There was a time when the Internet seemed to promise the world to the world. When it appeared to be opening up a benign, infinite network of possibilities, in which everyone was enfranchised and newly accessible to one another as they were drawn, in one of Jia Tolentino’s many felicitous phrases, to the “puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise.” It would be a world in which hierarchies in whatever guise would be upended, a democratic forum to rival and exceed the philosophical marketplace of ancient Greece (no exclusion of anyone, not women, not slaves). At the very least, it was a place where, because you could be sure that someone out there was listening, you would find yourself able to articulate the thoughts that, for lack of an audience, had previously threatened to remain forever unspoken, stuck to the tip of your tongue.
This was the world that Tolentino, born in Canada to parents from the Philippines, saw burgeoning all around her as she grew up in Texas. In a way, she was primed for the illimitable expanse of the Internet by her Christian upbringing, which teaches its followers that everyone on earth is being watched by God. It gave her a flight of optimism, before this same system slowly but surely “metastasize[d] into a wreck”: “this feverish, electric, unlivable hell.” While the Internet was meant to allow you to reach out to any- and everyone without a hint of the cruel discriminations that blight our world, it turned into the opposite, a forum where individuals are less speaking to other people than preening and listening to themselves—turning themselves into desirable objects to be coveted by all. It became, that is, the perfect embodiment of consumer capitalism, where everything can be touted in the marketplace.
How, Tolentino asks, did the idea take hold that “ordinary personhood would seamlessly adjust itself around whatever within it would sell”? How did our basic humanity come to be “reframed as an exploitable viral asset”? We are in danger, as she quotes Werner Herzog saying of psychoanalysis, of losing “our dark corners and the unexplained,” of making ourselves “uninhabitable.” “It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world,” Tolentino writes, “and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection.” Hence the title of this collection, Trick Mirror. The more our image appears to inflate our value, the more our vision shrinks to our own measure—and the more we succumb to the old, imperial delusion that allows us to believe we can command and control the furthest reaches of the universe as well as ourselves, regardless of the consequences (“reflections on self-delusion” is the subtitle to the book).
Tolentino is known to readers of The New Yorker, and before that to readers of…
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