Tag Archive: internet

I think sometime last week, (my sense of the time-space continuum is all FUBAR due to teething-induced sleep deprivation), I came across a great article written in 1994 about cyberspace.  It’s a bit long and potentially dense, but I highly recommend it.  The author (humdog) accurately observed how humans and corporations interact in the “electronic community,” though she could not foresee how far we would take those interactions down the rabbit hole.  I’d like to address some of her points below and compare them to what is happening today.

“Cyberspace…is a black hole; it absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as spectacle.”

Anyone with a Facebook account can attest to this; in 2010, it became the most visited URL in the world.  Heck, anything (“social” networking) that surpasses porn for internet usage ought to bear closer scrutiny.  Although there are some FB users out there that share way too much, most of us present a very specific persona to the rest of the online community, something we do indeed spend a lot of energy on cultivating.  Yet this “spectacle” that we present is subject to ridicule, bullying, and even short-lived fame.  I wonder if we spent more time developing our actual interpersonal relationships, where we would be?

“we prefer simulation (simulacra) to reality.  image and simulacra exert tremendous power upon our culture.  almost every discussion in cyberspace, about cyberspace, boils down to some sort of debate about Truth-In-Packaging.”

Again, the facades we create for our social networking sites are our “preferred” (dare I say “idealized”) versions of ourselves (in many cases).  Whether it’s for job-seeking on LinkedIn, mate-seeking on eharmony, or our alter ego in Second

This is probably some guy named Otis living in his parents' basement.

Life, we have taken humdog’s idea about simulacra and multiplied it tenfold.  I don’t know if this is some mass-psychological epidemic of multiple-personality disorder or merely a desperate desire for us to live our lives as someone else that stems from dissatisfaction in our daily lives.  Or maybe it’s none of that.  But somewhere along the line, we could very well lose sight of our true selves, or at least do things for our fake personas that we wouldn’t normally do (hopefully).

Of course, with the explosion of the Internet, savvy users are always on the lookout for scams, phishing attempts, and other assorted false sirens meant to lure the unsuspecting.  From ads to photos, one of our first questions is: “is that Photoshopped?”  In other words, the process of fakery has been turned into a verb using its most popular tool.  And apparently it only really bothers people if it’s involved with selling beauty products that might give folks a false sense of reasonable outcomes should they use their products—and even then, only if Photoshop has been used “too much.”  Our sense of reality is being distorted gradually and insidiously, and it does manifest itself in the “real” world.  As science pushes the frontiers of AI and robotics, I suppose it’s only a matter of time before mankind falls to some sort of robo-pocalypse that was previously relegated to though exercises of extrapolation by science fiction writers.

“i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself…i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.  increasingly, consumption is micro-managed…”

Quietly but inevitably, simple chat conversations or searches are turned into a means of highly-specific advertising aimed at the user.  Whether it’s on Google or Facebook, we’re providing these companies with a means to efficiently streamline their advertising dollars by giving them a big old bull’s-eye on our virtual forehead.  Why should they spend their millions on advertising scattershot-style when we’ve lined up on the shooting range like those little ducks moving in a row?  Worse in some ways are how search engines’ algorithms are filtering for us, based on what they “think” we want to see (based on past searches and demographic factors).  In other words, they’re taking control out of the users’ hands and are effectively censoring what we see.

Beyond the ordinary conversations, it’s truly astounding what people will say (or exhibit themselves doing) online.  Perhaps the most outlandish things are often posted anonymously (which points to the trend of a lack of accountability for what we spew online).  Yet, I’ve seen embarrassing, vulgar, and hideous things posted under social networking accounts (assuming that the profile is real, which, sadly, I personally know to be the case in some instances).  Such outbursts provide their viewers with fodder for entertainment, and may even have been posted to produce some sort of shock-and-awe campaign of narcissistic warfare.  To me, it shows a lack of dignity and self-respect (or a pathological need for attention).

“the rhetoric in cyberspace in liberation-speak.  the reality is that cyberspace is an increasingly efficient tool of surveillance with which people have a voluntary relationship.”

Yeah, no one forces us to post the intimate details of our lives, yet we often do.  And we certainly know the problems of privacy/security that these sites have.  Yet we continue to share our personal information for some irrational reason (yes, I’m including myself).  Further, we no longer have to only watch out for Big Brother, but also for Little Brother since nearly everyone has a portable camera on their cell phone to capture anything going on in the street and post it via YouTube for the world to see.  We willingly sell-out our fellow man for that spectacle of entertainment (though it is sometimes warranted in cases of criminal conduct or keeping an eye, ironically, on Big Brother).  But then, Big Brother is still out there—government agencies are constantly trying to gain access to the terabytes of personal information that companies have about their users.  Heck, iPhone users are not only tracked with GPS, but their photos are taken without their consent (and presumably stored somewhere). I’m not saying this is a nefarious plot to track and record all of Apple’s users, but…

“so-called electronic communities encourage participation in fragmented, mostly silent, microgroups who are primarily engaged in dialogues of self-congratulation.  in other words, most people lurk; and the ones who post, are pleased with themselves.”

Yeah, I’m a blogger, so I fall into that latter category—I just hope I’m raising some awareness along the way!  But I think more broadly, the problem with this information-age is the self-filtering most of us do by going to those sites/groups/list-servs that reinforce our views.  Whether it’s AlterNet, FOX News, or some conspiratorial cabal site, we don’t regularly seek out the “other’s” views.  And all too often, our sites are about pointing out what’s wrong with the other side and why our ideology is the right one.  This doesn’t seem to pave the way to a reasonable, rational dialogue which we so sorely need (current debt crisis anybody?).  These tendencies are exasperated by other media outlets, but that was a post from another time.

