Morality in the age of the internet: thoughts on Jia Tolentino’s ‘Trick Mirror’
On Jia Tolentino, writing for the internet, and what to do with what we know
Dec 16, 2019
I’ve been thinking about the same story for months now. It’s on the subject of morality in the age of technology—the grossly oversimplified version being: being right or wrong in the time of social media. It’s helped provide some clarity, if not even more legitimate reasons to be anxious. Actually what it probably is is a deceptively trivial piece of writing (in the way that fiction is sometimes considered trivial) that warrants anxiety as the only legitimate reaction to modernity. It asks, or so I think it does: Why shouldn’t we all be anxious?
The story is about an alternative reality in which the online world has become almost indistinguishable from the real world. The conflation is both figurative and literal: Using “large signs with black arrows on them,” people literally point to people they consider problematic, or has acted in ways or said some things that aren’t consistent with what is considered, and I’m using this word purely as shorthand, “woke.” That was the thing about the moral standards in this world: Consistency ought to be the essence of every word and action, and by extension, a person’s character.
A crucial feature of such consistency was seamlessness—you couldn’t at any point in your life commit even the most minor hiccups on public platforms; there was no room for problematic ideas (even if they’re tweets from about 10 years ago), or opinions that challenge the dogma that challenge the dogma. Whatever the case, there will be people who will be doing the kind of police work they see necessary. It’s much better explained in the story:
“You’ve got to reach far, far back…into the past and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently. For if it should turn out that you don’t—that is, after some digging someone finds evidence that present-you is fatally out of step with past-you—well, then, you’ll simply have to find some way to remake the connection, and you’ve got to make it seamless.”
The story, titled “Now More Than Ever,” was published in The New Yorker last year to, surprisingly, given its on-the-nose topicality, little commentary—save for a few accusations of reactionary politicking. But less surprising is the fact that this story is British author Zadie Smith writing about the internet. Smith, once a [proud] flip-phone owner who sees a social media-free existence as a path to freedom of thought, has always struck me as someone who has made up her mind about the world wide web: that it can be intellectually and morally rigid, that we’d be free in our thinking if we spent less time on it.
We can’t choose the rational response and take the invitation to freedom by simply disciplining ourselves to spend less time on our phones. There’s no such thing as an internet-free existence; everyone, to a degree, is shaped by it.
“Because I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Instagram, I’m not on the internet, I never hear people shouting at me. I have seen on Twitter, I’ve seen it at a distance, people have a feeling at 9 a.m. quite strongly, and then by 11 have been shouted out of it and can have a completely opposite feeling four hours later. That part, I find really unfortunate. I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind. I don’t want to be bullied out of it,” she said in a conversation with The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino in 2017.
Smith makes a compelling case, an invitation to freedom that many of us are too busy, too unconsciously deep into the zeitgeist, and, admittedly, too afraid to take. (But are we to blame? And what accounts for this fear? More on this later.) Yet it’s not as radical an idea as it seems. Smith’s case becomes less a contrarian act and more a sensible, rational response when you consider the fact that someone like Tolentino, who describes herself as “very online” and makes a living writing for and about the internet, presents an uncannily similar portrait of the internet to that of Smith’s story, one where it’s become indistinguishable from the offline world.
Tolentino writes in “The I in the Internet:”
“Even if you avoid the internet completely—my partner does: he thought #tbt meant “truth be told” for ages—you still live in the world that this internet has created, a world in which selfhood has become capitalism’s last natural resource, a world whose terms are set by centralized platforms that have deliberately established themselves as near-impossible to regulate or control. The internet is also in large part inextricable from life’s pleasures: our friends, our families, our communities, our pursuits of happiness, and—sometimes, if we’re lucky—our work.”
Smith’s internet is Tolentino’s internet is everybody’s internet: We can’t choose the rational response and take the invitation to freedom by simply disciplining ourselves to spend less time on our phones. There’s no such thing as an internet-free existence; everyone, to a degree, is shaped by it. Of course, you already knew that. But what of it?
What does knowledge, the stuff that we’ve gradually accumulated over the years via the internet—an overwhelmingly vast collection of fact and opinion and problems (a large part of which very explicitly acknowledges the internet’s circuitous toxicity) all flattened, regardless of its topic or its gravity or its real-life implications, into the same collection of pixels—offer in the way of a recourse? It’s perfectly normal to scroll through your feed and see cat memes one second and then a report of a tragic death a split-second after and then absurd bigotry courtesy of our administration another split-second after.
“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving,” writes Tolentino. Does knowledge end in knowledge?
