Jasper Spires

    Internet users are the new surrealists, and they keep changing the world

    Internet users are the new surrealists, and they keep changing the world
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    As 2021 continues to progress at a dizzying rate, one of the recurring social phenomenon we’re seeing is the surreal eruption of online activism in the real world. From the recent explosion of GameStop share prices – hiked up by amateur investors co-ordinating online – to the large-scale protests and riots in Washington following the 2020 Presidential election, the communities in cyberspace continue to spill out into the real world. The question is: why are these kinds of actions becoming an increasingly unsettling occurrence in the usual running of society?

    In the lexicon of web-design, the term UX, user experience, is often used to describe how an individual may interact with a product, specifically a webpage. Its principle idea is that how we use any webpage is guided by the impetus of its designer, expressed in the shapes and details of the virtual space. When extrapolated to the internet as a whole, there is of course no single designer, certain principles and codes might organise the webpages present into certain general categories, but every website has a different way of connecting to the user. This apparent individuality can be considered the over-arching trend across these different spaces. Each forum, blog, Twitter feed and YouTube channel provides users with the ability to culture their own perfect information eco-system.

    We’ve all heard of ‘echo-chambers’ by now, blaming the algorithms behind social-media sites for creating bubbles of like-minded people and limiting their contact with a wider reality, but this isn’t what a generalised UX is getting at. Rather, this problem of social cohesion – brought about by people bringing their outlandish internet-nourished ideas about the world back into it – stems from an endemic property to the experience of the world wide web. The internet has democratised the consumption of information, giving users an almost complete control over how the world appears to them and what parts of it they can interact with; an emergent philosophy that finds its historical roots in a 20th century artistic movement.

    The reclusive artist Joseph Cornell produced the majority of his work in the 1940s through to the 60s, though has since been regularly identified with the surrealists. Taking the free-form approach to art adopted by those involved, Cornell built small wooden boxes, which he would decorate and fill with objects collected from antiques stalls around New York. The works were obsessive, and meticulously constructed, with each material picked out of a large hoard that Cornell kept in his mother’s house, which he had affectionately nicknamed ‘Utopia Pathway’. The term ‘sur-real’ was coined by the poet Apollinaire in 1917, as a portmanteau of the French for ‘beyond’ and ‘reality’, and distinctly embodies Cornell’s work. He exercised complete, borderline neurotic, control of his boxes, as bracketed realities he had made for himself; famously shy, he was also known for rarely leaving his home, and choosing instead to tinker at his superior worlds from the basement.

    To the modern reader, his lifestyle might not appear so different from those endlessly scanning forums dedicated to conspiracy theories and alternate narratives about the world; picking out specific facts and details to build a virtual iteration of Cornell’s boxes. Even the plastic edges of the computer display resemble the wooden frames that Cornell used to emphasise the difference between his assemblages and wider reality. Using the internet is then a process of constant collage, of information and data, shaped by the eccentric whims of the person behind the keyboard.

    This is the almost theological component to the endeavour, of exercising choice over what the world appears as. Perhaps the world isn’t good enough for you; the internet can provide the alternative. Morality means nothing in this space, as neither it did to the surrealists. Dali’s sadistic cookbook is testament enough to this notion, tantamount to the overflowing cultivation of violence that can be found online, in its gruesome overlapping between butchered sea-life and sexualised female figures – or what’s left of them. In other words, it is a complete retreat from social and physical reality, where the individual can believe themselves as powerful as a lucid dreamer, and where political authority cannot penetrate. It may perhaps be no wonder that when these ‘dreamers’ return to the world their behaviour often collapses into violence.

    In the transition from the power found online to the political impotence of the physical world, feelings of frustration are entirely predictable. Returning to reality from the internet is a constraint on an individual’s freedom to control the information they encounter, unlike when they’re grasping at the mouse. Suddenly, actions have measurable consequences. On a basic level, we can even equate this to the nominal costs for information online and the price of a newspaper in the local corner-shop; when desire is concerned, the physical world is the place of total frustration to the internet’s surreal freedom.

    All of this is not to suggest that these frustrated users returning from online space are totally determined by such interactions. Indeed, culpability ultimately rests on their shoulders for how they behave once they return to the world, but it also seems well worth interrogating the way the internet encourages political frustration. This has been the standard establishment response, who have attempted to control media to limit individual desires. The surreal element of our experience with the internet is forcing a continual conflict between social management under the guise of morality, with the idealistic impulses of individual actors. As to who should be the victor, that can only be decided by how we respond.