It doesn't matter if anyone exists or not

A quarter of a century later, you and I and everyone else fashion the scraps of images and symbols, the physical exhaust of industrialism having given way to the symbolic exhaust of the information economy. The crowd isn’t made up of people anymore, but of pictures that might be people, of corporate brands impersonating them, of young people dancing politically in TikToks, of tweets about youths in TikToks, of disputes absent referents, of bots shouting into the void. Cacophony, an ever-amassing crowd awaiting a train that will never come.

There is no escaping this city of the internet, no flying the coop for its proverbial countryside, no respite from the constancy of its jostling beings, its barrage of images, its discharge of new distresses. But here, today, a century and a half later, armed with all of humanity’s knowledge in your palm and the latent confrontation with its billions of members, maybe the least you can do is to stop believing that you like it.

Solutions are difficult to imagine because few really want them. It is convenient—and probably necessary—not to have to know who makes your sandwich, or ever to see them again. It is still tempting to translate a glance into a fantasy. It remains essential, to some extent, to refuse engaging with the entire being of all the hundreds of individuals you might perceive every day, lest you go mad from the attempt to address them all with deep respect. Refreshing the page of people who do not exist only irritates that sore. You know you don’t need to care about them, but that’s not because they are generated by a computer. It’s because you already have had so much practice.