The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for my phenomenology class last year about the virtual and the real. I conducted about fifteen in-depth interviews on the general topic of “the Internet”, trying to get people to reveal their biases and narrative methods of talking about the Internet, and also trying to make people reflect on the concrete experience of actually using the Internet on a day-to-day basis. In the following series of posts, I will take excerpts from my final paper and develop my findings about the phenomenological experience of the Internet.
At the root of this phenomenological investigation is the linguistic division we make between “the Internet” and “real life”. Many people, particularly those of us who have never really known a time before the Internet, would not claim that the Internet is “not real”, and when explicitly asked usually deny that it is something separate from the rest of the world. Yet this linguistic division is unavoidable when talking about the Internet, and it seems fundamentally embedded in our concept of and general attitudes towards the Internet.
Referring to the Internet as something distinct from “reality” seems to imply that it is an existentially inferior sort of realm. This is the same implication any time something is contrasted with “the real world”- it is a place lacking the essential characteristics of everyday human life. For example, the academic realm is often seen as one of these experientially false worlds. When someone talks about graduating college and entering “the real world”, the implication is that collegiate life is not real because it lacks essential features, such as fiscal independence; living in a community that is heterogeneous- not composed entirely of people of the same generation, socioeconomic status, and level of education; and dealing with the rigidity of a job (temporally, spatially, and in terms of duties expected) as opposed to the flexibility of school. Similarly, the Internet is seen as phenomenologically false or lacking- with some possible reasons being the lack of full physical interactivity; the lack of personal responsibility and fluidity of identity that this disembodiment makes possible; and the hypersocial or hyposocial nature of online activity.
At the same time, although these fake worlds lack features people see as essential to human existence, the language also suggests that places like the internet or academia may not be “real”, but they are, in some sense, worlds– complete, and self-contained. I think this implies a sort of existential richness, or at least the possibility thereof. In the case of academia, it may be disparaged for deluding people and not sufficiently preparing them for the “real world”, but it is also recognized to be all the more enjoyable and valuable for being a space where people are free to grow and explore outside of the constraints of “real” life. Similarly, it seems that the very features of the Internet which lead people to think of it as “unreal” and somehow distinct from offline life are also the features which people embrace and point to as positive contributions to their lives. The lack of physical presence doesn’t just mean decreased personal responsibility, decrease in the quality of human interaction- it also, paradoxically, is a tool that allows us to reach out to people and strengthen connections that otherwise would be limited by physical distance etc.
This strange figure of speech I think gives deep insight into the complexities of our relationship with the Internet. It is a place that we are critical of- a place which is unnatural, surreal, not meant for human life and potentially may cause us to lose our own humanity if we stay there too long. And yet, part of the very strength of our fear and critical attitude towards the Internet arises out of our recognition that this place has the depth and richness of a life, a world. Although it may be alien, this world is not utterly desolate and inhospitable to human life, and in fact has many features that appeal directly to our human needs and desires. In this project, I hope to uncover what it is about the virtual world that makes people see it as “fake” and lacking, and what makes it feel like a rich and enticing world of its own. I also hope to use this ethnographic examination to consider how the virtual world can be more effectively integrated with the “real” world- what can be done to control the “fake” and inhumane potential of the Internet, and what can be done to bring the benefits of the virtual world into greater prominence in everyday life?