Meditations on the consensual hallucination.

Everyone is happy on social media.

I know I promised to finish my thought on Kundera, and I will! I promise. I’ve gotten sidetracked by a series of conversations I’ve had on social media, however, as one does. I don’t think I’ve actually finished a thought since I joined Twitter. It’s quite embarrassing for someone who fancies herself a “thinker.”

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! [. . . ] And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Hamlet. act ii, scene II

As I do periodically, I’ve been considering the implications of our shared connected existence — the “consensual hallucination,” as William Gibson described it in Neuromancer. Gibson has been eerily prescient on the reaction of human nature to the rise of the internet, and I often refer to his insight from the Sprawl and Virtual Light series. In Neuromancer, Case is physically prevented from jacking into the matrix, the source of his livelihood and the only place he feels he truly exists. This leads to a self-destructive spiral as he is marooned in the physical world, “The meat, and all it wants.” I see this existential dread in the habitual Twitter junkies who lose account after account and the desperate scramble to get back online — the fear of existing in one’s life, of having to live without an escape valve.

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void. . . . his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.

Neuromancer, William Gibson.

While there’s nothing wrong with escapism — this is how the minds resets itself, as it is not capable of dealing with strong emotion ad infinitum — there is a point where it becomes pathological. The disparate online personas adopted by a single person are equally fascinating and repulsive, leaving me to wonder whether social media creates a permission structure for otherwise stable personalities to calve, or if it simply attracts these already fractured personalities and normalizes their preexisting pathologies.

We have the means to cast our discontent into sharp relief via the instantaneous dopamine flood of an idealized existence that is simultaneously real and unreal. We exist in and out of reality, our perspective skewed by each interaction. We allow the unreal to bleed into the real, coloring our experience, taking something from each and dulling the edges.

In Gibson’s Virtual Light, Laney intuitively analyzes the data surrounding a person — the electronic equivalent of nonverbal social cues — and is able to know them to an uncanny degree, which often leaves him on the edge of manic obsession. (Or is his talent the product of his mania? Gibson never comes down on either side. I like to think it is the latter, as I believe that “divergent” personalities are less “broken” and simply more capable of nonlinear thinking.) I often think of Laney when engaging with people online, resisting the temptation to fill in the “blank spaces” around someone to construct a personality that I’m comfortable with. However, understanding human nature makes this kind of digital profiling possible, and humans adapt skills to navigate new environments. A relatively intelligent human can learn to pick up on these new nonverbal social cues, and many have, though the desire to build a more forgiving picture of someone is often at war with our older, primal need to interpret behavior in person.

He had a peculiar knack with data-collection architectures, and a medically documented concentration-deficit that he could toggle, under certain conditions, into a state of pathological hyperfocus.

Idoru, William Gibson.

More than anything, the advent of online communication and the cultural obsession/shame matrix surrounding it has revealed a deep isolation and desire to be connected to our fellow humans. Social media fills this void, allowing for connection and interaction with people we’d never “meet” without it. Unfortunately, humans are also wired for in-person interaction, and the deeper a connection becomes, the less satisfying the digital can be, leaving many feeling even more alone than they were before. So much is lost in text and emojis. The intimacy of another’s presence is often more comforting than a wall of text and all the right words can be. Sitting in silence with someone has become nearly impossible, because on either side of the screen, we are alone in our lives.

The meat, and all it wants.

Isolation is hardly a new challenge for humanity. Writing is a manifestation of the need to connect to others, the need to be heard and seen and therefore rendered somehow more real than the writer feels himself to be. All art has, at its core, this drive to connect, to express the universality of the human experience. But our current way of combatting isolation seems less beneficial to our lives than previous attempts to assuage the loneliness. It often devolves into the mindless compulsion to chase the dopamine hit of base validation, which only creates a larger void to fill next time. The moments between hits become intolerable in their emptiness and the life we live outside the consensual hallucination is often revealed to be far less satisfactory than we’d anticipated it would be as children.

Like real life, only better.

Assessing whether one is more “real” online or off is difficult if the persona one adopts online is vastly different from the person who exists in the real world. I’ve never been very different in real life than I am online, much to my own detriment. I don’t do well with compartmentalization. This isn’t necessarily a value judgment for or against, it’s simply a statement of fact. Actually, I’d suggest learning to compartmentalize and fracture one’s personality. It seems a far less uncomfortable way to live.

Learning to be real to oneself may be the key to existing in the kind of duality that is created by a reliance on social media to dissipate the crush of real life. Or maybe we just need to learn to give up trying to be happy in this life altogether. Perhaps existing only in the “meat” is the key to being, if not happy, at least content.

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