Fixing the Web? – part 2

In the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s public vacillating over the culpability of Facebook regarding its user base data privacy, a follow-up to last month’s ‘public service announcement‘ about the impact of the web on our social cohesion and culture.

“America’s Facebook generation shows a submission to standardization that I haven’t seen before. The American adventure has always been about people forgetting their former selves – Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac went on the road. If they had a Facebook page, they wouldn’t have been able to forget their former selves.” – Jaron Lanier

The quote above draws attention to something I’ve been noticing without being able to articulate lately. There is a widening rift between those championing orthodoxy and those sensing this is an inflection moment when we’d best be taking deep stock of what is unfolding without our deliberate guidance.

“By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.” – Nicholas Carr

Recently, for example, the psychologist and public intellectual Steven Pinker published a love letter to western enlightenment, a study which doubles down on his cheerleading role for reason and rationality over the past decade. Its message flies in the face of the growing foreboding feeling which everyday people, their feet on the ground, sense within the rapidly crumbling veneer of comforting structures all around us. The second wealthiest American, Bill Gates, quickly pronounced it his favorite book. But I’ve never found Gates to be a particularly imaginative thinker or perceptive observer of the times. Meanwhile, the wealthiest American, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, proceeds merrily ahead with his twisted conception of utterly dominating the sphere of delivering consumers what they crave in ways which maximally disrupt — the au courant euphemism for economically destroying entire businesses, individuals, and communities, and professions — any competition.

“We’re too busy communicating to think, too busy communicating to connect, and sometimes we’re too busy communicating to create. This is true for individuals and also true for organizations.” – Sherry Turkle

“In short, Google prefers a world where we consistently go to three restaurants to a world where our choices are impossible to predict.” – Evgeny Morozov

“Millions and millions of exuberant monkeys are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity.” – Andrew Keen

“‘Solutionism’ for me is, above all, an unthinking pursuit of perfection – by means of technology – without coming to grips with the fact that imperfection is an essential feature of liberal democracy.” – Evgeny Morozov

This circumstantial tendency towards conformity is not just limited to the sphere of practical life or economic pragmatics. It extends creepily into the realm of social ethics, which should in my view be regarded as the very pivot point of our human individuality, the source of our moral creativity. This is what I see within the dark underbelly of mob-driven ethical shaming of some unsavory (or merely unconventional) deed or other which suffered the misfortune of escaping the usual anonymity by going viral and becoming subject to the reactionary and not particularly contemplative public glare of the social media web.

“It all stems from the same thing – which is that when we are face to face – and this is what I think is so ironic about Facebook being called Facebook, because we are not face to face on Facebook … when we are face to face, we are inhibited by the presence of the other. We are inhibited from aggression by the presence of another face, another person. We’re aware that we’re with a human being. On the Internet, we are disinhibited from taking into full account that we are in the presence of another human being.” – Sherry Turkle

Without excessive imagination, many can easily derive the insidious potential social peril lurking beneath the superficial shiny surface of the endlessly appealing toy we term the Web. Already in 1996, when I first discovered the silvery keys, by way of innocent chat rooms wherein one could discuss breakfast options with housewives in Singapore, or favorite bands with a writer from Poland, I could smell the chemical preservatives within the tasty new offering. (Though imbibe heartily, I did, of course.) I remember watching with gloom as the first seepage of pornographic dialog began worming it’s way into forum spaces, theretofore the naive province of the innocent, curious, and explorative. And also the faint foul odor of advertising began pockmarking the free attention space like measles, signaling a certain and technologically sophisticated bombardment to come. There was a sense of a golden moment to enjoy and appreciate now, before the rest of human nature caught up with this new-fangled media.

“Technologists provide tools that can improve people’s lives. But I want to be clear that I don’t think technology by itself improves people’s lives, since often I’m criticized for being too pro-technology. Unless there’s commensurate ethical and moral improvements to go along with it, it’s for naught.” – Jaron Lanier

Already Kenneth Gibson had penned his popular near-future dystopian adventures, Idoru and Necromancer, and he was considered a darling visionary for what cyberocracy portended. The most blatant dimension for inhumane future mischief, evident to anyone when not aswim in the blissful ocean of consumption, was the sheer vast centralization of the Web. Here was the perfect vehicle for one-pointed control of ‘everything’, the pulse of all thought, and the surveying of all populaces. For the subscriber base of the new it was to soon number in the billions, not mere millions or thousands. Mass centralization is either inherently evil or immediately suggestive of it.

