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Netflix and Nil 

James Poulos

Why being online makes us nihilists

A cyborg pensively smokes a cigarette on the cover of Nolen Gertz’s learned polemic against the online tools that have come to mean almost everything in our lives — and the lives that under their sway have come to mean next to nothing. The image sums up Gertz’s warning that tech has tempted us in newly powerful ways to abdicate our humanity. Rather than a human being simply enslaved to a machine, Gertz’s cyborg is a being whose humanity is a problem, a problem the human is replacing with machinery in an effort to expunge it completely. Yet the cyborg broods, arms clenched, shoulders hunched: Its human effort to escape its humanity becomes itself an all-too-human prison.

Gertz, a philosophy professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, is directing genuine philosophical inquiry to the questions of online technology now permeating our lives. He is remarkably adept at translating Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilistic living — which looks at how we develop strategies for coping with a way of life that undermines our very humanity — into instantly recognizable terms stretching from “Netflix and chill” to smugshrugs and emoji to the gamification of health and well beyond.

Thanks to tech companies, we can zone out, we can be more efficient, we can help strangers, we can make friends, and we can attack enemies. And while we may indeed find these activities meaningful, and may even find they make us happy, that does not mean that these activities are not nihilistic. For nihilism does not mean that life is meaningless but rather that our search for a transcendent source of meaning, for a source of meaning external to us, external to our lives, results in our lives not being lived.

Although Gertz dutifully excludes moral categories like evil from his own judgments, he excavates the moral rot at the heart of our endlessly evasive online movements....

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James Poulos is the Editor-at-Large at The American Mind, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life, and the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

James Poulos, "Netflix and Nil," The New Atlantis, Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 91-97.