On Why the Internet is Wonderland (and we are no Alice)

Online discourse has recently been borrowing vocabulary from Lewis Carroll. From articles about the dangers of rabbit holes on social media, Youtube and Reddit, to QAnon's "follow the white rabbit" mantra, concepts from Alice's Wonderland seem to fit naturally with the internet.

In Lewis Carroll's book, Alice and the white rabbit are the only two characters that transition from reality to Wonderland. The white rabbit is driven by anxiety. Alice by curiosity. We are motivated to access the internet for these same reasons. Our curiosity is never satiated with endless content and powerful recommender systems. Our anxiety is consistently triggered by the fear of missing out and the need to escape reality.

Like Wonderland, the internet has become an alternate reality thanks to the breath of the content available and its multimedia nature. Wonderland resembled reality enough that Alice accepted it as real. The internet's information is realistic enough that people struggle to know what is real and what is fake.

This begs the questions: what is “reality” and what makes it unique? Is it the distribution of events that reality exposes us to? Our ability to use five senses when interacting with it? The name of its creator? Or its long tradition among our species?

The term “reality” continues to be used and abused in conversations at the bar, philosophical treatises, action movies, buddhist mantras, and presidential speeches. It even has a Wikipedia page, which reads “Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent within a system, as opposed to that which is only imaginary”. Merriam-Webster defines “real” as that which exists, and “exist” as that which is real. These definitions epitomize the little understanding we have of it.

Although defining reality may be a lost cause, it does have properties that sets it apart from the Internet and Wonderland. For example, the Internet and Wonderland expose us to a distribution of events that represent the tails of reality’s distribution of events. As distorted realities, both the internet and Wonderland are strange and entertaining. Conflating these distributions has a significant impact on a person’s goals and expectations, and children are especially vulnerable when they are raised spending a lot of time in these artificial realities. This makes them a dangerous type of fantasy that discourages us from returning to reality, and attempts to transform us into one of its cartoon characters.

Another interesting property of reality is its authorship. We know we didn’t create the universe and that it exists independent of our consciousness. Conversely, the Internet and Wonderland were created by humans, with an important distinction: the Internet is comprised of interactions among actors created in “reality” (humans), while Wonderland’s interactions happen between characters created in Wonderland itself. This resembles the Internet to games, where actors from reality interact with an artificial reality: a set of rules to decide an outcome based on luck, skill or strength. Wonderland resembles dreams, where the actors we interact with were not created in reality, but in the dream1. From this dimension, one could argue that reality is a gradient (in terms of “feeling real”) depending on our suspension of disbelief and the amount of time we interact with that reality.

Let’s remember that when Alice fell down the rabbit hole, she felt loneliness in a very alien world, struggling to establish her identity. She faces a surrounding rife with mathematical and verbal madness, including conversations focused on the letter of the speech instead of its spirit.

But Alice managed to navigate Wonderland safely, staying true to herself. Her innocence, courage, politeness and rationality provide a strong balance to all the madness in Wonderland. Her nuanced personality is conspicuous in a Wonderland that, like the Internet, lacks any modicum of nuance. Her principles can help us remain active internet users, instead of being used by the internet. Keep an open mind, but remain logical. Think critically, through questions. Stay curious, with purpose.

Last updated: December 9, 2020