“Style used to be an interaction between the human soul and tools that were limiting. In the digital era, it will have to come from the soul alone.” – Jaron Lanier

The recent Facebook foibles in the news delineate one subtle avenue for global manipulation. Jaron Lanier’s earlier books detail his thoughtful views: You Are Not A Gadget and Who Will Own The Future? Being a world-class technician, he offers an insider’s perspective. But there are many other critical voices and issues when it comes to the social impact of the Web, now a quarter century on or so. The following paragraphs list some which I’ve found particularly stimulating.

“Services like Google and Facebook only exist because of the social acceptance of a mass amount of distributed volunteer labor from tons and tons of people.” – Jaron Lanier

Nicholas Carr – author of ‘Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains’. Carr takes a look at something dear to me personally, the notion of attention as a free human capacity. This book deals with the new and more forceful ways in which human attention — which as I see it is the thing one could most closely associate with the concept of free will for those who still believe in such things — is being fragmented and deconstructed. Cognition rendered into sound (and gesture and sight) bytes. Specifically, Carr tries to get at the matter of how habitual or addictive the radically abbreviated tendencies of web-mediated thought processing is for more expansive intellectual activity in general.

Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the internet with the rise of web 2.0. The strangeness is being leached away by the mush-making process. Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form. It is utterly strange to hear my many old friends in the world of digital culture claim to be the true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.” – Jaron Lanier

Is The Internet Making Us Stupider? – online debates typically pitting lovers of information against lovers of contemplation. The latter group, or persona, typically does not buy into the assumption that ideas can be reduced to information without loss of texture and authentic insight. Here, and here. An abbreviated question to consolidate this argument is to consider whether skimming and scanning diminishes or leaves untouched the tendency to pursue a topic with greater depth. One needs to carefully distinguish between obviously positive use cases for web technologies and the socially saturated web-as-life situation we live and breathe within. Andrew Keen is one of the noted critical voices in this area.

“Human beings either function as individuals or as members of a pack. There’s a switch inside us, deep in our spirit, that you can turn one way or the other. It’s almost always the case that our worst behaviour comes out when we’re switched to the mob setting. The problem with a lot of software designs is that they switch us to that setting.” – Jaron Lanier

Neil Postman – provided the classic seminal tome taking a wary look at the dystopic potentials for media with his 1972 study of American television: ‘Amusing Ourselves To Death’. Postman has written other useful works as well.

“Musicians and journalists are the canaries in the coalmine, but, eventually, as computers get more and more powerful, it will kill off all middle-class professions.” – Jaron Lanier

The tone of this has been deliberately sour; I have selected mostly stinging and I believe insightful criticisms about the net effects of the web in our lives. Some critical observers have also offered directions for solutions, notably Jaron Lanier. But before slogging ahead with any of those debates, it is important to develop a clear summary in one’s mind as to the shape and extent of the problems:

Individual Cognitive Level
   • Increased Fragmentation of Attention
   • Bombardment with Unattributed (or falsely attributed) Factoids
   • Discouragement of In-Depth Thinking
   • Addiction to Superficial Atoms of Information

Socio-Economic Level
   • Destruction of Humanistic Livlihoods (journalists, musicians, translators)
   • Hoarding and Weaponizing of Surreptitiously Gathered User Data
   • Disruption of Small-Scale Businesses by Centralized Monopolies
   • Erasure of Concept of Intellectual Property

Cultural/Ethical Level
   • Reduction of Civility Within Discourse
   • Mob Mentality Policing of Unorthodox Moral Opinion
   • Unhealthy Forced Merging of Private and Commercial Life
   • Loss of Control Over Personal Reputation

The good news, however, is that aside from these minor abrasions, the internet has been fabulous & insanely great.

