It is so embedded in human societies that there’s no use in questioning the value of its effects, is there? Like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, most of us feel like the water might be a tad warm. But it’s not really that hot, is it?
After all, don’t these artificial, virtual internet worlds connect us to our fellow citizens and all fellow humans more than we have ever been before? Don’t we all have access to a larger common store of facts and information than we ever have before? These truisms of the 21st century couldn’t be less true.
Think for a moment about what you are doing right now. Your mind, your consciousness, is engaged with this article displayed on your screen. What is your body doing? Perhaps sitting like an inanimate rock, or perhaps standing or walking, but the only way in which your body is engaging with the real world is through the contact of your eyes with a bright, artificial screen. Your mind is in one “place,” and your body is in another. Your consciousness is exploring an abstract world that has been created by human beings; a world that is artificial, not natural. Your body, whose job it is to help connect your mind to the natural world through the senses and experience, is cut out of the equation.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad or harmful thing in itself. After all, when we sit and read a book—as wholesome an activity as there is—our mind is dislocated from our bodies in a similar way. The disembodiment of consciousness only becomes a problem when it is so frequent as to actually hinder or distort our ability to engage with the real, natural world. As a complement to and extension of our embodied experience and consciousness, abstract thought is natural, necessary, and beneficial. As a replacement of our embodied consciousness, it is disastrous.
The 50/50 Problem
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, roughly eight in ten Americans go online at least daily. Almost three in ten American adults say they are “almost constantly” online. According to a 2019 Digital Information World report, internet users in the United States spend an average of 6 hours and 31 minutes online every day. Over the course of a single year, the average U.S. internet user spends about 100 days online.
Please note that these numbers were all collected before the extreme effect of the COVID pandemic on internet use nationwide. All indicators of internet use are likely to have risen by at least 10 to 20 percent in 2020. Put these and corroborating numbers together and it is clear that we have passed the 50/50 tipping point: more than half of Americans spend more than half their waking lives in virtual internet worlds.
These virtual internet worlds are artificial not only in terms of their dependence on man-made technology, but in much more extreme and thoroughgoing ways as well. The content of our internet worlds is determined by each of us individually: we go where we want when we want, see only what we want to see, interact only with people we want to interact with, and so on. This is often explained in terms of the “echo chamber” effect. And then there is the immense, quiet power of the innumerable algorithms that learn from our behavior in order to automatically feed us what we want and manipulate our behavior in ways that are tailored to our own individual psychology.
As the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma effectively shows, it doesn’t take a philosopher or a psychologist to realize that we humans weren’t made for this. The internet worlds we create for ourselves—which are constantly recreated for us by unseen others—are profoundly different from the real world in which our bodies exist.
We don’t learn in the same way when we’re looking at a screen as we do when we’re looking at the world around us (including, and especially, at our fellow human beings), no matter how information- and insight-packed the particular screen might be at the moment. Our minds become simultaneously hyperactive and stunted in strange ways, like a bodybuilder who only lifts weights with his big toe. We dive so deep into rabbit holes that we can’t find our way back out, can no longer reach other rabbits in their holes, and even forget that we’re in a hole at all. Plato was more prescient than he knew when he designed his cave allegory in The Republic: the denizens of the cave are, in fact, fixated on primitive screens.
In Different Worlds
It might seem strange to claim that I in Arizona would be more connected with a fellow citizen in New York if we didn’t connect over social media, preferring instead to focus on our embodied lives in the real world and in our local communities. But that is precisely what I’m arguing. The natural and social world with which my human mind-body compound interacts in Arizona is much more similar to the natural and social world with which a fellow citizen’s human mind-body compound interacts in New York than my virtual internet world is to theirs.
The myth of the common internet universe has been thoroughly exploded. Perhaps the idea of a common natural world—such as the one long hypothesized by natural law theory—is not so much of a myth as some have supposed.
People who think that Trump won the election aren’t crazy. They just live in a completely different internet world than many other Americans do. And passionate Trump supporters aren’t the only ones who live in an alternate reality. We all do.
Many things are needed for our fragile American constitutional democracy to survive for future generations: improved civic education in schools, the redirection of higher education to the pursuit of objective truth, the reformation of our political party system, and the improved functioning of our governing institutions, among others. In addition to all of these, it is essential that we find a way to address the 50/50 problem.
This article has been republished from Public Discourse