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The emptiness of the soul: from the offline to the online world

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

More often borders are becoming permeable and fluid, and the demarcation of limits and divides are becoming more complex to establish (despite Trump`s attempt to return to a border politics). Globalization, technology, a hyper connected world are just some of the reasons for that. When I speak of borders I do not only mean territorial ones. I am also referring to social, technological, gender, political, epistemological borders. Here, I want to pay close attention to the online-offline border in the realm of technology and virtual reality.

During this New Coronavirus pandemic, I have been having plenty of quality time with my parents — a privilege I am deeply thankful for. Last time I had this privilege was 5 years ago, and a lot changed since then. Surprisingly, the internet radically changed how my family connects to each other nowadays. And it upsets me.

We were at dinner, and I made a comment on Brazilian politics that clearly made my parents uncomfortable. I didn’t even have time to finish my argument before they interrupted me with their finesse. My mom timidly tilted her head as if she did not care or did not want to engage on the conversation and suddenly picked up her cellphone. My father simply disagreed without engaging to the question and simply said “there are a lot of people on the internet that would not agree with you”. He, then, picked up his phone and I was left alone, even though their corpses where present. They rapidly vanished into the online world.

It has become easier and easier to disrupt the border between the online and offline world and access this new virtual world. And why do we call this virtual world a “reality”? Well, because what happens there have impact on ourselves and the world as a whole, through shaping minds and ideas, stimulation of emotions, impact on the economy, foment of psychological problems, etc.

My perception is that this easy transition from the offline to the online world is harming us and sucking the soul out of our bodies, and below I present a few motives that may justify it.

Avoidance

As happened with my parents, the straightforward switch from the off to the online world provides us with the possibility to avoid problems instead of confronting it. People rely on the internet to avoid having to face their own reality and accept responsibilities and risks inherent to it. The virtual space gives you the feeling of comfort and protection, where vulnerability is vanished and placed for safety. On the internet, people seek a world without risks: risk to be contradicted, risk to receive bad evaluations, risk from being vulnerable during a social gathering, risk to be judged and perhaps even assaulted psychologically or physically.

As this scientific research proves, the online world and online communication not only becomes a tool for avoidance of reality, but it is also one of the reasons to foment social anxiety and face-to-face avoidance. Moreover, as we cross the border from the offline to the online world, we tend to forget our skills to be empathetic towards the Other. We simply avoid recognizing a different argument from someone on the offline world as we ignore them, and we also ignore diversity in the online world, since we can chose which bubbles to engage with.

As my parents did, things that bother you or are a discomfort can easily be pushed away and forgotten. Empathy and acceptability of the different are at risk.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Comfortable and god-like world

How is the online world so comfortable, making us immerse so easily in its temptations? Because it is exactly the opposite of the offline world. We live in a multifaceted world of complexity, high risk and uncertainty, with infinite possibilities about to emerge in front of us. We have no control of this chaotic world and the best we do is trying to understand it and go along caring for our beloved ones and making our best to manage our issues in the best way (despite uncertainties). Of course we have agency, but we are mostly restrained by economy, inequality, violence, pre-determined moral values, physical distance and other inputs out there waiting for us. On the other hand, on the internet, we become god-like figures.

When we enter the online world, we enter a binary world of simplicity, where everything is made easy to you. No physical distance is hampering you from connecting to others. you chose who to speak with, when to interact with anybody and which platforms you are to engage. You are in control, and if you do not like something, well, delete it, remove it, ban it from your sight. Someone is too annoying, mute them. You do not like right wing fellows defending their political position? Find your own left-wing political bubble of truthiness. Space and time become suppressed and you can navigate and occupy multiple spaces with the palm of your hands.

In this “god-like role” we accept to play, we fall easily in the filter bubble trap. Filter bubble (or cyberbalkanization) was coined by Eli Pariser and means “intellectual isolation” filtering the online spaces and content we access and closing us off of new ideas, content or interest. People get isolated into their own online community with they own narrow thoughts and stop getting exposure to the new, different and contrary. We lose our skills to criticize, compare and decide.