“I’m astonished at how readily a great many people I know, young people, have accepted a reduced economic prospect and limited freedoms in any substantial sense, and basically traded them for being able to screw around online.” – Jaron Lanier

_______RS

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14 Comments

  1. Quite a read and well presented. Contextually, yes, most of what you write here I have been, and I am, well aware of. But, as I recently commented somewhere, what is society and civilization that holds it together but a matter of consensus? Consensus is achieved through the manipulation of power, be it with religion, politics or money. All three “powers” find the Internet very useful in increasing their power over the masses, and what power the masses wield, they seem more than content to waste it on social media. One feeds the other and you have the current consensus. Only a complete implosion of the technology that makes the Internet possible can affect this consensus. Simply put: nothing can be done about it and the results from this love affair will be what they will be. I use WordPress to post some of my own ideas, and to post this comment, so I’m involved in consensus-making also. Do I just quit, and learn the art of contemplation which has never been a strong suit of mine? Do I go and commune with the River, the stones, the ducks, deer and dandelions? I’ve certainly entertained the idea, especially in recent days!

    Reply

  2. Well, the ducks wouldn’t really steer you wrong. 🙂 But, I guess my answer is I try both of these things — gathering balance and strength from nature and trying to add my salt to the overall solution of the discussion space that it might have some homeopathic effect on someone years from now. I mean if one can speak with a sufficiently individualized voice, at least some of the time, then to me that punctures a wound into the veils of dormancy Your points about consensus making — maybe I only partly understand or agree. To me, alot relies upon sleep, remaining asleep to the ways in which things are manipulating or confining people. So even though the manipulating powers are well entrenched, even structurally often (as this article discusses about the web), it is still fundamentally a ‘house of cards’ and so could topple if sufficiently exposed to light of day to enough wakeful types.

    But yeah, I get the seeming hopelessness. Thanks much for reading it through.

    Reply

    1. Quote: “Your points about consensus making — maybe I only partly understand or agree. To me, a lot relies upon sleep, remaining asleep to the ways in which things are manipulating or confining people.” OK, that’s the thing though: things in themselves do not manipulate nor confine people, it’s people who do it to people, and always there is an element of choice in that, however incremental. If people are spiritually and mentally “asleep” then that is a choice they make. I speak from a life-long experience in this. People choose, however strongly or weakly, the spiritual and mental place they find themselves in. If it’s a prison, they walked into it willingly. For example, school was basically “hell” for me: I was the fly in the ointment. I had to question everything, no matter how much sense it made. I had to bring up that hated other side. Whatever the cost, I was never going to be a sheeple! Now, near the end of this run, I am extremely thankful that I seldom, if ever, sought to side with the consensus. I always believed that if the majority thought it right then it had to be wrong. I still believe that.

      Reply

      1. I think you are correct that there is always an element of agency when it comes to compliancy, or succumbing to partly concealed tempting obstacles about some new thing — in this case the web which we are discussing. So, even if the sleep-promoting factors are very cleverly concealed, there is at least some small element of deciding to going along with the flow. Or maybe better said, some ingrained habit to not particularly question things with any serious degree of rigorousness. (A teaching I knew once recommended that people investigate what is happening around them and their own responses to these things with as much engagement and passion as we apply towards eating.)

        But, people can and do change. Choices, whether barely, half, or fully conscious, are not irrevocable things applying to forever. So, when people do persuasive writing, in my view, they are appealing to this human capacity for re-evaluation and change. And further, if one subscribes to the idea of subsequent lives, as we do, then you have to allow for inspiring that part of a person which may not yield fruit in the present circumstances, but only have the possibility for change in the future.

        I have some of your joie d’esprit for questioning things, even well-entrenched things, too. So I understand where that arises from, itS hidden value, and also somewhat, its tendencies for possible distortion. But overall, a very useful quality, I think. A balance for this is to realize that a core target for our skepticism should always be our own beliefs and certainties, and trying to put this into practice.

        One other factor I would point towards, because I think it is big right now, is the basic reluctance or lack of will to confront orthodoxies even in the face of our growing awareness that they likely should be confronted. This is a will and fear problem. And I think it deserves its own special focus.

