Dante's Nine Circles of Hell and the Internet Inferno
by Nicole Sallak Anderson
this essay was first published HERE
I’ve seen several references to various social media apps and the Seven Deadly Sins, but this Sunday morning, as I consider the darkness that seems to breed in social media circles—from teen bullying on Snapchat and Instagram, to Twitter trolls threatening female reporters in India with rape and abuse, to child pornography on the Dark Web and the children who suffer miserably, literally living in hell for predators’ public pleasure— Dante’s Inferno comes to mind, and how this ancient story from 1300 might actually describe our reality right now, as we enter the Information Age of our human development.
Perhaps this stage of humanity had to take a technological twist, one Dante couldn’t have imagined in his time, but one that was destined in our evolution none-the-less. For no other invention has ever truly united human minds together. The Internet is where we are able to peer into the human psyche and together decide, shall we go on to Heaven, or will we devolve into the sadistic beasts depicted in Dante’s work? Our online behavior effects the whole, we can’t create true connection as long as the beast continues to dominate the conversations. If we want a truly liberated Internet-of-Things, then we will need to face the demons inside of us, and overcome them with the help of some trusty advisors.
Let’s go back in time then, and see if the great Dante Alighieri can shed some light on the baseness of the online world and how we can transform it into the ideal that sparked the birth of the Internet, as well as every social media application that now serves to bring us together.
And what exactly is the noble spark that underlies the Internet?
Inferno begins with Dante on a quest to be reunited with Beatrice, his true love. This then, is the ultimate goal of our human experience. Love. Not necessarily romantic love, but connection in the truest sense. Behind all of our impulses is the desire for connection with others such as family, lovers, community. We want to belong to a group. I think this is what we’re searching for when we go online, the promise of connection, of finding our tribe. Hence, we have created the Internet as a forum to do so. We want to find one another on a deeper level, one that knows no physical bounds.
But, like Dante's quest, the path to union is a dark one. He finds himself in a dark woods and wants desperately to leave it. This is the aspect of the online world that we must address if we're ever to realize its potential, a dark world full of fear, hate, intimidation and misinformation. Dante sees a mountain in the distance and tries to climb it, but is stopped by three wild animals—a leopard (Apple, since they made the smartphone), a she-wolf (Google, since the she-wolf is one of Wisdom’s symbols and Google has put all knowledge at our fingertips) and a lion (Charles Babbage, since he’s the one who created the first computer and set the entire information age into action. Besides his Wikipedia picture sort of looks like a lion). They basically doom Dante to go back, i.e. enter the dark woods of the Internet. Their inventions have made it so. There’s no way around it.
Fortunately, the Roman poet, Virgil, suddenly appears and gives Dante hope. He says they have no choice but to descend into Hell together, but that on the other side is Beatrice and the heaven they both long for. Thus my fellow humans, we have to go into the World Wide Web in order to face the evil within us before we can experience the true connection that we not only long for, but also binds us together with the whole of life.
Virgil leads Dante to the gates of Hell, which bear the sign, “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here.” Nice. Some of the wisest people I know say that about social media. Abandoning all hope, they go in and enter the outer regions of Hell—a place where the souls in life who couldn’t commit to anything, good or bad, spend their lives chasing a blank banner and being bit by insects. Sounds a lot like email to me. The first major application to drive early Internet development, email is an entry point into the online world, without actually going in and getting dirty. Each day we’re inundated with emails, mostly just trash, but we login all the same, hoping for a meaningful letter from a friend, or a new job opportunity, or perhaps an invitation to a party. Unfortunately these more important notes are often hidden in a jungle of emails from every vendor or website we’ve visited online. And don’t even bother trying to Unsubscribe, the cookies and bots won’t let you.
