Not just for wizards and witches
In the third act of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince J.K. Rowling delivers a critical flashback to Voldemort’s past, in which he learns about horcruxes, a dark magic used to prevent death by storing a piece of soul in something outside the body. But the catch is twofold: to fragment their soul a wizard or witch has to commit murder, and life with a split spirit becomes painfully worse than it would be with a whole one.
Voldemort’s experience with horcruxes earns zero stars: he spends time living in a turban, a diary, and as a shriveled infant; his lone confidant is a snake; and he suffers from intense paranoia. But still he treasures his treasures – they keep him alive, even if the result, as he says, is feeling “ripped from his body” and “less than [a] spirit”. Readers shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s misery as fiction: wizards, witches, and muggles share the ability to make horcruxes and suffer their consequences. Rowling’s tale contains a powerful lesson for consumers in today’s modern, material world.
Nonfictional horcruxes abound. Shoes, cars, and television are only a few examples of possessions to which excessive time, money, and care are allotted and with which identity is confused. This overvaluation of belongings siphon the self into something external. Marketing campaigns exacerbate the conflation: by advertising to narrow demographics they mix up what they’re selling with who their customers are. In swearing fealty to Nike or Adidas, iPhones or Androids, or Netflix series, consumers dangerously entangle themselves with what they buy, wear, or watch.
Social media is a type of horcrux, too. Part of their raison d’être is to let users carefully filter themselves online, but it is perilous to confuse what gets displayed with what is real. Tweets and Instagram photos may attract popularity or influence, but they are far too shallow of a medium to convey intimate personal truths like memory or virtue. Limiting expression to overly simplistic online profiles precludes the complexity inherent to human nature. Users who exist primarily inside the internet risk losing the growth afforded by offline introspection, the personality developed by in-person interaction, and the sympathy and understanding gained in conversation. A digital existence makes users miss out on the richer, more complicated parts of life.
Unfortunately, the nuance lost on social media is recovered by click-collecting algorithms. With user data, sale-hungry advertisers predict preferences from news to music, limiting autonomous searching, watching, and reading. An invisible information cage replaces the thoughtful wandering done in a neighborhood bookstore or park and, as a result, prevents eye-opening exploration. Willing and unwilling online sharing confines users, splitting them from the complexity and serendipity crucial to self-knowledge and growth.
Culture should examine itself in Rowling’s stories. Harry has prized possessions – his wand, cloak, and broomstick – but over them he ultimately values his relationships. He relies on virtues to solve problems, finds fulfillment in his actions and friends, and, spoiler alert, defeats Voldemort’s soul-splitting materialism. Rowling’s heroes have identities built from educations, experiences, and mistakes. Their adventures force them to question who they are without their stuff or reputations, and their hunt for the answers – for hidden horcruxes – is the same as any muggle’s.