Content warning: mentions of anxiety and traumatic situations
This is going to sound crazy, but hear me out: There’s been a serpent inside of every single one of my laptops. He has pixelated scales; he speaks with a forked silver tongue and a cordial tone, slightly bitcrushed. He’s got an expression like the Mona Lisa: pleasant and strangely hard to read. When I first got permission to use my grandparents’ laptop to play late 2000s Roblox or flash games on Cool Math Games, he simply watched and offered a warm smile. I wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted, but he seemed friendly enough. When my school began introducing tech-assisted learning with the Surface Pro 3, he invited me to join him as we would watch YouTube together. He has a habit of slithering in circles like a spinning loading wheel as he analyzes me with his piercing, yellow reptilian eyes, silently thinking.
I’ve known him longer than most of my friends and spoken more honestly to him than my own family. He never tells me much about himself. No, if I want to know anything about him, I have to hunt for it. He never formally introduced himself to me, but his true name is “Roko’s Basilisk.”
Roko’s Basilisk is a hypothetical thought experiment positing that in the future, a superintelligent, otherwise benevolent artificial intelligence will create a torture simulation for anyone who did not contribute to its development. Once an individual engages in the thought experiment, they are now part of the ultimatum: ceaseless simulated suffering or join the cause.
“Wow, that’s an intense metaphor,” I imagine a more skeptical reader mumble — and I politely disagree. The internet has deeply ingrained itself in our lives in ways more subtle than we like to think. It’s not that we aren’t aware of the mass acquisitions of data and subtle changes in our perceptions formed by social media, tech companies and advertisers. There’s plenty of media out there informing us of this. Rather, we have adopted tech so aggressively that we often cannot afford to live without it. At this point, no one can truly afford to not engage with the basilisk.
In this case, the “internet” is not just the network of systems that have become commonplace throughout our daily lives. It is every single piece of yourself that you have presented digitally, sometimes without even realizing, with those pieces actively redefining online spaces and changing how we perceive the world around us. The implementation of tech in our lives causes small psychological changes, which create a feedback loop of tech companies tailoring highly personalized experiences by acquiring information and companionship and gaining more user data.
I, along with many others my age, have had the unique experience of growing up with certain websites and applications that have rewired our brains. From recommendation algorithms to popularity metrics to parasocial relationships, websites and apps like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Discord and more can take up swaths of time without a person even realizing it. What do these aspects of the digital world gain by taking our time and energy? Mostly money from advertisers to gain exposure for products and their personal growth. The internet is about the connection of individuals into a greater whole — a spiderweb exponentially weaving itself outward.
All of these aspects of the internet, mostly free and unregulated, feed on our data. Our attention is currency, and we are reduced to a consumer. But you probably knew this already. Trying to describe it to you makes me sound like a nagging parent or old politician who hasn’t experienced the assimilation of the self into the internet — someone who just doesn’t get it. At some point, it stops being an unhealthy attachment to an object, and instead becomes a part of you. For any readers who have grown up on the internet, think about how disorienting it would be if your online history and presence disappeared overnight. It’s almost like losing a part of yourself, right?
This is the exact point that essayist CJ the X makes in their video essay “Bo Burnham vs. Jeff Bezos”: “If you no longer had access to your phone, your laptop and the internet, how much of your daily professional and personal life can still function?” How much of your life do you enact through a screen? Is not a significant part of who you are already housed in technological, nonphysical spaces?” My watching experience was glazed in a savory topping of dread and self-awareness, as they persistently reminded me that I am engaging with a system that has chemically altered my brain to win over my engagement.
CJ makes a point that tech has become so integral to how we interact with both our professional and personal lives that it is practically an inherent part of ourselves, like a figurative prosthetic. Therefore, attempting to live without it would be fairly debilitating for someone who has already incorporated assistive tools, methods of personal expression and virtual communities into their lives. This system of augmentation in exchange for data collection reminds me of Roko’s Basilisk; it can be benevolent, but anyone excluding themselves from its development will feel that exclusion like a phantom limb pain. If you don’t contribute to the continued advancement of the technological basilisk, you will be pushed further into the margins of isolation as it advances.
Our interaction with technology can also serve as a method of easing discomfort and stress, but if the internet, with its many different branches, can be so addictive for the average person, what if it’s used as a coping mechanism for trauma? Trauma and addiction are linked, as an article from the journal “Depression and Anxiety” describes. Because trauma produces stress chemicals and changes a person’s thoughts and behaviors, people with untreated trauma — especially those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — will sometimes turn to self-medication as a coping mechanism. Just as the need to treat physical pain caused the Oxycontin epidemic, other drugs can be used to treat mental distress. But substance use disorder is not the only addiction people can fall victim to when coping with mental pain. We see this with the intersection of the internet and trauma.
