The Human in the Age of the Internet

The human in the age of the Internet always remembers to take a photograph of the ephemeral sunset he/she witnesses at the beach on his/her phone organised by the rule of thirds; always remembers to bring it to Afterlight or Vscocam to play up the warm colour tones and contrast while controlling the exposure levels; always remembers to bring it to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The human in this age of the Internet does not have to sit in front of his/her laptop, wired up to the network to do this – we can do this with two thumbs and a 3.5 by 2 inch display.

The human might then add a caption on Instagram, create a subsequent tweet about the waves at the beach, and respond to a friends’ comment on the photograph on Facebook before then adding the photograph into a blog about his/her week. In this sense, the human is very much “digitally distributed across text messages, Web pages, social networking sites, blog comments, and so on”1, with these distributed presences made all the more immediate because of wirelessly connected mobile technologies that fit snugly in a pocket or bag. While I do agree that the modern self thus takes on “multiple presences”, and is “increasingly hybridised or spread across various dwellings”, I also believe that these various presences all converge and stem from the one self behind the technology used. Supporting this idea is Dibbell’s proposal that “real lives and bodies melted into [virtual reality], never quite erased but always shrouded in a liquefying haze of code and text”, where the terms “melted” and “haze” signify an indistinct and surreal blend between the real and virtual self, yet one’s identity persists as distinct and idiosyncratic. The human then seems to take on the form of a generalised individual, as paradoxical as the term is, which is a concept suggested by Montoya and reached by the class together.

The self’s presence online, however, seems at times inflated and larger-than-life, especially in terms of empowerment. The Internet has been seen as an equalising ground for those that possess it, creating avenues for utilisation and also abuse because “technology is neutral, but people aren’t”. Instead, the human has power he/she might not have online as compared to in real life. As Schmidt and Cohen write in The New Digital Age, “hundreds of millions of people are, each minute, creating and consuming an untold amount of digital content in an online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws”5. These begin to explain how the college students in Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace were able to carry out brutal and offensive abuse in LambdaMOO so passively – “they sat rather undramatically before computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY keyboards. No bodies touched.” The human in the Internet age (misguidedly) thinks – hey, I’m anonymous here and what I do on the virtual is not going to be taken seriously because it is not real. Contrary to that perspective, however, I am inclined to agree with Urry that the Internet creates a parallel digital universe for us where there “are “incontrovertibly social spaces in which people still meet face-to-face, but under new conditions of both ‘meet’ and ‘face’”, with changing kinds of connections at a distance.” One’s actions on the virtual then become akin to one’s actions in the real.

The individual’s sense of empowerment carries over to when he/she markets himself/herself in terms of images. The human in the Internet Age carries a malleable identity, very much based on first impressions, which is all the more pursued because of the phenomenon of data permanence online. A quick Google search of myself brings up a class photograph from 6 years ago that I have left out of my immediate memory and makes me shudder at my odd awkwardness back then. It is no wonder then that digital photographs are edited and composed to portray an enhanced image of the self, filtered through with the intention of mass producing this statically immortal image of the individual. This is especially true with technologies such as Facebook that “often emphasize particular aspects of the user to particular publics: namely, the user’s permanence and durability that is driven by a notion of existence and of the digital self as youthful and full of vital presence, not by a notion of the digital self as aging and fading, suffused with mortality and dwindling presence.” This dichotomy pressurises us to then keep up with such a portrayal – attractive, youthful, as flawless as we can be. As Sontag mentioned of photographic composition, photographers would “take dozens of frontal pictures… until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film”. The human’s obsession with “the right look” makes it unsurprising to read Instagram captions that go along the lines of “Best out of 30 selfies” and questions like “how do you edit your photographs?” She also argued that “what is beautiful became just what the eye can’t (or doesn’t) see: that fracturing, dislocating vision only a camera supplies.” Or in this case, the “fracturing, dislocating vision” that post-processing is capable of creating.

Coupled with the fact that digital photographs are associated with a sense of transience as well, since I could delete 9/10 of the photographs I take of one subject with a click of a button to filter out the best one before sharing it online, how genuine then is a photograph on the Internet? How genuine is the self on the Internet if one is able to manipulate his/her image, and even sometimes filter through what and how he/she says things online?
I am sure that if the human who just uploaded a photograph of the sunset has a friend that, in jest, comments “#nofilter” on his post, you would join me in raising an eyebrow at the idea. Because as we all well know, that is never really the case for the human in the age of the internet.

1 Graham, Connor, Gibbs, Martin and Aceti, Lanfranco (eds.). “Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data,” The Information Society 29, 3, (2013, 134).
2 Dibbell, Julian. “Toad Minnie Or TINYLIFE, and How It Ends.” In My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, 273-304. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.
3 Montoya, Alfred. “Digital Relics of the Saints of Affliction: HIV/AIDS, Digital Images and the Neoliberalization of Health Humanitarianism in Contemporary Vietnam.” Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. ARI Working Paper, No. 159, August
4 Gustin, Sam. “The Internet Doesn’t Hurt People – People Do: ‘The New Digital Age’,” Time, April 23, 2013, accessed August 26, 2014,
5 Schmidt, Eric and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business. New York: Knopf, 2013.
6 Dibbell, Julian. “A Rape in Cyberspace.” In My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, 11-32. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.
7 Urry, John. Connections. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22: 27–37, 2004.
8 Graham, Connor, Gibbs, Martin and Aceti, Lanfranco (eds.). “Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data,” The Information Society 29, 3, (2013, 135).
9 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Penguin, 1979), 6.
10 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Penguin, 1979), 91.