The online mindset shapes the offline mindset, and this could well explain why my father preferred not to receive a contrary political argument to what he believed and chose to cross borders and get immersed into his filtered online community bubble. If he can play god online and be right, why would he listen to some offline nonsense he would never agree with. I mean, he can`t even press the dislike button on me!

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

Contemplation and the emptiness of the soul

Here is where I wanted to get. Avoidance of reality, social anxiety, narrowed one-minded thoughts and loss of empathy are just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond that, I argue that the easy and accelerated transit between the online/offline world are bringing the emptiness of the soul. In a word, this is caused by our increased inability to contemplate.

As philosopher Byung-Chul Han pointed out, the art of contemplation is one of deep perception of reality to spot something and capture its uniqueness and beauty. Contemplation requires the appreciation of time and focus and trying to see beyond aesthetics. It is the great creator of meaning to things, creativity and soul where once was emptiness. Time and space fulfill life, giving soul to corpses and shapes. And when we contemplate something, we acknowledge the power of time and the complex meanings of reality. Reality when contemplated, in return, retributes you with meaningfulness and a signifier-signifying to things. But the easy teleportation to the online world is erasing it from us.

How many times were you reading a book, speaking with someone or simply gazing at the ocean and suddenly picked up your phone and transported you to the online world, even if it was for a few seconds? Then you came back to the offline world and simply lost the moment. How many times have you tried to concentrate on reading a book for more than 30 minutes and couldn`t avoid sneaking at your cellphone screen, computer screen or TV? How many times have you tried to relax and contemplate nature while sipping on coffee and suddenly your anxiety impeded you and you got lost on the online world?

Too easily, too fast and too constantly we have access to different realities at the same time. Too many tabs, waves of information, 3 different word pages opened in your computer for work while you receive text messages at your phone and at the same time your MacBook reminds you of your agenda for the morning. It is an accelerated world. It is a world where contemplation and focus are substituted for acceleration, multitasking and anxiety. We become jumpers, jumping from a screen to another, from a tab to another, from an information to another, from a job to another, but we forget to breath, analyze, criticize, absorb and contemplate.

Hyper positivity

We cross the border to the online world because of its possibility to avoid other things, because of its comfort and god-like mechanisms and because it allows you to “hack” time and space and reach things easier than on the offline world. In addition to that, it provides you with the fantasy world of hyper positivity. People are not looking for criticism, opposite ideas or deep discussions on thorny subjects. They want likes, follows, claps, positive reviews by peers and everything else that can boost their egos and stimulate dopamine instantly. The offline world is too boring and negative for them. I like calling it complex.

Contemplation here plays an important role again. When you contemplate something you are opening yourself to uncover it, know its complexities and, eventually, criticize it. It allows you to accept the negative aspects of life and the different aspects as well. It makes you start accepting criticism crossing you back. Most important, it makes you grow despite the challenges and obstacles. Hyper positivity, easily found on the online world, has been taking away from people the skill to accept challenges and overcome life obstacles. Hyper positivity exists on a superficial realm, since it is a common denominator that everyone has to agree with. In other words, hyper positivity is another element working against the art of contemplation and slowly emptying our soul.

Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

That being said, I believe it is time we start questioning if hyper acceleration, hyper connectivity and hyper positivity from the online world are really doing us any good. Why are we crossing the off to the online permeable border so constantly and desperately? Why can`t we, otherwise, enjoy best our offline world of complexity and negativity underpinned by collective construction? Why can`t we work towards shaping an online world that is good for our soul and society instead of becoming tyrannized by it?

With that I mean: I miss having thoughtful conversations with my parents, arguing with them by confronting ideas and watching us grow as a family and as part of a greater civilization.


The emptiness of the soul: from the offline to the online world was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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