Being watched, feeling solipsistic

Solipsism is a dangerous extension of the rugged individual


Screenshot from Reddit

A popular subreddit discusses solipsism.

Adam Coil, Life Editor

From John Smith to John Updike, Americans have always had a unique aptitude for seeing themselves as the center of the universe. The Cartesian phenomenon resonates particularly well in the nation of Manifest Destiny because America has always upheld and idealized the image of the rugged individual over the image of the thriving, interdependent community. Today, however, this idea of the rugged individual is being intensified into something much more sinister and malignant — solipsism. 

The subreddit r/solipsism has more than 20,000 members, placing it in the top 5% of the largest communities on Reddit. I don’t need to explain to you the irony of 20,000 people getting together to discuss how they are all the only sentient beings who exist, but all joking aside, there is a lot to learn from these folks. After all, it makes sense that a solipsist would naturally be a fairly open book.

One user wrote, “You guys in this subreddit are just a string of letters on the screen of my MacBook.” This seemed to be a common sentiment shared by the members, as alienation brought about by a dependence on the Internet for human interaction seems to be a serious risk factor here. Internet relationships remedy loneliness in the same way that salt water quenches thirst — the immediate gratification only makes the problem more intense in the long run. In other words, an internet user is only made more acutely aware of their isolation when they’re forced to confront the real world. 

The performativity of internet culture certainly doesn’t help. While it may appear as if social media has become more honest and vulnerable, it is all ultimately a performance in which one attempts to maximize their social capital. It’s easy to see how this creates an impoverished view of other people, especially for somebody who isn’t “in the know” about social media culture. 

Think about how repetitive and homogeneous internet vernacular has become — you see the same words and phrases regurgitated over and over again. It’s undoubtedly flimsy, but spend a few minutes in a TikTok comment section, and you’ll start to see the appeal of simulation theory.

On the other side of this coin is the increasing strength of virtual technology, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence. Video game graphics are convincing. Virtual reality and entertainment simulations are impressive to a scary degree.

People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal,” said Andy Warhol, speaking on the dissociation he felt after being shot. “The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television.” 

That was decades ago — way before the iPhone, let alone the Metaverse. Is this not exacerbated today? With reality television, artificial intelligence, social media, corporate entertainment and virtual reality all working relentlessly to blur the line between reality and fiction, the escape from reality becomes so rewarding that one loses all concern for that reality.

The dissolution of this boundary between the real and the unreal has manifested itself in Generation Z in the form of “main character syndrome.” Spotify has a playlist titled “my life is a movie” that has more than 2 million likes. A simple YouTube search reveals dozens of videos about how one goes about romanticizing their life to feel like a main character, each racking up hundreds of thousands of views. This idea that the purpose of life is to maximize aesthetic pleasure is Epicurus’s benign precursor to solipsism. The ugly side of it, though, is that it intrinsically leads us to dehumanize and not recognize those around us. To identify yourself as the main character is to identify everyone else as subsequent and less important than yourself.

This phenomenon plays out most overtly in all of the outlandish examples of clout-chasing witnessed over the years. People like Lil Tay, Woah Vicky and Supreme Patty might be standout examples here — individuals who needed to find themself in the limelight so desperately that they would go to masochistic lengths to convert their own embarrassment into social media followers. There are so many instances of individuals committing heinous crimes, revealing deeply personal information or acting in a manner that forever blights their name that one must wonder, how could somebody find all of the strife worth it for such insignificant amounts of attention?

When one has the arrogance of a religious zealot but no God to believe in, I suppose they have no choice but to become their own. 

The only explanation I can muster is that these people — the so-called microinfluencers of our generation — see fame as not only the pinnacle of existence but as something preordained and granted to them. When one has the arrogance of a religious zealot but no God to believe in, I suppose they have no choice but to become their own. 

The truly entertaining paradox here is that it is precisely the existence of the “Other” — the fans who watch and acknowledge the influencer — that engenders the feeling of solipsism within the celebrity. Without the views and likes, the influencer is forced to confront the fact that they might be just like everyone else.

The really pernicious aspect of solipsism is that it makes us a more lucrative society than ever before, even if it only contaminates us in subtle, dispersed ways. Nothing makes the metaphorical eyes of a giant corporation light up quicker than a consumer who has no greater purpose than gratifying their own desires. 

Postmodernism’s indefatigable desire to delegitimize and destabilize everything only makes things worse. I invoke postmodernism here as a convenient but necessary catch-all. You can see it in how no one really believes in politicians anymore and have given up trying to do so. Or in how irony is the primary form of communication. It’s in how Americans take more drugs and engage in less religious or spiritual activity each year. It’s in all of the ways corporations have gotten really talented at disguising the fact they only want our money, and it almost certainly has something to do with Tucker Carlson’s obsession with the sexuality of M&M’s. 

Whether you want to call it a postmodernist or post-truth society or something else entirely, it seems difficult to deny that the world we live in today is one where young people are struggling to find something worthwhile to invest themselves in — outside of their own personal well-being, of course.

The only way to prevent or combat solipsism is to find something that feels good and worthwhile and let yourself believe in it.

The only way to prevent or combat solipsism is to find something that feels good and worthwhile and let yourself believe in it. Whether you want to commit yourself to God, protection of the Earth, political activism, art, volunteer work or your family, we all need to remind ourselves that there are more important things out there than ourselves. And we’re lucky that that is the case.

Finally, just in case there are any solipsists out there, I’d like to finish with a message I have stolen from Kurt Vonnegut: “Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.”