WEB LIFE CRISIS
MONOLOGUE WRITTEN BY CLYDE LEWIS
It is hard to believe that in 1989, the Internet was in its infancy. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that many of us fired up our modems and ventured on to what was called the “information superhighway.”
It was rumored this would be a miraculous tool for information gathering and marketing. It became arguably one of the greatest inventions in the world. The information superhighway became the web, and from there we now have social media, entertainment, and information from what now known as the Internet.
The Clinton Administration proposed an archetype for how the Internet should be governed that remains the most succinct articulation of a pro-liberty, market-oriented vision for the web ever penned. It recommended that we rely on civil society, contractual negotiations, voluntary agreements, and ongoing marketplace experiments to solve information age problems. In essence, they were recommending a high-tech Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm to the Internet.
For the first time, the government believed in the people to officiate and regulate its own library of sorts. Of course, this was met with political fears of undue influence from pornographic sites, independent news sites and later websites that allegedly radicalized terrorists.
It is because of these so-called overstatements of arguable influence of what is seen as cyber heresy that most governments across the globe including ours here in the U.S are increasingly taking a very different approach about how the Internet should be governed.
While many politicians promised originally to keep their “hands off the net,” today it’s more like “Hands all over the Net.” It is difficult to name an area where policymakers are not currently threatening or at least considering controls for the Internet and related digital technologies.
In the past, we would hear stories about how some politician wanted to regulate the net. We had heard about Internet taxes, high load regulation and the possible turning over of all keys to the net to foreign interests that are more than happy to block content.
I remember that the Internet gave me a place to generate content. I was a broadcaster who blogged before blogging was a thing. I used it to broadcast before a live podcast was a thing, and I used it to make recorded e-mails before MP3’s were a thing.
In fact, Ground Zero is more than anything a radio show that owed a lot to the Internet. When Ground Zero first started, most of the special effects and recordings on the show were gathered with files shares and data research from bulletin boards, something that existed long before MySpace or even Facebook.
For the world the Internet is 30 years old — for me maybe it is just under 25. For 25 years it has been a showcase of my life’s work and from the archives of poor writing to the recorded broadcasts I have from the earliest shows it has been a companion and help to my success as a broadcaster.
However, from a person who has had a long relationship with the Internet, I can tell you that today the Internet is not at all what was first pitched to us 30 years ago.
During the 1984 Super Bowl between the Washington Redskins and the Miami Dolphins, there was a revolutionary ad campaign that was produced by Apple called, “1984.” If you recall, the commercial opens with a dystopian, industrial setting that is reminiscent of the old Fritz Lang movie, Metropolis.
People are marching in unison to a large telescreen with what appears to be a large talking head giving orders to the brainwashed herd and immediately you realize that this is some sort of 1984 metaphor.
Suddenly, an alarm is heard and we see a runner that looks like a track and field athlete wearing orange and white which is a sharp contrast to the gray and bleak images we first see. There is a picture of what appears to be Apple’s Macintosh computer on her white tank top.
She is carrying a brass-headed hammer and is being chased by security police, wearing black uniforms, protected by riot gear, helmets with visors covering their faces, and armed with large nightsticks. She races towards a large screen with the image of a Big Brother-like figure giving a speech.
The Big Brother image tells the brainwashed minions the following:
“Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!”
The runner, now close to the screen, hurls the hammer towards it, right at the moment Big Brother announces, “We shall prevail!” There is an explosion and the shattering glass and dust files, none of the minions flinch and an announcer says at the end of the ad:
“On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”
Now, times have changed.
The original idea was that the Internet would democratize the good and disrupt the bad. It would get rid of the gatekeepers, do away with national boundaries — and all this would radically change society for the better.
I remember when I and a bunch of guys saw opportunity in jumping from terrestrial radio to internet TV – there were Congressmen and Senators that were constantly berating the Internet as a marketplace for pornography and child predators. However, while this had some basis in truth I knew what the Internet was to Washington D.C. – it was a tool to expose them as the criminals.
