“Give me Internet access right now, and no-one will get hurt!” yells a woman in a medical facility who has been cut off from mobile phones, wi-fi and social networks. “I haven’t seen a picture of a kitten for six weeks, and that is too much!” This isn’t reality (yet) – rather the opening words of a 2016 novella by English graphic novelist Warren Ellis entitled Normal. The story takes place in a mental institution which tries to cure patients afflicted by excessive pondering on the pitfalls of tomorrow. The patients mainly consist of futurologists – victims of their own professional interests, who until recently still revelled in rosy predictions about a technological future, but have since fallen into severe depression upon the realisation that the new dawn, in fact, seems to be bringing global catastrophe.
And the first thing that doctors deny their patients is access to the Internet – that most tangible and bestial of symbols of our disappointment in a future we once dared to dream would be so very different. Years ago, we believed that the Internet would help foster freedom; today, we see that it is, conversely, tying our hands. We hoped that it would fill our heads with easily accessible knowledge; instead trash and trash talk prevailed. And when the likes of Facebook and Twitter arrived, we jumped for joy over the possibility of our friends and acquaintances being just a click away. Only belatedly are we realising that these very services have essentially imprisoned us into isolated social bubbles of shared cultures and opinions. Like cows in a dairy farm, we are being fattened up, then milked for everything we have.
The Internet itself is not to blame. We are. We are the ones that broke the optimistic promise of the Internet.
In 2007, writing for the online publication Wired, blogger Clive Thompson gave his impressions of the burgeoning Twitter phenomenon. His impressions of the social network proved highly influential in the years ahead. Unlike other geeks of the day, he didn’t concern himself with trivial challenges such as how to best summarise Star Wars in a tweet that fits Twitter’s 140-character tweet limit. Nor did he ponder the marketing aspects of how tweets could be used by companies to attract the highest number of potential customers. Nor did he ponder how Twitter might end up changing how journalists report the news. Rather, Thompson mostly focused on Twitter as a “social network” and speculated that the site was fomenting a kind of sixth sense among its users – a constant, ever-pulsing, and irregularly updated quasi-consciousness, brimming with information about every user’s numerous activities, opinions and reactions. No sci-fi style implants required. But Twitter apparently did represent a major expansion of our archaic human senses in the direction of a collective ether. Heady stuff, indeed...
Twitter never really took off in the Czech Republic. But Czechs did find that golden “sixth sense” in rival social networking site Facebook. A sudden, down-to-the-second knowledge of the activities of 150 “friends” or more. A mass of trivia pulsating like neurons across distances both large and small. Suddenly we lived in multiple time zones simultaneously. Time and space themselves seemed to have been conquered. And so on the one hand we became ultra-modern, high tech, New Age beings; while on the other, simple skills like darning our socks appeared to be slipping. But at least we knew that so-and-so old school friend was “bored at work”. How useful!
We bathed in this New Age for a number of years. But then a gradual sense of disappointment, and even of being deceived, began to set in. Almost as if the boyish Mark Zuckerberg had been exposed as not “one of us”, but rather the proverbial Emperor with no clothes, telling us: “You’re here to make me money! That’s all!” Or, to use a more business savvy term – we were there to be monetised.
And so Facebook was revealed as not a forum for the free exchange of ideas; rather, as a business model based on the mining of personal information and personal interaction. Perhaps Twitter was the answer then? Hardly. In the desperate search for revenue, Twitter’s advertising models and data mining algorithms have made it something of an evil twin of Facebook. The same sense of sobering up is evident with workers at Internet media and start-up firms. Those dream jobs at Google, with their relaxed environments, and cultures of pressure-free inspiration – that’s largely gone too. Most workers are leaving the firm after a year.
So what made the dream turn so sour?
The dystopian literary forefathers of Facebook serve as a daily reminder of the adage that if we are somewhere for free, then we are not viewed as a customer, but rather as a product. To quote the replicant character Rachael from the 1982 movie Blade Runner: “I am not in the business. I am the business.” We don’t really rest while on Facebook. We work. For Facebook.
Facebook could end up marketing defoliating products for your private parts to you based on your name and profile; the information is acquired from the time you spend levitating over a particular link before you decide to click it. It can even monetise those users who have little money to spend based on one’s clicks of “like” buttons. Recently Belgian police warned its citizens not to use Facebook’s newest reaction smileys, because they were used for data collection purposes. And what data? The kind of big data mining that is so pervasive that its degree and accuracy startled even Wall Street market analysts. According to social media presence management firm theAudience, which, for instance, represents rapper US Pittbull, fan data pertaining to clients is used to create sophisticated behaviour models, which are then used to tailor custom products. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. As part of the social media presence of US rapper JayZ, it is not just the music tastes of followers that are mined but also contacts and geo-location data.
And so the Internet’s celebrated “sixth sense” has mutated into a tool used to build up an economic model which mines and exploits our private space like never before.
