When CS Lewis Predicted the Internet, it Was Hell

CS Lewis had a lot of big ideas, but more importantly, he was a master of communicating those ideas to the people. He could untie a troubling theological knot before our very ears. During 1940’s wartime, Lewis’ voice brought comfort and consolation over BBC’s airwaves for those attempting to reconcile the horrors of their age with an ageless faith. 

We need reconciliation in our time, too. War is a different beast, and not all of it is carried out with weapons. I’m not just talking about cyber-warfare. I’m talking about Facebook and Twitter.

The internet that began as Marshal McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’ is deteriorating into CS Lewis’ ‘Grey Town’. 

I am reeling from the vitriol I read online these days. Splintered groups and slivered souls are spewing venom in the wake of Donald Trump’s latest verbal vomit, this morning’s terror bombing or the recent mass killing in Orlando. Less that a week after the brutal murder of 49 people, at least two sides of an argument were shouting ‘I told you so’. 

Shouting is easy, now that we no longer have to yell in each others’ faces.

Where the internet draws us together, I am grateful. But is the web is benign–simply a tool without bias? I’m not convinced. What I see looks more like a spider’s web, where you and I sit trapped in a cycle of interactions that are not healthy, but easy. 

The internet is looking a lot like CS Lewis ‘Grey Town’ – a singular vision of hell he lays out in his book The Great Divorce. 

Of course, Lewis didn’t realise he was predicting a societal fissure driven by technologies that didn’t yet exist in 1945. In our real-life version, Lewis’ imagined spiritual powers are replaced by technological wonders. 

The Grey Town in Lewis’ vision represents Hell, but its inhabitants remain woefully unaware of their location. Their existence there mirrors their former lives on earth–lonely and devoid of meaning. In the Grey Town, each is left to her own devices. In one of Lewis’ most brilliant images, the grey town expands infinitely–not from population growth but because those who live there cannot stand each other. They keep moving away to build new suburbs on the edge of hell. Each citizen gets her block of sprawl in this ultimate expression of individuality and freedom. What intoxicating misery!

I recently talked with young adults about how social media affects our relationships. They spoke of bullying and ostracising comments. They talked about strained relationships. They long for real community. As we talked, a new definition of community galvanised in my mind.

Community requires being in places you don’t choose, with people you don’t want around.

These uncomfortable scenarios only have to happen in public spaces and, if we endure, with our families. We can avoid such discomfort online, where we can be freed from people who disagree with us. If someone says something I don’t like or raises questions that make me squirm on my late-night couch cushion, I can click the corner ‘X’ and close the window. I am not required to engage. I am not obliged to listen.

Engagement and listening are hard. New browser tabs are easy. No wonder this internet thing has taken off.

Instead of a rich, diverse community, like-minded people are finding one another on the web. These connections can be healing and revolutionary. When you are in a marginalised community–say, the only LGBTQ youth in your small prairie town–learning you are not alone is incredibly powerful. But what builds character is who you choose to be when you meet an unfriendly neighbour. 

“Community requires being in places you don’t choose, with people you don’t want around.”

I heard a lot about the power and importance of love in the wake of Orlando, and I couldn’t agree more. But the real world is where love kicks ass and takes names. 

When we refuse to engage with those different from us, we are following fear, not love. When fear leads into isolation, we fracture the social fabric that keeps society alive and well. 

So why don’t we choose to engage the ‘other’ sincerely online? Could it all come down to a design flaw?

The internet does not encourage genuine human engagement. Discomfort doesn’t sell ads. The things that make deep engagement possible–eye contact, body language, touch–are conspicuously absent online. Behind the screen of our screens, we type things we would never say in person. 

As the internet invents new ways to keep us from real world interaction, or to overlay upon it, our problems compound. 

I can shop online, listen to every song ever recorded in an instant through headphones, order supper online, watch any movie I want without a video store clerk and ‘Click and Collect’ without having to walk the grocery aisle. No more bank tellers. No more travel agents. Touch screen tills at faceless big box stores. Drive through coffee shops. 

In CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce, the narrator meets an Intelligent Man whose job it is to improve conditions in the Grey Town. He reflects on how hard his task is; 

“What’s the trouble about this place? Not that people are quarrelsome–that’s only human nature and was always the same even on earth. The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it. That’s why it never costs any trouble to move to another street or build another house. In other words, there’s no proper economic basis for any community life. If they needed real shops, chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist.” (The Great Divorce, p. 21-22)

Now there’s a paragraph I could chew on for some time. And this was long before Amazon Prime.

On social media, we become blurred abstractions of ourselves. We are caricatures and avatars and generalisations like ‘Right-Wing Conservative’ or ‘Bleeding Heart Liberal’ or ‘Fundamentalist’ or ‘Millenial’ or ‘Granola’ or ‘Straight White Male’ or whatever. Hashtags and broad-brush identities are not meaningless, but they are not the whole of us. They are too easy to judge and scapegoat. We continually construct and revise groups and mask individuals, but individuals are real. You and I are real. Each person is made by God with care and deserves our attention. Our ear. Our understanding. Our love. 

“We can choose light. We can always choose light. ”

I don’t post political content on social media. Not that doing so is wrong, I’ve just never had a positive interaction come of it that didn’t arise from someone I’d already expect to affirm my position. 

I don’t settle arguments over text or email. Never. I strive for face-to-face. Failing that, a phone call. Only after all else fails will I resolve something big–where feelings are involved–over email. And not even then. Let’s just say I have learned this lesson the hard way and it still pains me to think about it after more than a decade. The last thing I need is another regret.

If we cannot meet in person to sort something out it must not be important enough. Either for you or me.

The internet used to be fun, but lately, it feels more and more like CS Lewis’ grey town–a place that simulates reality, but leaves us pained and stunned by how truly potent reality is in comparison. In our version, we don’t need to move away; we can just unfriend and unfollow. 

We can take a different path. The internet can enable us to connect with strangers who don’t ascribe to our worldview. We can choose light. We can always choose light. 

In Lewis’ version of eternity, the residents of the Grey Town (called Ghosts) remain by choice. A bus comes by to bring the Ghosts to Heaven. Some take the journey. When they arrive, many find the reality of heaven too much to bear. The light is too bright and ground too firm. Every blade of grass is knife-sharp. In Heaven, they cannot arrange their lives exactly as they wish–there are just so many other people getting in their way. As their carefully crafted identities begin to unravel, each soul is seen and loved for who they truly are.  For most, this reality is too much to bear. 

The Ghosts choose the Grey Town.  

They refresh their curated feed.