By Daniel Henninger WSJ 8/7/2019
The online forum 8chan is better known than it was last week because the El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius, uploaded his “manifesto” to the site before he murdered 22 people. 8chan has also been linked to the mass murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, and to a killing in April at a synagogue in California. A similar online forum, Gab.com, was allegedly used by the shooter who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. The Dayton shooter, Connor Betts, spent much of his time raving on Twitter .
8chan describes itself a forum for unimpeded, uncensored “free speech.” That is wrong. 8chan is a nut house. But don’t blame 8chan, Gab.com or Twitter. Blame the internet. More specifically, blame the inevitable deterioration of lives lived online.
It is conventional wisdom that the internet has become a toxic force. Possibly the past year’s most astonishing news was that parents in Silicon Valley, where life online was created, are trying to keep their children away from screens.
As far as I know, none of this was predicted.
The internet was developed in the 1960s mainly by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to ensure the country had a communications system that could survive a nuclear attack. Based on the structure of the internet, the World Wide Web appeared in the early 1990s.
It isn’t possible to overstate the magic of the web. Or at least its early magic. With just a click, one could summon forth the whole world in pixels on a screen.
Once software engineers mastered the technology beneath the web, they manufactured countless apps that let everyone do just about anything—texting, image sharing, self-monitoring.
Cellphones, invented to make personal telephone calls possible anywhere, eventually allowed people to hold the web’s magic in their hands and go deeper and deeper into what it offered. Now, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we are discovering that the magic can turn uncontrollably malignant.
Going back several years, I was startled at stories that began to appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the high incidence of anxiety among college students, and how university mental-health clinics were hard-pressed to handle their requests for help. “According to data from the 2013 National College Health Assessment,” said one of these stories, “nearly half of 123,078 respondents from 53 colleges and universities across the country felt overwhelming anxiety over the previous year and a third had problems functioning because of depression.”
A third had problems with depression? At first I dismissed these stories as overstating the normal anxieties and coping problems of young people. But I don’t think that anymore. Eve n anecdotally the rise in emotional instability is obvious. What happened?
Anxiety has existed since Adam and Eve. W.H. Auden memorialized its modern version in his long poem, “The Age of Anxiety” (1947). It comes and goes occasionally for everyone. Let us posit for discussion that anxiety runs along a scale of 1 to 100. Below 50, people cope. Above 50, anxiety starts tipping toward neurosis and more difficult coping challenges until it extends out to 100 and personal destruction.
It’s remarkable to think that across millennia, even after Freud popularized the idea of neurosis, most people managed to stay below 50—until about the year 2000. Then, as surveys suggest, it appears that masses of people—especially in the U.S., for some reason—started finding themselves drifting past 50, into deeper and more dangerous levels of anxiety. It now seems clear that one consequence of more people hitting 100 is more mass murder by young men who simply break down.
Whether the adaptability of the human brain is the invention of God or Darwin, I don’t think it was designed to endure the volume of relentless inner-directedness that is driven by these new screens. It is not natural or normal.
Anyone who spends that much time immersed inside their own psyche is headed for trouble—whether adolescent girls staring at images of women Photoshopped to perfection, college students measuring themselves constantly against other students, or young men in a state of daily or hourly anger over immigrants and other enemies. The stakes online become impossibly and inhumanly high.
A more pertinent question this tragic week is why the American system stands frozen amid what looks like a quiet epidemic of psychological and emotional erosion. The speed with which the system—politicians and the press—defaulted from the killers themselves into a paroxysm over Donald Trump has been, well, depressing.
Gun-control laws? Maybe, but no serious person can believe they would be much more than thumbs in a dike standing against a more massively destructive force turning young men into zombielike killers. Forget alt-right and alt-left. Life lived online, as practiced by many, is a destructive, dehumanizing alt-reality.
The screen genies are out of the bottle. Banning them won’t work. Maybe the app masters who elevated self-obsession on Instagram and 8chan could turn toward apps rooted in reality. After last week, we have nowhere to go but up.