Everything is possible. Nothing is possible. Nothing hurts any more, until the consequences crash through the screen. Immersed almost permanently in virtual worlds, we cannot check what we are told against tangible reality. Is it any wonder that we live in a post-truth era, when we are bereft of experience?
It is no longer rare to meet adults who have never swum except in a swimming pool, never slept except in a building, never run a mile or climbed a mountain, have never been stung by a bee or a wasp, broken a bone or needed stitches. Without a visceral knowledge of what it is to be hurt and healed, exhausted and resolute, freezing and ecstatic, we lose our reference points. We are separated from the world by a layer of glass. Climate change, distant wars, the erosion of democracy, the resurgence of fascism – in our temperature-controlled enclosures, all can be reduced to abstractions.
Like adolescent boys and man-boys everywhere, 4chan’s users, Beran explains, are “deeply sensitive and guarded”. They disguise this sensitivity with extreme insensitivity to other people’s suffering – of the kind that “only people who have never really suffered” can display. Whatever they do or say – posting swastikas, racist memes, incitements to bully and abuse – is just “for the lulz” (4chan’s word for lols).
None of it, in the airless, affectless world in which they spend almost all their time, seems to matter. When they make the mistake of stepping into the real world, as Laurie Penny’s description last week of the young men accompanying Yiannopoulos on his roadshow reveals, they find it a hard and terrifying place. “Very brave behind a computer screen,” these people are “absolutely unequipped to deal with any suggestion of real-world consequences.” Until they collided with anti-fascist demonstrators, their far right politics were just another lulz. Dale Beran explains that Donald Trump perfectly encapsulates the 4chan ethic. A loser who miraculously wins, a great spiteful prank on the world’s people, he brings its fantasy world to life.