How the Internet Has Changed Our Lives

Maël Renouard, 42, belongs to a new generation of French intellectuals questioning our contemporary society. In Fragments of an Infinite Memory, published in the United States last year, the philosopher and writer compares our lives before and after the Internet, underpinned by his personal experience of this technological and social revolution.
© Hervé Pinel

France-Amérique: Online culture pundits highlight everything the Internet adds. But we have also seen that it takes away and renders obsolete old practices. What is your stance?

Maël Renouard: In different parts of Fragments of an Infinite Memory, I write about the little life events which have since been swallowed up by the arrival of the Internet. This includes postcards, which we barely use anymore because we can simply text photos of our vacations to our loved ones; agreeing on a distinctive sign before meeting someone we had never seen before in order to recognize each other (a newspaper under the arm, for example); always having a pen on us; being disoriented in a city or a rural area without a physical map. These things have often disappeared without us noticing. We realize it by chance when the process is already complete. A more abstract but just as enormous structural aspect of our lives before the Internet has also vanished without a trace: questions without answers. Questions that we could not answer were more commonplace in the past, yet are now increasingly rare. I am still astonished that we find it so normal to be able to answer, using the smartphones in our pockets, any question that may come to mind, from “What time is the next train to Nantes?” to “Who was the French president in 1931?”

Facebook dominates the online world with almost three billion users. This platform was originally accepted by all; today it is deeply contested. Is this because the original Facebook is nothing like the version we have today, or rather did we underestimate the devil hiding in the box?

Facebook already has a history from a technical (the interface has changed enormously since the start) and moral point of view. The Facebook of 2007, a vast album of party photos, is almost nothing like today’s version in which users share news articles and engage in ferocious debate. In the beginnings of this network, many of those who had grown up in the old world could find themselves faced with questions without an obvious answer (“Why is Pierre asking to be my friend?” or “What will Paul think if I like his photo?”) and value conflicts (“How can this person be so obsessed with themselves all the time?”). We have shifted into a new, moral world – created by this network and those that followed it – in which attitudes that would have previously been seen as negative have become the norm. We no longer wait for someone else to praise us; we now shamelessly show off our accomplishments to the world. We have learned to do exactly what we were taught to not do. A new turning point then occurred in 2016. In the past, we could only “like” things on Facebook. But in the last week of February 2016, Facebook introduced new icons enabling users to express emotions beyond a simple “I like it,” such as hilarity or anger. The same year saw us move into a political and moral transformation that I would define as follows: In our experience of the Internet, the violence within societies, the domination of radicalities, and the terror of individuals faced with the mockery and mercilessness of the digital crowds have replaced memory and knowledge. I see this seemingly anecdotal introduction of new Facebook icons as a symptom or a cause – probably both simultaneously – of this evolution.

Was 2016 a major turning point in the history of social media?

Yes. Facebook became “Twitterized” at that time, and this had certain consequences on the real world and societies overall. In political terms, 2016 launched a cycle of violent polarizations in several democracies and a generalized crisis among the traditional forms of representation. In our intellectual and moral lives, it seems that we have reconnected with medieval characteristics. Scientific rationality must now fight against ignorance, belief, superstition, and madness, which have achieved a devastating re-expansion of their reach. In terms of justice, the morbid joy of torment has sidestepped legal institutions, who have found themselves somewhat deprived of their exclusive right to punish. Our lives are now monitored by archaic mob psychology. Despite social media platforms clamoring that they want to help build a better world, these companies – via their shareholders – have a purely economic responsibility. To quote Milton Friedman, “the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits.” This is fundamentally different from impartial public institutions, against which these private companies tend to compete through the extent of their influence. The economic model of social media platforms relies on maximizing the number of users. As a result, the gullible who “share” have greater economic value than the critical thinkers who do not; insults from haters have more value than restraint from moderates.

There is a growing philosophical and political nostalgia for the pre-Internet age. Should we mourn the old world?

It is now difficult to imagine a world without the Internet. The evolution has been so massive that we even struggle to think of ourselves in the previous world, to remember how we were once able to accomplish daily mental and practical tasks without the Internet. However, we must consider that, while the Internet is recent, it already has a history defined by distinct phases, and that it will continue to evolve. A major turning point occurred in the mid-2000s with the appearance of Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia in our digital lives, and there will be others. The question is therefore, “Can we hope that the inevitable future phases will correct the problems created by the Internet as it is today?” Or in more worrying terms, “Can we hope that the world will not appear increasingly unlivable?” One thing transformed the Internet after a few years, with consequences that I believe went almost unnoticed: unlimited access to it for a small, fixed fee. This was a considerable revolution in our intellectual and moral lives, and it went beneath the radar. The whole “buzz” economy, the time wasted on social media, relies on this; on the absence of the price of futility; on the fact that, for reasons of economic rationality, we do not have to choose between what is futile and what is relevant. The initially fantastic idea of the infinite availability of knowledge shifted into a Faustian pact. There was compensation to be paid for this availability, one which we had not considered when we signed the contract: the abolition of discernment. And the spread of gratuitous violence is one result. Yet the immense energy consumption generated by this permanent use of the Internet is now being increasingly called into question. The day we try to rationalize it, we may simultaneously reduce the space this systemic distraction takes up within our lives.

Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet by Maël Renouard, translated from French by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, New York Review Books, 2021.


Interview published in the February 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.