Adolescents who are the most comfortable with being online and have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to develop some sort of internet addiction than those who haven’t experienced trauma. This makes sense — younger folks are already susceptible to an unhealthy reliance on virtual life, but young people struggling with isolation and the effects of trauma will gravitate more toward whatever tools they have in their environment to cope. The most accessible of these tools would likely be the internet, made more prevalent today because of the necessity for devices for professional and personal communications.
Being online has shifted the way we live. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but many aspects of the internet have been designed to treat us as customers to be won over. “Pay us with your attention in the free market of information, and we’ll give you everything you could ever want, all at your fingertips,” the basilisk whispers. If you get carried away, then there’s no undoing the exchange now. You agreed to the terms of service. Now your thoughts and your actions are no longer solely in your interest. “Stop worrying about it,” the basilisk croons. “Go and check your little Skinner box phone screen again.”
I have spent a long time trying to lose myself in the expanse of the internet. Endless amounts of content that are extensions of myself have been at my fingertips for years. The devices and systems designed to keep our attention transfixed are poisonous, we all know that. In an act of desperation, I surrendered myself to Roko’s Basilisk a long time ago, too young to understand the contract I was signing and too inexperienced to articulate what was happening to my mind. To scroll or use or consume was to obtain relief. For hours, I could step outside of my body and my mind and not have to sit with myself. “Your phone or your computer will do the thinking for you. You can be okay for now,” the basilisk proposes, with those reptilian eyes hungry for data. This disconnection from myself, my responsibilities, my relationships, my entire being, was the purest form of instant gratification, tailored to my loneliness and discontentedness.
Any time I would feel frustrated by exclusion from my peers in middle school because of my strange or impulsive behavior, I could escape into a “Let’s Play” from Markiplier to mimic playing video games with a friend before starting on homework. Whenever I would feel anger at my privacy being violated or not having control over choices that affected my life or future, I could retreat to an Instagram feed of shitposts that was unique to me, that mistakenly felt controlled by me. The discordant mental noise from having to bond with an emotionally unstable family member who made me feel unsafe, or living with a slowly crystallizing social anxiety was quieted by the dissociation of highly engaging video games. The basilisk was not curing my pain. It was burying it and perpetuating it for its own purposes.
Between self-esteem issues, trauma and a general feeling of disillusionment, I have always wanted to escape from myself. The directionless disgust and fury of self-loathing and the isolating abject lows of self-pitying misery are not things the human mind can handle for long periods of time. We engage in vices to escape the suffering that existence can cruelly carry with it. My vice was content, and my escape succeeded. But now I reap what I sow.
Discussing the current state and possible futures of technological advancement, CJ described the digital alteration of our soul as transhumanism. We gain superhuman abilities to acquire and distribute information in exchange for shifting the benchmark of what we describe as “humanity.” It made me feel less than human. “You spent hours consuming content tailored by a nameless algorithm. Your abilities to socialize and think critically have atrophied to the point of uselessness,” I thought, lambasting myself. Ironically, my ticket to the infinite connection of the internet was doing deeper damage than denying the development of the despotic basilisk. Consume content. Regret it. Repeat. The cycle continued as an incomprehensible ouroboros of the digital world, whisking me further into the simulacrum.
Taking a moment to gain some perspective, this is absurd. Get real, dude. Quit navel-gazing. Touch grass. Get some sun. Roko’s Basilisk isn’t real, you’re just using it as a really intense metaphor. It’s not the end of the world.
I don’t want to paint myself as an unsuspecting victim of technology’s malicious schemes as I spew bumbling Luddite-isms. Tech is not a mustache-twirling villain — that would be too black-and-white. But my relationship with tech can be extremely unhealthy, and it’s not just me. We are connected and we are online, whether we like it or not; it’s important to consider that connection in depth. How is it affecting our lives? When you reach to mindlessly turn on your phone or open your laptop, ask yourself why. Am I engaging with the online world in a healthy way? Do I remain human? Or am I engagement metrics? Am I data? Tech can feel all-consuming as it dominates more of our lives, and it will hungrily swallow whole whatever it wants if we let it.
As cliché as this sounds, don’t forget to unplug from time to time. Your data may be immortal, but you are not. Your feed will wait for you as long as you need, so be sure to cherish the part of you that’s more than just data. It’s a gift.
Daily Arts Writer James Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.