I remember writing in 1998 an online essay called “From Telling Lies To Telling Stories and the Freedom to Do Both” the following and forgive my poor syntax:
“The conservative backlash at the World Wide Web is evil and sinister, and many people who do not use the web will be judging its value by what is said by those in government who look at it as a new tool in feeding subversive propaganda.
The mainstream media looks at the Internet as a disinformation tool that spins yarns of conspiracy, the supernatural and warped logic. It has already positioned itself as a credible source for news that needs to campaign for journalistic standards on the net. The fear that exists is that those who control what you know are losing their grip. It is obvious that they are.
It is argued that those who get official consensus reality from credible news sources like the New York Times, CNN, and the network big three, will clash with those who get consensus reality from the Web.
There will be no social watering hole to quench the thirst for information. The mental individuality factor will be at an all-time high and social confusion will result. It is like this, for the first time, there is no final word on anything.”
It is obvious that the mainstream news has declared the Internet as an enemy because they want to win the hearts and minds of the people. Now because of the internet all of the technical and political solutions that they devise become ineffective—become there is always someone out there that is smarter or more effective in communicating their shortcomings.
We have been told that to fight something that is not even defined nor is it even an important issue.
Common sense and discernment have always been something that you should have learned growing up – you don’t need a news organization to warn you of how fake something is – or how the information that you may get on the internet is dangerous.
The biggest problem I have is that the media can scream fake news on the media all they want and yet they base most of their news tips on Twitter posts.
I am not saying that we should believe everything we hear on the Internet but haven’t we always secretly thought that we should be skeptical of a lot of what we read on the Internet?
We should always be challenging stories and conspiracy theories.
That is the fun part of the Internet for me – it always has been the case and I consider myself a keyboard veteran.
While the Internet has helped us in many ways, it has hurt us in ways that I am sure the earlier World Wide Web evangelists would not have imagined and this is why it is arguable that the Internet was a good thing in totality.
It can be said that the Internet has gone from a tool that has helped the creative culture to a tool that has been abused to shame a culture.
Some people feel free to trash others for the slightest provocation or politically incorrect thought. There is a disconnect between how we talk to each other online and how we speak to one another, face to face.
Even though I text and tweet and electronically and socially interact, I absolutely hate the fact that my online personality pegs me as a jerk. I can be sarcastic, direct, playful, joking and I can also communicate well… when I speak. However, if I text or even tweet I am forced to use a smiley face, or winky faced emoticons or emoji’s which I compare to the electronic equivalent of how we talk all goofy and cutesy when we see a baby or a puppy.
The ability to read the emotions of others is linked to “social intelligence”—texting eliminates this and so if I send a curt tweet or I try to explain anything with sarcasm or humor… nothing is understood unless we add an uncomfortable or needless LOL – or a smiley face just to keep the peace online.
We were told in the beginning, that the Internet was supposed to be a civil environment for discussion.
However, I started noticing the unraveling of collective sanity when chat forums needed monitors and ICQ chat had trolls and those who would come in to disrupt civil discussion or discussions about my shows.
After about 5 years of trying to maintain a chat presence, I got rid of my chat rooms and thought that my show is a talk show, I figured that if anyone wanted to talk with me about my topics they could call in and if they didn’t I controlled it.
Then came MySpace which became a Facebook/ Instagram hybrid and then Facebook that went from fun to becoming one of the biggest engines of intolerance.
It has created an echo chamber culture — a more parochial, narrow, selfie-centric universe. It has brought forth the narcissism in all of us.
Thanks to technical platforms like Twitter and Facebook, we live in a perpetual present. We stumble from one outrage to the next. We also are left confused.
Facebook regulates the Internet tyranny of the present. We go from someone saying something stupid to the next person’s sexual scandal to some political scandal, and then, after about an hour, we’ve forgotten what the last one was. All these stories acquire such importance while they’re happening, and disappear once they’re over.
