The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is a story of rare impact. As with Catch 22, the phrase Jekyll and Hyde has transcended the book and become part of our everyday language.
Although Jekyll and Hyde is not my favourite Stevenson story (that plaudit goes to The Bottle Imp), I have recently been dwelling upon it as the duality at the heart of the tale seems to me to reflect the contemporary existential struggle.
We are living at a time of incredible change and innovation. Knowledge, opportunities, and the possibility of interacting with people across the world are only a device away. Young people especially, have the chance to learn and connect with the world in a way that was unthinkable during my formative years before the internet existed and the main job of the local librarian was to keep knowledge-hungry kids out of the adult section lest they stumble upon something more challenging than Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven.
But with the positive comes the correlating negative. The ability to engage has become a fear of ever switching off and life is lived at an intensity previously unknown. Long gone are the days when school with all its trials and tribulations was left behind with the ring of the final bell. Now there is no respite; the good, the bad, and the intensity of knowing what everyone thinks about everything all the time shadows you home.
Sinatra sang Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week; before the advent of the internet you might have thought so but with the rise of social media don’t you just know it. It’s right there on Facebook, everyone is at the party and you weren’t invited.
There is no escape, no let-up. So-called banter gets grotesquely out of hand in group chats. People flounce after being roasted, but being roasted is better than not being included in the first place. Opinions become fact, rumours mutate into truth, while in her bedroom a naïve girl takes an intimate photograph to send to some guy she doesn’t know and who most likely isn’t who he says he is.
Child exploitation didn’t start with the internet and if the web disintegrated overnight it wouldn’t end, but the gaping maw of the web, ever hungry for more and more images has made the cynical corruption of our children increasingly profitable.
The internet doesn’t just make the gratification of sexual voyeurs easier to achieve; it seems to make everything easier but what we are being fed is the illusion of choice.
Everything on the internet is a click, a swipe, a tap of the keyboard away. Instant gratification followed by more instant gratification leading to a dulling of the senses. Maybe that’s why so many young people self-harm – because feeling something is better than feeling nothing. Or maybe it’s because they read about it online and they want to be as tortured and sensitive as everyone else.
No wonder so many of them turn to drugs, which are also only a text or a click away. They know the dangers, sure they do – they get told about them at school. But health warnings don’t work, the kids either feel so young and invincible that the thought of losing a few brain cells doesn’t matter, or they are on such a nihilistic mind trip that death by drugs seems like an acceptable option.
The ones who survive this stage of their lives will come out at the other end to face a Brave New World, for the internet and all that comes with it, is in its infancy. We haven’t begun to tap into what is possible; depending on your point of view this is either an exhilarating thought or one which terrifies.
Perhaps instead of the device being hand-held and never out of grasp, it will become corporeal. The screen will be absorbed into the body and everyone barcoded at birth so that they may purchase what they will with the blink of an eye or a flicker of a thought.
We will be 100% engaged and Hyde, as he does in Stevenson’s tale, will have won.