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Grinding our butts, showing our breasts: the Internet makes minors of us all | Martha Gil

Grinding our butts, showing our breasts: the Internet makes minors of us all |  Martha Gil


How will technology change us as a species? In Silicon Valley, all the prophecies seem to have converged on one: this will inaugurate a kind of global Buddhist revolution. To read his mission statements and watch his Ted Talks is to hear phrases like connectivity, common understanding, and overcoming barriers. You could probably come up with a social media platform and a spiritual manual simultaneously: it will lead humanity to a smiling, peaceful enlightenment.

Hollywood soothsayers, on the other hand, see things differently. Introduce new technology into a blockbuster film and things tend to go one of two ways. Fear then terror, as the product wreaks havoc on the planet; or, the emergence of a new emotionless society, where, surrounded by intelligent machines, people begin to behave a bit like robots themselves. The stereotypical sci-fi citizen is cold, dark, distant, and efficient. In the minds of the writers, at least, technology will eventually rob us of our very humanity.

Faced with these three predictions, I propose the Portal: interactive sculptures installed in New York and Dublin with a live stream between them, so that passers-by in the respective cities can see each other in real time. It was named as a science fiction fantasy and designed to look like one: a hole in the space-time continuum large enough to pass through. According to the group behind this project,, its goal is to serve as a bridge to a united planet and to invite us all to meet across borders and differences.

How has humanity responded to this noble concept? A few hours after it went live on May 8, a very drunk woman in her 40s was taken away and arrested on the Dublin side after repeatedly rubbing her buttocks on the gate for 20 minutes. Another monstrous incident by the Irish quickly followed, and then a Dubliner went even further by holding up his phone showing footage of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers. Another man (also from Dublin) showed images of a swastika. Another demonstrated snorting coke.

Portal to Hell: A live video art installation is already bringing out the worst in people, the New York Post lamented. Why did they put it here? At night it's like The Purge, a Dublin native told a newspaper. New York took matters into its own hands when a woman showed her breasts in Dublin in revenge for the 9/11 image. It was just that I showed them my twin towers to save our city from harassment, she explained. This is what ultimately caused the portal to go offline (temporarily). The woman was later revealed to be an OnlyFans star and to have gained around 8,000 new followers thanks to the stunt.

The adolescent spirit of the Internet is never more evident than when it bursts into the real world

Flashers, swastikas, OnlyFans. Isn't the Portal a parable for the Internet itself? Forget enlightenment, forget terror, forget the robotization of humanity. Perhaps this is the real answer to how high-tech connectivity is changing us. When we are offered a bridge to a united planet, we react by flashing, waving and ganging up on each other. Far from pushing humanity towards a higher level of sophistication, it pushes us back towards adolescence.

The evidence has been there all along. In The Psychology of the Internet, published in 1999, Patricia Wallace noted that life online, then limited to email and chat rooms, was doing something strange to us. One of the first surprises for researchers studying online behavior was how disinhibited people sometimes become and how their anger seems to flare more easily when they interact with others, she wrote. After all, we have evolved toward in-person communication, with its body language, nuances, half-meanings, and potential for physical consequences. We know that even a slight physical separation can radically change behavior: road rage, an incident of which went viral last week, boils over in the insulated container of a car. The experimenters also note that empathy falls off a cliff when people are separated by a glass window.

How then can we summarize the personality changes that the Internet provokes in us? Tribalism, intimidation, the spread of madness, the culture of instant gratification, the triumph of anger: future anthropologists might observe that the behavior of adults online is very similar to that of children offline. I'm often amazed at the rational common sense of those who don't care about social media, when asked about a topic that's tearing the Internet apart. Online, there is a level of adult sophistication that just seems to be beyond us. Some call the Internet a public square, others a Wild West. In fact, it's a playground.

The adolescent spirit of the Internet is never more evident than when it bursts into the real world. The January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol originated online, which is why it appeared so strange: disguised adults inflicting reckless damage and crying when arrested. With the gate now closed, adult behavior resumes around commuters trudging to work.

On the Internet, nostalgia also has its place: fantasy role-playing games, video game characters, comic book culture, superheroes, all of this flourishes. It's no surprise: online life is imbued with the morality of a children's storybook: good and evil, and nothing in between. It's surely no coincidence that some of the triumphant social media personalities, Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson, find their strongest fan base offline among pubescent boys.

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How will technology change us as a species? In the past, humans took adult wolves and stopped their development, turning them into childish dogs. This is called neoteny: this is how we domesticated them. Are we, in turn, domesticated by the Internet? In the demand for silly, aggressive, playful, childish content, are we gradually being transformed into adult children?

Martha Gill is a columnist for the Observer

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