The Internet can make us feel as isolated as Robinson Crusoe on a cyber-island, or totally connected with endless communication a finger tap away.
Two books reviewed in today's paper (pages 20, 21) offer insights, but not answers, on the way individuals in an online era might define themselves on the eve of the 21st century.
One presents individualism as an Ayn Rand-like effort, a fierce, life-long struggle for self-expression. The other despairs that individuality can survive the manipulated constructs of invasive commercial images.
"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" (Doubleday) is a novel about Newfoundland's first premier. Set in the hard-scrabble soil of Canada's easternmost province, a region both exotic and mundane on the margins of North America, it presents an epic struggle by one individual to rise above his station in life.
"Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say" (Riverhead Books) deconstructs the utopia many social scientists predicted was just a click away at the dawn of the World Wide Web, that is, until business interests hijacked it.
But long before the Internet went commercial, advertisers had become so influential in shaping popular culture as to threaten a sense of individual uniqueness. It didn't take hours and hours of surfing the Web to ask: Just who are we anyway? Television's omnipresence forced that question on any thinking person years ago.
We know, as these two books suggest, our unique self with all its contradictions dwells at the center of the human heart, not in some electronic signal blinking "buy, buy."
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