Gwyneth Paltrow, Internet oracle


Designer Amy Kehoe, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and designer Todd Nickey in L.A. on May 6 (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Goop)

Who knew? Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress all the Internet loves to hate, is — in her abundant free time! — also an Internet philosopher. There is truly nothing this woman can’t do.

Paltrow delivered a speech Tuesday night at the inaugural Code Conference, a pricey event for tech company big-wigs and digital media theorists hosted by the tech news site Re/code. (You may have already heard the other big news to come out of this conference — namely, that Google is testing its own driverless car.)

Paltrow was presumably there in her role as founder and overseer of Goop, a women’s lifestyle Web site/ecommerce platform/starry-eyed chronicler of the actress’ personal adventures. But while Goop has been dismissed by many as a poorly named celebrity confection, Paltrow’s speech gave the site a new conceptual frame: It’s a refuge from an Internet that objectifies, dehumanizes and judges its users, Paltrow said, without any fear of reprisal … or hope for reform.

“Facebook actually started as a place to judge women on their pulchritude or lack of it,” Paltrow said at one point. (Don’t worry, I had to Google pulchritude too: It’s an unnecessarily pretentious word for “beauty.”) “I think it’s kind of fascinating that a company that’s so huge and that would come to define much of the modern Internet was founded on this objectification of human beings.”

Per Re/Code, Paltrow also took issue with anonymity, trolls, and online bullying — particularly of women. But these concerns, needless to say, are nothing new. It’s Paltrow’s response to them that’s interesting: She essentially posits, allegory-of-the-cave-like, that nothing we experience on the Internet is “real” — rather, that only our visceral feelings and reactions to the Internet are.

That’s a bit of an intellectual puzzle. But Paltrow illustrates with the example of a troll who sees a celebrity in a dress he doesn’t like, and tweets at her, enraged. His dummy Twitter account is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a mask. The picture itself isn’t “real,” in any concrete, physical sense — it’s just pixels on a screen. And yet the feeling, the visceral anger, is a tangible reality to him. Here’s Paltrow:

Perhaps the Internet has been brought to us as a test in our emotional evolution. What is growth? What is maturity? It’s being able to experience an external event and creating the space within to contain that experience, to see it through the filter of who you really are, to not be reactive … To love the Internet for what it provides, but to know it’s not real, and it’s sometimes dangerous for our development.

That echoes an observation she made during an earlier interview:

It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can see these things and not take it as a personal affront and a hurt. I see myself as a chalkboard or a whiteboard or a screen, and someone is just putting up their own projection on it.

Maybe that sounds naive or New Age-y, just more pretentious Paltrow mumbo-jumbo. And let’s be perfectly candid here: While Paltrow may see Goop as some kind of uplifting port in the storm, its last issue included stories on the actress’ latest trip to Hong Kong and a series of fantastically complicated Italian recipes. Weighty or substantive, Goop is not.

But that said, Paltrow — purportedly one of Hollywood’s most-hated humans — has had enough first-hand experience with the Internet’s underside to be an authority here. And the theory she articulates is, potentially, an interesting way of looking at the web. How do you rehumanize a space that dehumanizes? Maybe you change the space. Or maybe, per the Paltrow method, you somehow look straight through it.

In either case, good on Paltrow for consciously uncoupling from all that Internet negativity. It’s a feat we lesser humans struggle with.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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