To wrap up a fairly long post (if you’ve made it this far, thanks!), I think we need to remain vigilant and in a cycle of constant analysis of how our culture deals with technology, the division between reality and the digital (simulated) world, and how those tools are being used by various parties.  It’s not up to a few watchdog groups, but rather it is our responsibility as a collective (lest we be assimilated!).  I’d rather not prove any of the dystopian authors correct if we can help it.

Technology; innovation in the field has brought us many things, both good and bad.  (Seems like a bland statement, but sometimes a premise by Captain Obvious is needed).  After all, we have hydrogen fuel cells for efficient cars and hydrogen bombs to eradicate human beings.  We’ve medically cured many diseases and inflicted a holocaust using the same technological methods.  But this particular post concerns the flow of information, mainly through the internets (you know, those sets of tubes that Al Gore helped invent).

Obviously the internet has brought us all the glory that having near-unlimited access to most types of information can bring.  But there are three salient consequences that trouble me: 1) Filter failure, 2) Fractionalization, and 3) Anonymity.

Filter Failure (FF) isn’t a concept I invented, but has gained notoriety through Clay Shirky who presents an interesting case for one aspect of FF.  It goes something like this: we’re not suffering from information overload (he argues we’ve been suffering from that since the invention of the printing press or even the Library of Alexandria), but rather from FF, and mostly FF at the source of information that can distinguish “quality” information from the “noise” we want to keep out (think spam).  Any feelings we have of being ‘overwhelmed’ result from the failure of a filter we had been using to keep the noise out and our consumption at a rate we can handle.
There are some fair points in there, but I think it oversimplifies and overlooks a couple of things.  First, while information was produced as a result of the printing press, it certainly is not the case that the majority of people were 1) literate and/or 2) had access to said information.  However, with the internet, access to information (barring the poorest of places that don’t have public terminals) is much less of an issue and literacy is not nearly as important as it once was (think talk shows, youtube, etc.).  What I think is missing from Shirky’s argument is that filter failure of keeping the ‘noise’ out is mostly incidental, not the crux of the problem.  If you get spam, it’s annoying (and sometimes amusing) but is quickly remedied for the most part.  In fact, I think most of us have set up filters for ourselves that work pretty well- RSS feeds, bookmarks, favorite sites, etc.  How many people do you know that scour the internet for random things that might (or might not) interest them?  Heck, even randomizing sites like stumbleupon.com have a recommender feature that will help guide you to your preferences.  The filter failure as I see it is that we tend to filter out opposing viewpoints, isolating ourselves from useful “quality” information that we rashly categorize as “noise”.  Such filters exacerbate the second problem…

Increased fractionalization of groups of people and their ideologies.  By self-selecting our incoming information, we’re sure to bolster our views of things by hearing and sharing ideas with like-minded individuals or corporate entities.  We can look down our noses at the “other”- those who disagree with us while we revel in the superiority of our beliefs.  Whether the label is liberal, conservative, neo-Nazi, Buddhist, Catholic, Lakers fan, Twilight swooner or boy band groupie, we feel as part of that in-group and can band together in common defense against any who might attempt to persuade us away from our allegiance through argument (rational or otherwise).  Of course, humans can be relatively complex beings and one may belong to several “groups,” but how many of us actively seek out the opposition’s view of things as objectively as possible to see how our own views hold up?  It seems to me that one advantage of the digital age of information flows would be access to all sides of an issue in order to come to a rational, well-founded belief on any particular issue rather than falling back upon sound bites that ignore the opposition’s valid points or by simply yelling louder than the other side.  This extends into radio and TV talk shows and so-called “pundits” as well.  I mean, who do you know that listens to Rush Limbaugh and Air America? (Well, did listen in the case of the latter).  Further entrenchment in our own ideologies can—and has—lead to stagnation, increased vitriol, and further polarizing between ‘oppositional’ groups.  I think this fractionalization is further fueled by the nature of the internet, the ability to keep one’s…

Anonymity.  One needs only to read over the comments of nearly any article to see the insidious effects that anonymity affords its posters.  Hateful slurs against the “other” are a common occurrence, and “flaming” is a regular concern of moderators.  (In fact, the very need/desire for moderators not only points to the problem of anonymity, but the desire to move the filter closer to the source).  While anonymity allows us to see the prejudices that still underlie many peoples’ beliefs, it certainly poisons the atmosphere and facilitates a defensive retreat and/or retaliatory response in those who take offense.  It also allows hate groups a safe haven for congregation with little threat of reprisal.  In either case, being held accountable for one’s comments is nearly impossible to enforce if one wishes to remain anonymous.  On the other hand, it allows whistle-blowers to reveal corruption (wikileaks.com) in a way that was equally impossible before the internet, despite corporate/governmental efforts to curb such transparency.  Like most technology, the internet comes with pros and cons and is merely a tool to be wielded by inherently biased human beings.

Great Marc, so you’ve complained from your high horse, what should/can we do about it?  I don’t believe (for the most part) in the overregulation of the internet-the freedom of access to information is the most empowering thing for a citizen to have.  It’s how we interact with the flows of information that need to change.  I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what we do with that access.  Are we using it to truly learn about the world or an issue or are we using it to merely reinforce our “side’s” interpretation of any given issue?  I think we need to hold those accountable for their actions as revealed by access to information, not just see it as shocking news to be forgotten by the next click of a hyperlink.  I think we can better utilize the strengths of a democratized internet rather than to simply stoke our narcissism or establish virtual friendships.  (Yes, said by the person who’s writing a blog and has a list of unknown people to play stupid FB games with-I never said I was immune to my own critical judgments!).  Perhaps most importantly, I think we should go to the source of an issue and read it for ourselves rather than believing the often false hype of the media (Health Care Reform bill anyone?).

At any rate, I’m off to visit my favorite websites and play some Lexulous…