In the essay “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” Smith writes about the Jamesian dream of using awareness as a path to responsibility: to be “finely aware so as to become richly responsible.” Henry James communicated this idea through his novels, dense chunks of truth and beauty made up of “syntactically torturous sentences… intended to make you aware.” Awareness is respite from the toxic rhythm of life, it has the power to counter automatism. It seems an outdated reference to make, but the underlying sentiment is timeless in its call for morality, echoed by Wallace himself: that how you live your life was what mattered most.
This has been true for a long time, and further into modernity, with the ever-tightening grip of capitalism coupled with the steady rise of the internet, a compound system that is extremely efficient at monetizing everything, including our most human needs and instincts—fine awareness remains powerful, but only if we can bypass the systems in which we try to make these choices, the conditions in which we try to be aware. It’s not that the internet has made simple awareness impossible, it’s just that it’s made it very, very difficult to access. Smith again: “How to be finely aware when you are trained in passivity? How to detect real value when everything has its price?”
It’s a dream indeed.
We’re not as important as we think
What do culture, technology, identity, opinion, politics, economics, and the banal and profound tragedy of everyday life have in common? The surface answer is that they’re all connected with one another, that they all affect and determine each other; to try to go further than that is to take on a task that’s near-impossible, owing not just to its scope, but also the risk of generalizing to the effect of trivialization, which the world doesn’t really need more of. But if by some miracle, you were able to carry out the task, you would probably end up with inconclusive conclusions—despairing as they are illuminating.
I imagine that this somehow captures what Tolentino has done with “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” an essay collection that organizes, deconstructs, and tries to make sense of the interconnected phenomena defining much of 21st-century life. Interspersed with biography, insight, and thorough research filtered through a critical lens that values nuance more than convenient conclusions, the essays tackle topics like scams, weddings, athleisure, drugs, religion, and the world’s obsession with “difficult women.” Tolentino focuses on a particular timeframe, specifically the events after the 2016 US elections and the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017—a time in which “American identity, culture, technology, politics, and discourse seemed to coalesce into an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict.”
Each essay takes a problem-laden phenomenon (typically a seemingly banal, essential system whose harmful nature is one we recognize from a distance) and then dissects it until we’re left with even more questions. It’s the aforementioned “The I in the Internet” that’s at the root of this stylistic (and thematic) cohesion, and it’s easy to see why: Again, in one way or another, we experience everything through the internet, a convoluted system (a separate dimension, a way of thinking?) where an awareness of problems rarely translates to effective solutions. It’s in this essay that Tolentino best delivers an expansive overview of what it’s like to be alive today, taking on intersecting problems that have made simple awareness a kind of impossible virtue rather than an attainable way of life.
She writes that because the internet is centered around the self (the main unit of every social media platform is the profile), we’ve been conditioned to believe that we matter a lot more than we actually do. The last bit isn’t a dig at self-esteem nor a case for hipster vanity. Tolentino has, among others, both economics (the commodification of identity powers entire industries) and politics (personal opinion is often treated as a political end in itself) in mind.
It’s easy to get lost in this tangle of ideas, but it might help to choose a good starting point, which, to me at least, is the foundation of the architecture of the internet: the profile. We navigate social media platforms and practically all websites using a profile—a platform that’s structured around your identity, your opinions and interests and ideas, and even the kind of person you want to be seen as. These very basic facets and instincts—the last item, most especially—although not inherently bad, are extremely susceptible to capitalist motives (as everything is). It’s by this logic that we constantly feel the need to buy things, self-optimize, and send out positive signals about ourselves.
“There is an urge to be good. To be seen to be good. To be seen,” Smith writes in “Now More Than Ever.”
The demand for fame, power, and beauty, and for all of that to be broadcasted online is infinite. Corporations won’t ever need to stop exploiting it. Of course, none of this is news; in fact, writing that down feels like I’ve cheapened it. But try reading Tolentino’s incisive detailing of how exactly this system works:
“As we move about the internet, our personal data is tracked, recorded, and resold by a series of corporations—a regime of involuntary technological surveillance, which subconsciously decreases our resistance to the practice of voluntary self-surveillance on social media. On social media platforms, everything we see corresponds to our conscious choices and algorithmically guided preferences, and all news and culture and interpersonal interaction are filtered through the home base of the profile. The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the center of the universe.”
What do we make of professional opinion-havers?
