“We pat ourselves on the back for creating the internet, but the internet was created long ago—and it was existing underneath our feet.”
It’s strange to be a member of the last generation that remembers a time before the internet. Even stranger is to think about the generations after me that can’t recall a life without the world wide web, scrolling, and selfies on social media. The internet’s official birth date is considered to be Jan. 1, 1983—the date a team of researchers began amassing the “network of networks” that would become the internet. I often wonder if they had any idea exactly what they were about to unleash and what it would mean for the evolution of our species.
To say that we invented the internet feels misleading, though. As actor and filmmaker Brit Marling told me for our second issue: “We pat ourselves on the back for creating the internet, but the internet was created long ago—and it was existing underneath our feet. And the trees, in an interesting way, are using it as a way to care for one another, to protect different species, to work in concert in a kind of symbiosis with other aspects of the forest. Our version of that technology, our internet, I don’t know that we’re that evolved yet.”
Marling was speaking specifically about mycorrhizal networks: the fungal complex that trees use to exchange information, which I got into in a recent newsletter. But on a grander scale, isn’t our entire understanding of nature a kind of internet? From warnings carried on the wind to matter that moves through food chains and weather cycles, the Earth is one vast, interconnected system made of many smaller systems through which information and energy are shared.
While James Lovelock conceptualized our planet as one network or “being” in his Gaia hypothesis, the artist Grimes made me consider how the internet may be evolving into something similar in our most recent issue: “I feel like with the internet and everything, what’s happening is that we’re all becoming individual neurons in some kind of super brain. And I can’t help but feel like there’s this super-intelligence developing where we’re all these individual parts of it. And the universe is its body.” While that might sound conceited, consider this: what is capable of such magnificence and self-immolation as the human mind?
The reason I’m drawing these parallels is that I believe it’s important we treat our human-made internet the way we treat natural systems—with intention. Like any ecosystem, the social media networks that we are part of are also part of us. They shape us. With recent trends toward platforms trying to get users to create and consume more short-form content quicker, I wonder the impact that has on us. The more we focus on online engagement, the easier it becomes to disengage from the world around us at a time when we need to engage more than ever.
None of this is to say I believe that the internet and social media are all bad. Both have democratized information access across the globe and allowed us to create meaningful connections with people we might never have had the chance to otherwise. Can you imagine having lived through quarantine without being able to connect with one another here? Much like the natural world, our online world requires balance. It requires us to ask ourselves: who am I outside of the person I am projecting online? What relationships am I tending to offscreen?
It’s important that we take breaks and step away from such cerebral and cybernetic spaces where everything feels urgent and under scrutiny. Doing so allows us to return to these ecosystems with clarity and intention. Which is exactly why I will be taking a break from writing The Overview for the month of August: so that I can spend some time unplugging from online existence and reflecting on the role it plays in my life. In the meantime, remember: the internet may be coded in binary ones and zeros, but we are anything but. We are one with this world—body and mind.