        Always good to share these ideas with you! 🙂

      2. Quote: “One other factor I would point towards, because I think it is big right now, is the basic reluctance or lack of will to confront orthodoxies even in the face of our growing awareness that they likely should be confronted. This is a will and fear problem. And I think it deserves its own special focus.”

        Indeed, we must, as a species, stop “changing” circularly. Yes, we must confront orthodoxies and not only that, but we must face the fact that they are tearing us apart and destroying the planet, thus we must abandon them in favour of something new; in favour of real change. Now some will say, what could that be? I don’t think it’s difficult to reason out a much better system than the one we willingly enslave ourselves to at this time.

  3. There is so much to digest here, and from some many different (yet overlapping) realms. I personally think the Internet is a great tool with several glaring issues, including those that you point out.
    Technology moves fast–as was Facebook’s motto, “move fast and break things”–often without considering the long-term implications and consequences of new technologies. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the current state of technology seems to be just that.
    As you mention, people readily “do the work” for data-mining companies, investing their free labor into growing already-massive corporations. By sharing every detail of their life, they leave behind a bread trail of thousands (if not more) online interactions, and thus the inability to “erase” one’s future and start over.
    Thirdly, an idea I hadn’t deeply considered before, is that of standardization. Nearly everything online is the same–picture-perfect bodies, adorable babies, headline news of tragedies, recycled quotes, repetitive complaints, and simple observations of our very complex world. There is less depth, less creation, and despite the “mass connection” fostered by social media, people feel less connected than ever before.
    I keep hoping for a shift–not necessarily a mass exodus from social media, but a recognition that these site are invasive, manipulative, and potentially stealing from us the opportunity to embrace our true selves, experience personal growth, and create meaningful work in this world. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I’m trying to at least influence those close to me…leaving social media is personally one of the best decisions I’ve made. Cheers! Hope to see another article on the topic soon. 🙂

    Reply

    1. The salient point for me is how readily we adopt/adapt these elements of technical culture without any thinking as to consequences. Something blatantly atrocious has to happen before people, a small percent, want to inspect the entire process. (So it has been with the U.S. election, for example. The other very scary element is the populace’s acceptance of the so-called inevitability of technical advancement — as though it has a life of its own we do not collectively impart to it. It is not terribly difficult to foresee the outlines of negative social impacts for any particular innovation; but people need to wish to look for these things, and they do not. It doesn’t take much to topple liberal, democratic norms. Basically all that is needed is to keep people sufficiently amused. For example, everyone is in gung-ho cheerleader full speed ahead mode concerning the proliferation of drones and the IOT (internet of things) — even though any serious thinker can see a much larger downside than upside to this technology once you place aside your love affair with consumerism.

      Reply

  4. This is a well thought out and presented post, and I agree with you one-hundred percent. I deleted my Facebook account nearly two years ago, leaving behind hundreds of “friends”, the majority I barley knew. Social media and the internet have almost destroyed human contact, and in my opinion, has dehumanized society to some extent. And it continues to get worse…

    Reply

  5. Thanks for this well-penned critique – you’ve touched on some issues I’ve already been worried about and some consequences of the web that I hadn’t thought of. I’ve felt the dark cloud looming again and though I’ve left Facebook before (for well over a year), I returned recently and realized my mistake. But before I make my exit again, I’m tempted to share the Sherry Turkle face to face quote.

    Reply

    1. Hi dracu – thanks for your thoughts. Goes well past FB too. That’s the currently obvious one. But amazing how much Google and Wikipedia plays a role in standardizing & homogenizing people’s thinking, gradually and unawares.

      Reply

      1. Right, social media is only part of the problem, though as a millennial that’s of particular interest to me. Now, reading posts such as yours and checking out the critics you mentioned are like wearing the special glasses used in John Carpenter’s film, They Live. We sleep as tech monopolies continue to infect society. Another thought – I would love to hear what the late George Carlin would say about our times. 😀

      2. Oh that’s a neat image juxtaposition with the ‘They Live’ glasses. What a great script could be written around that. Yes — often wish I had a deeper grasp of the predicament of Millenials, but at least places like this, literary WP communities, seem to effectively cross many boundaries. Thanks for your thinking. 🙂

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