Josephine Bartosch says that far from facilitating an enriching meeting of minds, the online world is producing a dystopian world that is breaking us apart.
The pandemic has been a technologist’s wet dream: forcing people online has accelerated what were already inevitable changes. Social distancing started a long time before the threat of contagion, sometime around 2005 with the spread of high-speed internet. In the previous decade, technologists shared a utopian vision of the digital world as a space where, freed from prejudice, mind could meet mind.
John Perry Barlow’s stirring 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace described it as a world “both everywhere and nowhere … not where bodies live”. The unmooring of mind from body has left people adrift, navigating a turbulent online world without the reassuring markers humans evolved to recognise.
Infamously in 2014 Facebook changed the site to offer 72 “gender options” rather than the two sexes. Brielle Harrison, a software engineer quoted at the time, claimed: “People are given this binary option, do you want to be male or female? What is your gender? And it’s kind of disheartening because none of those let us tell others who we really are.” It seems “who we really are” is now determined by how one chooses to present on social media, what we “want” rather than what we are. One year later and Facebook changed the “gender” option to an open text box for self-description: the ultimate individualised identity.
To the bafflement of many older lesbian, gay and bisexual people, increasing numbers of those under 30 now identify as “queer”. The Guardian recently launched a series called “Genderqueer Generation” on “the children and young adults who are rejecting traditional gender identities”. One interviewee in the series, a teenager called River, explains: “I discovered the whole LGBTQ community online around 2017 when I started using social media more often … The internet had a big role in me discovering myself. Online, I felt understood. I felt helped. I feel like the internet tells us stuff that we can’t learn in real life.”
Whether the “Genderqueer generation” are, as some research suggests, autistic kids turning online to make sense of not fitting in, or simply typically self-absorbed adolescents indulging in some time-honoured teen angst, it is clear that time online has shaped their identities and sexuality.
In the US there is now an emerging market in cosmetic surgeries whereby bodies can be cosmetically altered to match a client’s internal sense of self as “outside the gender binary”. For females, procedures include the closure of the vaginal cavity, for males, pseudo-vaginas are bored into the perineum. It seems our analogue bodies no longer fit the demands of digitally addled minds.
This internet-fuelled crisis of sexuality and identity is pulling in youth across the world. In the UK some credulous adults old enough to know better have fallen for this nonsense too. A case in point is Liberal Democrat MP and party leadership contender Layla Moran who identifies as “pansexual”, and in a Westminster debate claimed to be able to see beyond the material sex of bodies and into the gender of an individual’s “soul”.
At 37, Moran is the exception: the overwhelming majority of those who opt for nonsense identity markers are of i-gen (the internet generation); those under 26 who have come of age since the dawn of social media, and the widespread availability of online, body-punishing pornography.