Like and multiply
So what is it about this Brave New World that we find so irresistible? The way that Facebook opens up the world to us? Hardly. Even when Facebook founder Zuckerberg was unveiling his social networking site, he stated that the aim was not to foment new human relationships but rather to intensify existing ones. And he certainly achieved that. Today we call that a “bubble” or “echo chamber” – an isolated space in which people are only “friends” with those who constantly applaud and take notice of our every activity. And Facebook algorithms assist the process, only offering users that which they already like. The end result is an ever-closing space in which one’s own voice is reflected back at ever louder volumes.
According to Danielle Citron, a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, and an expert on cyber harassment, people have a tendency to share information not based on its inherent worth, but rather because such information affirms existing values and viewpoints. Never mind the source, the point is that this is EXACTLY WHAT I believe, and Jirka agrees, and he is a friend, so I need to pass this on right away! Which is why Internet discussions today are full of likeminded praise of “I totally agree!” And that is why Facebook communities have retreated into narrow pools of shared opinions, with stray outside voices subjected to immediate and severe reprimands for their “wrong” views. It’s almost a gang culture.
But relying only on verified, properly sourced, information? Pah! That’s what journalists are for, right? The same ones who themselves laid down their arms by creating Internet profiles for their publications. The result is that stories are now no longer up to editors, but Facebook algorithms, which decide what readers like or do not like. Not that such methods are actually paying off: over the first quarter of 2016, the New York Times’ profits fell by 13 percent to USD 51.5m. Over the same timeframe, Facebook’s quarterly profits tripled to half a billion dollars.
And we have actually largely stopped going online for the purpose of holding meaningful debates. The reason is because anything remotely resembling an “Internet discussion” has long since died. For in order for people to hold genuine discussions, they have to be able to see each other. Internet forums are more akin to people spitting at each other over a wall.
An evolutionary biologist may prove useful at this point. For example Matt Ridley, a British popular science author and journalist, and author of the 1994 book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. This summer Ridley wrote a Times column entitled “If we don't tame Twitter, we'll face mob rule”. In the piece, the author argues that for decades communication media helped to moderate public debate; today, he says, social media is merely fuelling extreme views. He noted: “A Pew Research Centre project in America found that ‘polarised crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags’.” During the boom era of the blogosphere various blogs merely served as components of the overall spectrum of opinion; today, “opinion” is distilled into an all-encompassing and intransigent conclusion in which no real discussion is encountered. It was never difficult to finds blogs both for and against the Brexit. But when Tom Steinberg, founder of British NGO mySociety, tried to find Brexit voters via his Facebook page, the site acted as if no such people existed.
According to Ridley, social media “amplifies the personal and the extreme, heats up the echo chamber and gives wings to lies. Confirmation bias rules, preaching to the converted dominates, nuance vanishes and moderates stay silent.” Perhaps that is what we have learnt to like about such forums. The echoing of our own voices; the affirmation of our “friends”. But in no way can we call that an open exchange of ideas. Blocking opposing views, all the while revelling in our own narcissistic “selfies”. It’s a self-affirming wall that can hardly be said to improve our knowledge or awareness of the world.
Douglas Rushkoff is an American media theorist, and one of the first people to mull the meaning of the Internet. In his 1994 book Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Cyberspace, the author presented a vision in which the Internet could serve as a catalyst to a new Renaissance. The birth of a new technological civilisation, but with roots harking back to fundamental human values. Or is it a “real world without restrictions or rules, in which anything is possible...”? Oops – sorry, that is actually the tagline from the 1999 film “The Matrix”. Two decades on, Rushkoff’s latest work is called “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus” and tackles the gloomy and sobering place in which the Internet now finds itself.
Cyberia depicts a society fundamentally disenchanted by the chasm between the promise and reality of a hi-tech future. Rushkoff finds a common denominator for what exactly has caused this colossal online hangover. We, both as users and creators of the Internet, could have created a system based on entirely new economic models. For a while we really did hold this wild horse of a new technology by the proverbial reins. And that meant heading out into hitherto uncharted terrain. But then we gave up and simply allowed the reins to be taken over by the classic dysfunctional economic model. We allowed the absurd idea of neverending growth to seep into the digital domain – and the pioneers of old soon transformed accordingly into archetypal corporate behemoths. And so Google is a machine of exploitation. Amazon a psychopathic manager. Facebook a manufacturer of clickbait.
Platforms optimised for people have been transformed into platforms serving the concept of endless growth. It is an industrial revolution on speed. We are repeating the same old mistakes, writes Rushkoff. But now, thanks to the scope and speed of digital business expansion, mistakes are not only able to upset production processes, but can even disturb the entire equilibrium of a sustainable society.
And so the fact that Facebook today is basically a complete waste of time, is just the tip of the iceberg.