“A key concept of the Internet is that it was not designed for just one application, but as a general infrastructure on which new applications could be conceived, as illustrated later by the emergence of the World Wide Web” (Leiner, “Brief History of the Internet”).
The internet is an absurd creature. Formed by an amalgamation of brain children born from some of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, it is a beast of burden meant to carry the collective imaginations of mankind into the future. The Internet is an animal whose pedigree would earn it “best in Show,” or, at least, best in the Freak Show.
This tyrannical beast was to be the intellectual salvation of humanity. Instead, it just may have doomed us all. Like a horde of screaming Faye Wrays, we all of us have allowed ourselves to be snatched up by the grasping primate arm attached to the monster that is online culture. And even when we do manage wriggle free from that grip, the monkey remains on our backs — an attention-grabbing spectacle of simian smarts and savagery.
In the beginning, the internet was heralded as the means of humanity’s deliverance. We are tool-using animals, and the world wide web was a implement on par with the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which proto-humans discover that animal bones can be wielded as weapons. And, just like that band of early humans from Stanley Kubrick’s cosmic opera, we have transformed the internet from a mechanism for technological and intellectual advancement into an instrument of war, a club with which we may beat one another, and even ourselves, into stupefied submission. This once great “informational super-highway” has gone the way of America’s own crumbling infrastructure.
I don’t deny that many still use the World Wide Web for research and improvement, only that, for every Smarter Every Day video, there are a couple thousand others of cats displaying admittedly charming, though otherwise mundane feline behaviors, poorly planned exploits that inevitably conclude with the distinctly unsagacious males involved bandying about in comically exaggerated bow-legged fashion, and all manner of disturbingly ignorant, hateful vitriol aimed at any number of undeserving minority parties.
Who could have predicted such a fate?
In 1995, the nascent internet was still in its infancy, though already being touted as the saving grace of mankind. We were assured that, with access to the collective knowledge of the entirety of human history at our fingertips, we were surely on the verge of a second renaissance, an inspirational period of great enlightenment.
Instead, what we’ve witnessed a short two decades after the fact is a listlessly ebbing sea of memes and LOLCats, epic fails and repackaged nostalgia. We are puppets, tangled up in Reddit threads, strangled by our own suffocating sentimentality . And yes, this turn of events was predicted back in ’95 by… FREAKAZOID.
Freakazoid was one of those Spielberg cartoons ubiquitous in the 90s, featured along such classics as “Animaniacs” and “Tiny Toon Adventures.” It’s a about a young computer nerd who accidentally downloads the entire internet into his brain. Does our hero become a wise, sophisticated creature of reason? Is he a cultured erudite, brimming with charm? Of course not; he’s loud, obnoxious, and downright schizophrenic in nature. He is our modern-day internet culture personified.
I began by asserting that the internet is absurd, and I stand by that statement. But my argument, (as you will witness over the next several weeks) goes beyond that. I propose that the internet is the new Theater of the Absurd.
The Theater of the Absurd was a classification used to describe a genre of plays first popularized in the 1950s. Playwrights like Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Alejandro Jodorowsky illustrated the consequences of the meaninglessness of human existence – the disintegration of communication as order gave way to chaos. Look to any online comments section for confirmation of this.
Albert Camus’ rather nihilistic work, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” lays out the absurdity of life by comparing it to the trials of Sisyphus, a character from Greek legend doomed to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it repeatedly succumb to gravity, for all eternity. This mindless, empty task, Camus argued, is a allegory for the human condition — an undeniably depressing thought.
The best way to respond to this miserable metaphor that so perfectly exemplified the vacuity of our lives, Camus posited, was not to give in to self-destruction, but to revolt. It is neither humans, nor the system in which we function that is ridiculous; that absurdity manifests itself through our insatiable desire for reason in an unreasonable world; the “appetite for the absolute and for unity” encounters “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”
“The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd [than that of Sisyphus]. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” – Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”
I’ll admit, when I first read “The Myth of Sisyphus,” I was more than a little unhappy upon reaching the conclusion. I dwelt incessantly on the absurdity of my own life. I was at the time writing a thesis paper on this very topic and found myself repeatedly wondering, What is the point?
Oh, I knew the immediate benefits from completing my task, not to mention the scholarly bragging rights. But beyond that, beyond graduation, beyond a potentially soul-crushing job in some vaguely related field, beyond being an interesting cocktail party guest, what had I accomplished?
Though I wallowed for several days in a dreary malaise, I eventually came to see that the very concept that so depressed me was also my salvation. In the same way that Buddhists find peace through the realization that life is suffering, (I’m oversimplifying, of course, and apologies to any who are unsatisfied by this glib interpretation) one must accept the absurdity of life and simply live.
Now, can anybody reading this post sincerely argue that the endless, mimetic self-references, the cat videos, the pop-culture detritus of the internet, has any more meaning than the ceaseless rolling of a boulder up a hill? But it isn’t only meaningless that classifies absurdity; it is the way in which it echoes the human condition, and in that sense, the internet a fun house mirror, reflecting a heightened reality of our lives.