With a smartphone in our pocket, more and more of everything we do is prized from us as data and used to direct our subsequent behavior in everything from purchasing to entertainment to holidays. It’s not a happy state of affairs but most of us trade personal data for the chance to engage on social media, watch Netflix, or search for a new job.
Armchair philosopher Michael Sacasas has reframed this idea into a thesis that, online, there is no present, only variously organized fragments of the past.
“The internet, as a mediator of human interactions, is not a place, it is a time,” he blogs at The Convivial Society. “It is the past. Literally.”
Far from the metaverse being some idea of living in the moment transposed to a virtual environment, anything we do there is in fact already governed by things we did or said in the past. It’s a trap from which there appears no way out.
“The fundamental fact of our online experience is that we are at all times expanding the massive reservoirs of the documented past,” he says.
Technology and societal trends are changing the internet. Concerns over data privacy, misinformation and content moderation are happening in tandem with excitement about Web3 and blockchain possibilities. Learn more about the tech and trends driving humanity’s digital future with these hand-curated articles from the NAB Amplify archives:
- Web3 and the Battle for the Soul of the Internet
- The TikTok-ing of Western Civilization
- Our Collective (and Codependent) Relationship with Data
- Social Media Is a Disaster for Democracy, But What’s Going to Change It?
Any interaction online from audio to video, social likes, shares, buttons hovered over, even forms filled but never submitted, location data is readable to a machine and is exists perpetually.
“We no longer encounter the past principally as a coherent narrative informing our present and future action into the world. The past, as now encoded in ponderous databases, can be readily and endlessly re-interpreted, reshuffled, recombined, and rearranged.”
This activity is what now consumes our time and energy, he says. For example, because we live in the past when we are online, we always find ourselves fighting over the past. Yet the overwhelming amount of data “cascading inscriptions” as he calls blurs any line between what actually happened and the present.
“Soon, it becomes impossible to map the course of the conflict or even make sense of it. And nothing changes.”
This is suffocating our lives, he suggests, preventing us from actually living.
“On the internet, action doesn’t build the future, it only feeds the digital archives of the past.”
Our online actions are reduced to ritualized behavior, tired routines, unimaginative and reactionary responses, a place where “databases generate moods.”
Since the “digitally inscribed past” is chiefly legible to machines this becomes the means by which to program the future. Human activity is diffused into an ever receding and chaotic databases of the past. Those databases are mined and processed — by AI algorithms — “chiefly in order to predict, manage, and structure our future actions.”
His decidedly bleak outlook concludes, “On the internet, the past is a black hole sucking the future into itself.” Furthermore, as the databases of the past grow “their gravitational pull absorbs ever more of our attention and energy. Consequently, our capacity to inhabit the present and imagine the future deteriorates.”
To that extent then, we might as well give up since we’re clearly already flesh for The Matrix.