I haven’t yet decided if writing an essay about the internet and having it published on the internet is a mildly interesting overlap that can help me and other people better process existing essays about the internet, or if it does nothing but prove that we do overvalue our opinions. Regardless, both possibilities direct me to, at least for the purpose of this piece, a necessary interrogation: Why do we write essays for the internet?
[W]hat does it mean that writers have all the freedom to cherry-pick information, that they can choose to quote this one person and choose to neglect others in service of their arguments (or for the sake of convenience)?
I’ve always doubted essays (which isn’t to say that I love them any less), in part because they’re inherently futile both in discursive and practical terms: Readers are almost always never on your side, and even if you manage to change that by the time they reach the end of your essay (if they do), it obviously still can’t singlehandedly fix the problems or eliminate the confusions you set out to address. Which is precisely where the problem lies: I’m not quite sure how, when, or why we decided that essays were supposed to answer anything, or, more specifically, that these pieces were supposed to lead to some kind of systemic change. How can they, when they’re essentially thought experiments offering the promise of perfection, an individual’s fallible attempt at collective conclusiveness?
To be clear, I’m not interested in defending the form by figuring out what it’s really for. I don’t have the rhetorical capacity for that and I don’t think a centuries-old form needs defending. What I’m interested in is the rampancy of a particular type of essay—one that’s written exclusively for the internet (and fundamentally a product of the internet), tackling an issue that normally ends with a conclusion in the form of a recommendation. Honestly, its impact, however fleeting, is usually hard to fault. There’s an unexpected comfort in being told what to do in a crisis, or at least in the knowledge that something can be done.
For instance, I find a very specific kind of comfort in headlines like “Legalizing ukay-ukay can help save the planet” and “You can help reforestation efforts by going to this party,” one that I share with the authors whom I imagine to be concerned about the same things I’m concerned about; who, like many people, believe that something can be done. In other words, there’s a shared innocent desire for goodness between writer and reader.
But to have the internet as the site of that momentary connection—a place that, despite its capacity for forging real, meaningful relationships and positive change, is still extremely susceptible to corruption—is a threat to that shared innocence. For one, what does it mean that writers have all the freedom to cherry-pick information, that they can choose to quote this one person and choose to neglect others in service of their arguments (or for the sake of convenience)? How does the pace of online content production affect the way that we interpret trends and experience time? What does it mean that a headline is often more important than the actual content of an article? What is the effect of instant feedback, often in the form of a rigid dichotomy (i.e., right or wrong; good or bad), on what a writer writes? In some ways, I feel like writing for the internet is to be unable to honestly answer the question, “What is it that you really think?”
Intellectual ossification is not the worst thing that has resulted from all this (in fact, it might not even matter), but the fact that it’s a definitive force in a thought economy that overvalues opinion might be a strong contender.
Besides, the internet is already what it is, Tolentino rightfully points out. It’s hard to recall a time in which the act of writing down what you thought was completely unmarred by the influence of dogma or instant feedback or the prospect of profit or the “assumption that speech has an impact, that it’s something like action.” It’s what many of us do now, and if we’re going to continue down this path (which, I’m positive many of us will), I can only hope that we start doubting ourselves more and challenge our convictions more ruthlessly; that we give ourselves less credit for having the “right” set of opinions without skirting accountability; that we try, in spite of its inherent futility, to be more aware and skeptical of the discursive nightmare in which we currently find ourselves, as well as of “the agenda behind the consciousness of the text” as Wallace calls it.
I tread the line between harsh cynicism and naive idealism when I say that the best thing that good online writing can offer is momentary clarity and hope—a first step towards action. There is hardly any time for anything besides economic survival these days, Tolentino writes, and if we’re going to spend a large part of our free time on the internet and have that be our direct line to community engagement, it seems important to make a distinction between speech and action—to recognize the limits of text, I mean.
When Tolentino visited Manila last Nov. 13, I’d tried to prepare the way I would for any other literary event: book ready for signing and a document of notes that could help me understand the discussion. But the event was different. As expected, it was attended mostly by writers, but the heft of the subject and the usual self-serious air of open forums were undercut by the subtext of doubt, of hyperawareness (“this is a literary event attended by writers and we are going to talk about writing,” I kept thinking to myself), of an openness to be corrected, of an awareness of the privilege to be writing for a living, and of the frivolity (and radical necessity) of having events where you talked about that privilege.
We each lined up to have Tolentino sign our books. When it was my turn to have my book signed, she thanked me for buying it and said she hoped I liked it. I did, but more importantly, it taught me that what we believe can always be wrong, that there isn’t always a satisfying story or explanation behind everything, that what we do won’t always lead us to meaning—but that we should try to be good anyway.
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