Next, Virgil and Dante cross a river and soon find themselves in the First Circle of Hell—a place reserved for those learned men who died without knowing Christ. Now, Dante wrote a religious tale, but Christ is also known as the Word, or Logos, which is the term in Jungian psychology for reason and judgement. Thus this level of Hell is filled with those who love information and share it with others, but lack the underlying reason and judgement to do a great service. Sounds like some of the bloggers out there today, as well as others who push their opinions as news, thus clogging up social media with posts that look like journalism, but are really clickbait, or written in order to deceive. We may glorify our most famous bloggers, raise them on pedestals, but without knowing Logos, without being disciples of reason and judgement, they’re nothing more than parroting what we already believe, making us even more divided in the long run. Blogger, Tumblr, even Medium are entry points into this level of Hell, enabling us to pontificate without reason or responsibility (alas, like I am right now).
The Second Circle of Hell is reserved for those who are Lustful, and they swirl about in a terrible storm. Here we have our Instagram and Snapchat accounts where we post our perfect meals, perfect bodies, and perfect pets while at the same time bullying and hurting those who are “out” in our culture. Teens notoriously use these two applications to vent their insecurities, leading to too many instances of the very young taking their own lives. It used to be that you could leave the bully at school and get a break from his/her abuse at home. No longer. If you’re the uncool one, the hate follows you into your back pocket. And what about those boys who snap pics of their sexual conquests and then share them with their friends? The virtual locker room is sexual harassment storm.
In the Third Circle of Hell, we experience the Gluttonous, who must lie in mud and endure a rain of “filth and excrement.” Oh, this is horrible! Yet Facebook newsfeeds recently feel like a rain of filth and excrement. Elections now hinge on the Fake News published through the medium of Facebook and while many of us use it in order to find connection to those we can’t see every day, it turns out that this app is a huge reason for the divide between liberals and conservatives in many nations. From Trump’s election to Brexit, gluttonous politicians now use Facebook to gain access to the emotional states of the gluttonous voters by feeding their fears and desires with crap, over and over, as they swipe their smartphones for hours a day.
In the Fourth Circle of Hell, we meet the Avaricious and Prodigal, those who spend, spend, spend. Their greed covers the land and they desire nothing more than the next lavish purchase. In this level of Hell, they’re made to charge at one another with great boulders, each one taking down the other. Amazon Prime ring a bell? Or Alibaba. Take your pick, both seek to bring you your every material whim, hopefully within two hours, if they can get the approval to fill our airspace with their little delivery drones. Now, that does sound like hell. Imagine all of our materialism made manifest with the constant drone traffic above our heads.
For the next level of Internet darkness, I have to quote Sparknotes, for this summary can’t be beat: “The Fifth Circle of Hell contains the river Styx, a swampy, fetid cesspool in which the Wrathful spend eternity struggling with one another; the Sullen lie bound beneath the Styx’s waters, choking on the mud. Dante glimpses Filippo Argenti, a former political enemy of his, and watches in delight as other souls tear the man to pieces.” Imagine it? Of course we can. Ask any journalist, politician, or even minor celebrity what it’s like to have a Twitter handle. Jimmy Fallon’s “Mean Tweets” segment is only the tip of the iceberg. On Twitter, souls are ripped apart into pieces, devoured by trolls that come together for the singular purpose of threatening other users. Twitter is a perfect example of how something with a noble start (basically a broadcasting station for all voices in the world) has been co-opted by our lesser natures and turned into a “fetid cesspool in which the Wrathful spend eternity struggling with one another.”
Yet, my friends, we’ve only just begun experiencing our evil archetypes. For now Dante comes to Dis, a city so horrible, the gates are closed to him and he has to get help from an angel to enter. Why then go in, if even the demons refuse us entrance? Because we can’t help ourselves, we always have to look. Besides it’s the only way to Heaven. So into the Sixth Circle of Hell we go to encounter the Heretics, the bot accounts on EVERY SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM that spew forth misinformation and conspiracy theories galore, appearing like a real human user, but are actually nothing more than chatbots, created by governments to influence elections and public opinion. These bot accounts sound very American, like “@MomLuvsTrump” or “@TruRedWhiteNBlue”, but they exist merely to push propaganda that is beautifully crafted to look like something any thinking, rational, internet user should follow.
