In his dystopian masterpiece 1984, George Orwell predicts the fate of critical free thinking. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” Dialogue and debate will become nearly impossible as the powers-that-be whittle away at how we use thought.

The end of thoughtcrime (read: free and productive thinking) seems well outside the reach of the government—for the time being. Capitol Hill struggles to change how we think; but Silicon Valley may well have a fighting chance.

In the past weeks, we have received shocking revelations as to the scale of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election through social media. Russia built a city in the ether, a whole community of organizations and strawmen who spewed vitriol and hawked fear and made us trust the text on our screens more than the people in our country. One hundred and twenty-six million people saw these ads. Facebook has since demurred, reminding us that one hundred and twenty-six million interactions is “a fraction of the overall content on Facebook.” Aren’t we silly little people sorry for overreacting, and don’t we feel reassured.

There are many ways we could react. We could be disturbed that would-be technocrats in Silicon Valley are looking to their profit margins first and our liberties second. We could be shocked that the Kremlin may have been reaching into the palms of our hands. We could be concerned that Russia may have hacked elections in 21 states and may well do so again.

We should take a moment to realize that we have become reliant upon something that might as well cease to exist if we can’t charge our devices. Some number of years ago, we thought that it would be a good idea to have a minimally-regulated, nearly-anonymous community, existing solely in ones and zeros, where we could spend a large bit of time each day. And that was—not surprisingly—a colossally bad idea.

Facebook is proud that the average customer spends 50 minutes per day on its platform. For perspective, that is a discussion section, or a preceptorial, or a language class. The average consumer spends that much time reading content written for ease of consumption, viewing ads curated to their preferences, engaging with pages whose content they have selected and generally immersed in a happy unreality. We’re not spending all our time in the ether; but we are spending too much time in the ether.

Not surprisingly, this living-in-fantasy has eroded our ability to engage in critical discourse. The political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau predicted this atrophy in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. The more time we devote to agreeable and easy diversions, the less able we are to act, to think and to be in a meaningful way.

Suppose some argument arises, in which someone proposes an idea we find abhorrent and want to refute. It will be difficult to refute this point if we immerse ourselves in content we agree with but know nothing about that idea. Suppose we thought—on some contrarian whim—that in-person dialogue might resolve some political stalemate. How has communicating in anonymous and vitriolic comments sections prepared us for dealing with living, breathing human beings? Suppose we needed to act immediately in order to respond to some disgusting public action. Life does not afford the luxury of thinking for minutes on end about the perfect retort.

Imagine that life in a democracy is a fitness routine. Social media is the solid month of rest days that leaves us weak and winded.

I am not making the doom-and-gloom argument of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, that humanity will enter complacency beneath a technocratic state. I am raising a very real fear: that living too much in something with no real existence is harming our ability to live where it matters. Of course, social media has done some very good things. Who has not attended a club meeting, or signed a petition, or attended some event, or connected with some groups of friends, or supported a campaign, through any of the various platforms available to us? Full disclosure: I use Facebook to promote my column. 

But occasional utility should not lead us to routine dependence. If we are committed to a robust and productive discourse, if we want to achieve something that lasts, we need to protect our ability to live politically in person. The generation of the American Revolution, despite its sad lack of newsfeeds and listicles, met in something called a “public house” to discuss politics. These were spaces for talking more than for drinking, where people from all walks of life met to share problems and seek solutions. Other such moments of congregation and conversation and activism have occurred throughout our history—sometimes solemn, sometimes lively. But look for any moment of weight and progress in our history: you will find people meeting and working face-to-face. You will find people acting in person and thinking in longform.

It seems fitting to close with more from Orwell, again from 1984. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.” As we think, so are we able to act. We might go on as we have been, thinking ourselves into a reality where everything is agreeable and brief and never really challenged. Or, we might start thinking ourselves into the reality, that trying space known as real life where we must strive for what we seek but actually make lasting progress.

I hope that the choice is an easy one.

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity junior. His column, "the academy matters," runs on alternate Thursdays.