Greenfield: We All Live in the Internet’s Flatlands Now
In Flatland, a mathematical satire, a being who exists in two dimensions experiences the arrival of a three-dimensional being as the extrusion of a flat surface into his world.
These days we all live in Flatland.
The internet connects and accommodates us at the expense of flattening our reality. Networks are based on common standards. To connect different things together is to reduce them to the lowest common denominator. The internet hasn’t made our culture richer and deeper: it has simplified us.
The flattening effect of the internet equates and simplifies everything. Its standards lower the barriers and in the process eliminate the complexities. This isn’t a simple dumbing down. To dumb something down is to lower access, but to also offer the possibility of following that to a more sophisticated understanding.
What is pervasive about flattening is that it eliminates the third and fourth dimensions entirely.
In the physical realm, the third dimension provides depth. In the realm of culture and ideas, the third dimension is composed of the principles that allow us to measure the depth and truth of an idea by comparing and contrasting it with other ideas using a set of consistent principles.
Think of the façade of an old western movie. Striding down the street, past a saloon, a general store, and a stable, it looks real enough. But when you enter the third dimension and go inside, there’s nothing there but wooden fronts. That’s the flatlands that the internet has enabled us to build our culture around.
Without the third dimension, all ideas appear to be equally intellectually valid. And then we pick and choose whichever ones appeal most to us on the emotional and instinctual levels of narrative and identity.
Narrative and identity are compelling and vital. They form the two-dimensional matrix that defines who we are. But when we access the third dimension, we enrich the bright line of our identity and the second dimension of narrative height that connects our identity to a larger story, by measuring it against reality.
A two-dimensional reality reflects our inner self. Without that, we don’t exist. But without the third dimension, we lose the ability to make a meaningful impact on the external reality of the world.
The internet and the culture it spawned are entirely concerned with identity and narrative.
The ‘flatness’ of the internet is the key to its most magical ability which is the transmutation of identity and narrative that appears to allow people to transform who they are and reshape reality with words.
But this magic only works in the unreal world of the internet. The more of our society is routed through the internet, the more obsessed it becomes with harnessing the power of identity and narrative, transmuting it and policing its boundaries, allowing people to believe that the borders of sex, of religion, and of all of reality can be reshaped through determined intentionality. This is classic magical thinking.
But the internet is built for magical thinking because it is a virtual realm, not a true physical reality.
Within virtual spaces, consensual realities can govern. That is why utopian ideas sprang from the virtual spaces of academia, of bohemian circles, and from the sheltered members of upper class households who were convinced that reality had become fluid, when really they were just detached from reality.
The internet is the ultimate virtual space. Its flatness allows everyone to build a consensual reality. And since we are thinking beings who inhabit reality through the language of our minds, that consensual reality appears encompassing and transformative even when it isn’t really changing anything except us.
What’s missing is context.
The computer pioneers envisioned an artificial world governed by the rules of its code. Its flatness is an extension of the flatness of machine logic and of the flatness of intellect detached from experience.
Human beings, unlike computers, are not detached intellects. Any project that would preserve the intellect while detaching the body would result in something alien, inhuman, and dangerous.
The ‘Singularity’ of Ray Kurzweil in which man merges with intelligent machines will never happen. But we have merged with machines by trying to inhabit a space meant for machines and run by the logic of programming, rather than experience and intuition. The cultural singularity is all around us.
That we can’t see the singularity is its biggest symptom.
We react to shocking events, like the election, as if they were unexpected, when in reality they were all around us, but we could not see them because like the square encountering a sphere, we have become limited to a two-dimensional world and we encounter events as if they suddenly appear from some unseen third dimension into the flatness of our world. And we try to understand where they came from.
The world has not become more irrational. We have just lost two out of four of its dimensions.
When we weigh and measure ideas based on consistent rules, rather than wishful thinking, we access the third dimension of depth. And when we test these third dimensional hypothesis against their results over the course of time, we holistically integrate them into the fourth dimension and arrive at some measure of truth. But when we remain in a two-dimensional world, then we just know what we know.