There’s nothing to do but keep going at this point, down to the darkest parts of the internet that mirror the very worst in humanity—the Seventh Circle of Hell, where we find those who were violent towards God, Nature and Art. To me, this is Reddit. Sure, the threads mean to be a place of power and change. I’ve often likened this online social arena to the pamphlet movements during the Revolutionary War. And I love to attend AMAs hosted by various favorite personalities. Unfortunately, Reddit is also the rallying place for the alt-right where they can spew their violence against God, Nature and Art. Reddit is often where trolls gather to plan their Twitter attacks on a certain media personality. Or to organize a hate rally, Milo Y. or Richard Spencer book signing, etc. Hate speech vs. the First Amendment begin to face off in this realm of the Internet Inferno
Spending time in Reddit will often lead the user to the next circle of Hell. When Dante gets to the Eight Circle of Hell, he finds not just one type of evil, but pockets of evil. Nine of them at least, filled with panderers, seducers, charlatans, and barraters (those who accepted bribes). These evil ones are suffering in various ways, from regular whippings, to being held in pitch while demons tear them apart. I can’t help but think of 4chan when I read of this place. 4chan is a site where people can post images anonymously. Oh ho, nothing can go wrong in such a community, can it? 4chan has devolved so much in the past years that in 2014, its very founder, Christopher Poole, walked away. Why? "I've come to represent an uncomfortably large single point of failure," he wrote in his farewell post. I guess when a murderer uses your site to post photos of his victims, your invention has gone from the Wild West to the Nine “Evil Pockets” of Hell fairly fast. Poole works for Google now, so perhaps he’s the she-wolf at the beginning of the story?
The Ninth Circle of Hell is a frozen wasteland and filled with those who have betrayed their kin, their country, their religion, and their community. This then is where we see the worst in us, for betrayers are the ones who prevent true connection from taking place. Those who hurt and abuse others for their own gains and pleasures are the ones who stand in the way of the salvation of our species. Here then are the ones who use the Internet for the purpose of betraying others, from money laundering, to drug cartels, to prostitution. In my opinion, one of the darkest, most evil betrayals is the abuse of children. I don’t wish to spend time in this icy wasteland, and any of the above applications have been implicated in this behavior, but I have to name it—the use of the Internet by child pornographers and consumers lies here, in the heart of hell. One can’t be any more evil, even if he murders another. For to spread this filth is to stain the entire endeavor, and at some level those who prey on children in this way are enabled by the Internet and the ease of sharing images. It isn’t surprising that if this is festering in the virtual world, all of the other disturbing trends mentioned above exist as well.
Unfortunately our technology is held hostage by the worst of us. Until we can turn the technology around and use it against those who commit such evil, we can’t get out of the woods.
However, Dante and Virgil do make it out of Hell. Interestingly the poets cross through the barren wasteland and to the river of forgetfulness, emerging from Hell on Easter morning.
I find it interesting that they must forget the darkness in order to leave Hell and make their way to Heaven, where true connection, love and solidarity await. What must we forget in order to fulfill the promise of the Internet and the idea of a globally connected world?
Our hate? Our jealousy? Our anger? Our fear? Our ignorance? Our greed? Our lust? Our mistrust?
I imagine so. In the meantime, our experiences online seem to be on one hand accelerating and enabling those who wish to sow the seeds of discontent, and on the other hand bringing us together, enabling the collection and sharing of information and knowledge, and making us aware of those places and people in our community who are in need. If we can rid ourselves of our lower natures and focus on the fact that when we’re online, we’re actively creating a world together, perhaps someday we will hold Beatrice in our embrace, and finally find human connection at the deepest, most satisfying level.