So much to focus is on the moment and so much to forget about in 15 minutes and then the process starts over again.
You are outraged in one moment and laughing at a kitty meme the next.
This is what has happened to the Internet – the technocrats say that it is in its adolescence but I say it is bordering on its midlife crisis. It knows what it was but it has gotten fat and wonders if it is still attractive and relevant.
It now has fact checks and Wikipedia but all of it has the bias of the creators.
Wikipedia is much more likely to be seen as evidence of “the wisdom of the crowds” and we all know how the court of public opinion seems to lean towards the wrong much more so than they do on the right.
Wikipedia, as a concept, is truly an online encyclopedia that relies on information and facts provided by or contributed by “strangers” who we have no idea of what their background might be.
We’ve opened the door to corporate-sponsored dishonesty, such as when companies seed Wikipedia with marketing material or trump up information on consumer review networks such as Yelp.
When Google decides what is relevant in your search and skews it with definitions that rival Webster’s dictionary – I believe that this has betrayed the trust of an open and free internet.
The Internet’s purpose was to connect people and not divide them but unfortunately, this is not the case today.
Despite all the happy talk about connecting people, the Internet has not spread liberty around the world. On the contrary, the world is less free, in part because of the Web. In 2005, when about a quarter of the world’s population was online, common sense held that more connectivity would mean more freedom.
When Mark Zuckerberg was calling connectivity a basic human right, the more traditional rights were in decline in the real world as the Internet advanced.
Young people who were born into an age with the Internet care less about democracy and are more sympathetic to authoritarianism than any other generation.
We think of computers as “ours” – some of us who are older see the Internet as “ours” and imagine that we are the rational ones, using computers as tools.
For many of us, much of the time, this may be a disastrously self-flattering perspective.
When we run a search or read a feed, we are encountering an entity that has run algorithms about our preferences and which presents a version of reality that suits us.
People will humor others, like when you humor an uncle that tells the same stale jokes- but the internet does it with heartless and emotionless determination. It wants you to come back and feed and click and feed and click – if you don’t then it isn’t doing what it has been programmed to do.
Because like it or not, the Internet is growing and is developing its own kind of intelligence and this is where we are now traversing the uncanny valley with Artificial Intelligence.
Traditionally, we have thought of Artificial Intelligence as a kind of rival to our own intelligence, emerging in parallel. What is actually happening is not parallel development but an interaction, in which entities that are not themselves intelligent can nevertheless make us stupid.
The Internet wants you to rely on it for your intelligence – and of course, younger people that are born into this really don’t have to think but have algorithms do their thinking for them.
In the famous “Turing Test,” designed to determine whether a computer program could convince a human that it was also a human, skeptical humans would ask hard questions and consider the output.
It was the human that decided if the output could fool the thinking man or woman.
However, it scarcely resembles how we deal with the Internet today.
Rather than testing what we see in a search or a feed, we concede our intelligence to the Internet. We assume that it knows more than we do only when it makes us feel good about our opinions and assumptions.
Isn’t it funny how our memory about the 20th century has become hazy and that our recall has become faulty, giving way to the idea of a Mandela Effect? It is because smartphones and news feeds have structured our attention so that we cannot think straight nor have an accurate recall of past events and pop culture cues.
The programmers are deliberately appealing to psychological tactics such as intermittent reinforcement of “you don’t know what you thought you knew” to keep you online rather than thinking.
Once attention is gained, it is kept by deliberate bottomless feeds that reinforce what we like and think. Researchers have found users of the Internet believe they know more, but in fact, are less able to recall what they think they know.
The Internet is now 30 years old and love it or hate it, the information superhighway certainly provides us with so much and we have developed a relationship with something that we think respects us enough to not lead us astray.
But that is an illusion.
The trolls, bots, and algorithms will not respect us as long as we do not respect ourselves and what it means to think, instead of having something think for us.