An example of this reality decay is the transforming of the term ‘fact-checking’, once used by the press to describe its own rigorous process of checking its own facts, to mean narrative attacks on Republicans. When the media checked its facts, it provided its own narratives with greater reality and depth. And when it redefined fact checking to mean attacking the opposition, it traded access to a third dimensional reality for intensified narrative force in its own two-dimensional world.
This is a problem that’s not unique to the process, but bedevils science, politics, and every field that once set out to reach good decisions by measuring them against reality, but that now just bloviates.
Without the third dimension of reality and the fourth dimension of time, there is goodness, but not truth. There are moral ideas, but none that we can measure and test. Everything becomes political, we say, but that really means that everything is run through an ideological filter that takes politics on faith.
Life becomes guided by political ideas the way it was by religious ideas in a less secular time.
The unexpected events coming in from the third dimension are reduced to mysteries and then conspiracy theories. Instead of dealing with reality, we explain contradictions with more mysteries. When faced with a crisis, we rarely take the real ‘red pill’ and question our premises, instead we take the ‘blue pill’ and question our principles, convincing ourselves to let the discredited premise ride.
A flat world has little room for principles, but plenty of room for premises. When we question our principles, it does not disrupt the flatlands of the internet where all ideas are equivalent. In Flatland, a white woman can turn black, a man can become a woman, a Jewish teen can become a white supremacist, a suburban Asian-American teenager can join Hamas, and we can all be anything we want.
When narrative and identity are just coats we wear in a medium where they are meant to be fluid and interchangeable, adopting new ones is an otherwise painless process in self-dramatization.
The millennial insecurities of a generation that grew up on the internet are expressed through transforming identities to cash in on narratives. The square shifts into new lines all the time.
The Flatland of the internet is an unstable two-dimensional world that destabilizes identity for the sake of narrative. And the premise of all those narratives is that we must not reconsider that process.
The richest gift of the third dimension is that it can allow us to weigh and measure our choices, and to reconsider our premises and our decisions. In a two-dimensional world, there is no escape. The Flatlands of the internet appear to allow us to escape, to transform and become someone else, but that, like everything else that takes place in a virtual space, is just another mental illusion.
People don’t escape by becoming someone else. Only con artists do. The internet has enabled a growth industry in con artists and in catfishing, in people pretending to be another sex, another race, another age, to be doctors, lawyers, and generals, but human beings can’t change who they are, by changing who they say they are. This is another area where we differ from the flat code-based conception of reality.
To change, we must rethink the choices we made that brought us here. We must question our premises.
Without that third dimension, we can’t change. And, worse still, we have no idea how to change. The ‘flatness’ of the internet has led to a culture that easily sheds its principles, but never questions its premises. It seeks dimension by following a shifting line on the ground, instead of looking up at the sky.
The ‘flatness’ of the internet polarizes, it rewards hot takes, extremism, and anything that stands out.
‘Flatness’ selects for ideas without dimension or depth, that have surface appeal because they reassure us that our two-dimensional world is already full of color, life, and meaning, and we don’t need anything else.
The internet is a powerful and compelling tool. But when we cease to use it and instead inhabit it, then the tool becomes the master, and the master becomes the tool. We don’t have to live in Flatland. And when we weigh and measure ideas, when we examine them and turn them over, then we gain dimension. The more we do that, the less surprised we are when unexpected events seem to happen.
To inhabit the internet is to exist in a world of shifting narratives that make it difficult to contemplate reality on its own terms, rather than on those of the stories that people tell us and that we tell ourselves.
We are not bodiless minds. Our lives are grounded not only in the matter of the “leettle gray cells”, but of our bodies, of our lives and our families. The way we make decisions when shopping for groceries or a home, when fixing a car that doesn’t start, or an injury that doesn’t heal, is the basic skill set of encountering the third dimension, weighing options, measuring them against the risks and rewards, and making a decision based on those rules and on experience, rather than on the narratives of Flatland.
We can be as real and as true as we choose to be. And when we seek the truth, our narratives grow stronger. When we test what we believe against reality, we emerge with stronger arguments, better plans, and a way of thinking and living that is not subservient to the virtual spaces of an unreal world.
The internet is Flatland. It controls much of our world. But it doesn’t have to rule our minds.