Have we become slaves to the Internet?

In over just two decades, the Internet has become a new drug, and a means of domination exploited by neo-liberal giants such as Google, Facebook or Netflix as well as a growing number of countries.

We won’t sing the praises of the pre-Internet world. Those who were around before it know that this technological tool has changed everything, often for the better. We still remember, along with a thousand other difficulties, the obstacles to overcome in order to access the most basic information, those obstinate fax machines or how long it would take for a letter to go across the world.

No, it wasn’t better before, at least for this aspect of our lives. The Internet has radically changed our lives by allowing us to work, communicate and entertain ourselves with the click of a button. It also provides us with a wealth of knowledge accessible to everyone at any moment. What more could one wish for?

But today, after more than two decades of using the Internet, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: Does the Internet serve to liberate us or to transform us into consenting slaves? Has this tool of liberation turned into a tool of domination?

A virtual drug

A brilliant and important book on this subject is Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter, Professor of Marketing at New York University. He tells us that the Internet is a new kind of drug that, although immaterial and virtual, has equally harmful consequences. More than half of the population of the developed world is addicted to their smartphone, e-mail, video games, Facebook, Instagram or Netflix.

The conglomerates that own these products develop sophisticated strategies aimed at exploiting flaws in the human psyche (narcissism, search for validation, etc.) with the aim of making them literally irresistible. They create what psychologists call a “behavioural addiction”, i.e. “addictions in which the object of the addiction is not a psychotropic product, but a behaviour.” Thus, the “drug addict” can no longer do without the Internet and its associated products. It becomes his raison d’être and he can no longer control himself. The effects can be disastrous: isolation, depression, unhappiness or financial ruin for those addicted to online gambling.

The word “drug” may seem excessive, but it is the right word. You only need to surf social media for a few hours to realise that these sites are driving us “crazy”. There are those who change their profile picture every day, those who feel the need to comment on current events every ten minutes, or those who use it as a way to vent. It brings out some of the worst traits of humanity, such as voyeurism and exhibitionism, creating a circus of shameless egos off on a never ending quest to satisfy their lust for phoney admiration.

Social media reminds us of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, Les Belles Images, which explores the paradox of those who create a certain beautiful image of themselves for the outside world, all the while masking their despair and loneliness. These images which are created to provoke admiration and envy from others are, in a sense, contemporary gods. They encourage narcissism and a feeling of triumph arising from someone else’s subjugating gaze.

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