The Internet is Suburbia, Except Worse

As a social scientist, one of my focusses of study has been social and physical infrastructure and how those affect human psychology and sociology. Specifically, one of my greater fixations is on the many facets of urban planning and how the design of the systems and topography within a human environment affects the people within it. Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses are the most famous 20th century urban planners and they, as I have said earlier, represent the two opposite theories of urban design. They are analogous to, in philosophy, Aristotle and John Rawls. The internet, as a social network, most closely resembles Robert Moses’ urban design.

Robert Moses is famous for eschewing neighborly relations for a low-density suburbia where neighbors don’t know each other, there aren’t pretty things like community potlucks or farmers’ markets or little parks or community theaters. Generally, physical community is a place where one lives, works, and spends. That system is not, ostensibly, one where people don’t have friends but where they choose their friends whereas in the Jane Jacobs design, you’re in forced friendships with people out of regular contact and physical proximity. People prefer to choose their friends over not and this is one of the great appeals of Robert Moses’ suburbia.

In the Jane Jacobs system, the popular kids ultimately were forced to love the unpopular, everybody was forced to love everybody. If you didn’t get invited to parties, there were community gatherings enough so that it dulled the effect. In the Robert Moses system, if you are unpopular, you’re just left for dead. There is no community to love you and there are no community gatherings to go to. We have Durkheim’s Suicide Studies and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s pretty well established how the Robert Moses design leads to pandemic levels of depressive and anxiety disorders. Everybody except the most popular gets less affection and love and the weakest get none.

The internet, as a place people live, has all the same problems except worse. You can choose your friend group and the gatherings are likewise elective, insular, and either de-facto or de-jure exclusionary. Except, that the rejects have a record of their rejection. Being blocked or unfriended, especially in masse, removes the plausible deniability from unpopularity. The only thing worse than being rejected and hated on a large scale is to have a record of it and it being statistically measurable. The internet took passive ostracism and made it active which is much more painful for the recipients. Even when one isn’t receiving death threats, when you try to DM someone for a homework assignment or a work project only to find they’ve blocked you and they’re the twentieth person this month to do it, that hurts a lot. I refuse, except in cases of extreme harassment or a stranger trying to sell me something, to unfriend or block anyone because of that reason.

However, it gets worse. In sociology, there are two similar theories which I have written about on this website previously: Contact Theory and Expanding Circle Theory. Contact Theory states that prejudice toward a group goes down when exposure to said group increases and the inverse is true, as well. Expanding Circle Theory has that the broader one’s exposure to diversity, generally, the more one will psychologically consider humans akin to themselves. That humans originally only empathized with their kin group and as personal exposure increases, the definition of that kin group, to one’s mind, also increases in breadth. The inverse is also true. Well, since the Robert Moses system creates a society of insular, unexposed, cliques, the internet makes that problem worse. People are then naturally less empathetic toward and more hateful toward others and the “others” become a much larger set as the insularity of one’s connections becomes ever more myopic.

The result is many more lonely people and many more people with depressive and anxiety conditions. Everything that Durkheim discovered in his magnum opus over a century ago has been mostly ignored and all of the problems he saw have been exacerbated by late 20th century urban planning and the 21st century internet. The internet is Robert Moses design but to a dystopian level of being much worse. Every social and psychological ill discovered by Durkheim, was strengthened by Levittown, and given steroids by Facebook. That is most of why the internet makes people so utterly and completely miserable.

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