Your Online Experience is Lucrative and Real
The case for AI optimism.
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What does it take to be you?
You have considered the question, almost certainly. And in the darkest moments of your life you may have been left without an answer.
It is likely that your ability to identify your selfhood, and what it is made up of, has grown and then shrunk again through various life events: marriage, a child, a job, good sex. And it is also likely that at various points throughout your career, and your friendships, and your relationships, you have felt as if you are close and almost touching an understanding, or a comfort, with yourself.
I am going to make the argument that all of us are closer to this point than we have ever been. And it is not through clean eating or social connection or transcendental meditation — though all of these things can help — but through our continued Internet and A.I arms race. In the pursuit of building the automated and robotic versions of ourselves, some sort of tangible and real God™ that is Created and Designed by us, I do not think we are pushing ourselves away from humanity but towards it.
I am aware this is all very peace and love, the sort of platitudes you’d get when you’re in college at 2AM in a stranger’s dorm room as one person passes a bong around the circle and another speaks endlessly, mindlessly, unsure if anyone is listening or even cares. I promise I have a point to make.
The technology being built in front of us has carried with it the expected Hollywood headlines: Microsoft’s AI is threatening users, Scientists still aren’t entirely sure how any of this works, What’s the worst that could happen? The unknown future rolls toward us. But I face it for the first time with a sense of hope.
Because it is ultimately the case that for every new, autonomous, artificial spectre of ourselves we create, our true self becomes stronger and more valuable. The evolution of artificial intelligence is not a reason to be sad or angry or anxious — at least not for very long — because it is through this evolution that we will allow ourselves to truly focus on what matters.
For at least the last decade, every child has been born with two identities to foster: the human self, an identity that wraps a soul and brings with it depression and anger and love and influence, and our digital self: the curated personality we are able to adapt and change, photoshop, air brush, design, manipulate, catfish, grow, silence, influence, and give value to on whatever scale we decide.
For most of the 2000s the world has focused on the value of this digital self and its influence on culture. The millennial generation — filled up with multiple recessions, a never-ending World War, terror attacks, inflation, climate crisis, refugee disasters — will be seen by history as the Crash Test Dummies of our internet culture. We know most of what not to do online because some poor 20-something decided it would be a good idea to tweet before getting on a long haul flight; to write damning things in messenger; to send naked photos of themselves online.
There is a language, both passive and real, that we have grown for online discourse that did not come from a handbook or any College course. It came from failure, and pain, and suffering, and in many hundreds of thousands of people storming themselves into what could best be described as cyberbullying en masse. But we didn’t know any better, so I will pull the dagger out without twisting it any further.
But all of that was worth something because it brought us to this point. We have a somewhat sound understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable online, and we have various forms of punishment — both fair and unfair — for anyone who trends against these digitally accepted norms. But my point is this: as we continue to flirt with digital sentience — building The Terminator in real life and using venture capital and that All-American brand of Greed to optimise with AI search engines and Complex Learning Systems — the importance of our Real-Self Internet Experience, that is, the curated newsfeed and profile accounts and digital diet each of us has that is uniquely ours, will become increasingly valuable.
We will live in a time where your online experience is what differentiates you more than anything else. And, as is almost inevitable and shallow and soulless, that personality and digital identity will be marketable. The more we progress into artificial intelligence the more we will value genuine intelligence — at least online — and while the dream I am promising is not all Gold sunsets and perfect harmony, it is one I think is realistic. That’s the most I can offer.
Not too far in the future, it is entirely possible that you will be able to subscribe to someone else’s digital experience. It’s $5 a month for access to Emma Chamberlain’s TikTok For You Page, an annual fee to read exactly what the editors of the NYT read, an additional plug-in to your political donation to Feel The Internet the way Donald Trump does. These are the parts of us that seperate us from the machine, and these are the parts of us we are yet to sell off. Yes, it will start with celebrities, but eventually it will become you, too.
And I know this is not exactly the kind of optimism I may have promised, and is closer to a bastard version of Reasons To Keep On Going. Capitalism is not the reason to breathe, and being able to sell your algorithm will not keep you from wondering Why? But I do think it speaks to the value of your self, and the value of what you see, what you create, what you read, and how you present yourself. That will always be something the individual can control.
But I don’t need to be the one to tell you that your personal identity is more than what is physically in front of you anymore. And though the 80-year-old pensioner may still struggle to sort out their email, and the still-crawling toddler may only know the 4-digit code to its parent’s iPad, the Reality is that we are online now forever. The metaverse already exists — it has for some time — and it is much more boring than a cartoon version of yourself in a digital construction of your office. Instead, we have created the versions of ourselves that we find most palatable. Not just to others, but to the small, nagging voice inside of us that fills us with Real World self-doubt.
And there’s still plenty of time. That is one thing I can guarantee. If we have proven anything in our brief experience of the internet already, it is that with a little time, and a little radiant capitalism, we can figure out how to sell anything.
We are losing out on human connection, but we are doing so deliberately. Eventually, it’ll be time to try and buy it all back.
I think a site like Substack brings the humanity back in. There's more nuanced discourse here than on Twitter. There's more humanity and human connection. There's hope.