Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

An Incomplete Tool

Sorry I've been away so long. I've been distracted with real-world concerns. Job hunting, illness of friends and family, family drama...same old thing, really. Of course, taking some time away from things gets a person thinking. And as we know, thinking is a double-edged sword. Because when you really start to think about some things, you wonder what you're getting out of them. And that's what I've been wondering lately about this great technological marvel, the Internet.

I've lamented before the fate of the Internet. It bothers me how this great thing has been neutered and reduced to a toy. But lately, as I've been away from it, I've had time to think long and hard about the Internet, and why it bothers me so much. Common wisdom dictates that the Internet, like anything else, is a TOOL. And tools are neither inherently good or bad, awesome or stupid. It's what you do with them that makes them so. But of late I consider the form of the Internet, and I wonder if it's even POSSIBLE to do anything worthwhile with it. Maybe it's just a badly-constructed tool.

Let's consider for a moment, just what the Internet IS. It is, at its most basic, a medium for exchanging information. It possesses two advantages over things like radio and television and newspaper: speed and accessibility. Speed, because the information is delivered at the speed of light. Live streaming information, coming you at the moment it happens, without pausing for commercials or waiting for the next printing. Accessibility, because just about anyone can use it. You don't need a printing press or a broadcasting tower. Or even a ham radio set for that matter: all you need is a computer (and the way technology is heading, in a year or two you probably won't even need THAT; just a smart phone). With a small handheld device, anyone can create content, voice opinions, share stories, or even report local news. We saw that potential in its greatest application last year in Iran. When riots and the subsequent government crackdown muzzled all legitimate news sources, it was the common people on the streets, with their smart phones and Twitter accounts, that got news out to the rest of the world. It was a startling moment, almost an Anarchist fantasy made flesh: for one moment, the people, and only the people, had the power.

Of course, that's the greatest application (and whatever it led to is a whole 'nother discussion), and not typical of what you see on the Internet day-to-day. And I wonder if it's simply not possible to have something like that. Maybe this was just an extraordinary example, and the capabilities of this tool are not up to it on a regular basis.

Let's consider, first of all. The greatest misconception about the Internet is that Internet society is a free society. Well, it's certainly free-ER than most real-life societies - freed of the boundaries of your local culture and government, you can be exposed to all kinds of new ideas - and because of that we often find ourselves treating it that way. The simple fact of the matter is that Internet functions less like an unclaimed wilderness and more like a public park: you can do whatever you want inside the park, but you don't own it. Someone else - a government, a private company, whathaveyou - owns the land, someone maintains it, and someone dictates rules about its use. The same is true of an Internet user. You buy a computer. You buy a modem. You pay a service provider for access. You agree to abide by certain rules and regulations. Someone owns and maintains the infrastructure - the cables, the routers, the servers - and it's usually not the users themselves. For the most part, the rules that service providers make regarding conduct are pretty broad, and for the most part the fees are reasonable. But that does not make it "free." Those rules can be changed, those fees raised or lowered, that access rescinded at any time by the person or corporation that owns it. Access to the Internet is a privilege, not a right. And the Internet is such a complicated amalgam of hardware and software that maybe that's just how it has to be. Your everyday user is not going to be able to cobble together his or her own ISP from odds and ends found at Radio Shack. It doesn't work that way.

That being said, that there are at least nominal limitations on the Internet, there are still countless uses for it. Like any medium for exchanging information, there are at least four potential ways for it to be used: social, educational, commercial, and entertainment. And nearly all of these are flawed. Let's start with the most deeply flawed, the social use of the Internet. This is something I learned personally, the hard way. You'd think that the social implications of the Internet would be overwhelmingly positive: I mean, here, for the first time, is a means of communicating with other human beings on the purely intellectual level. Interaction by thought alone. No one is judged by appearance or economic standing; when you're just words on a screen, you can only be judged by the thoughts you share with others. And of course, that greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. A society where ideas are the only currency depends on users being both honest with and respectful of one another...and we all know how often THAT happens on the Internet. When all you know of a person are the words they type, it's hard to think of them as "real" people. Trust comes slowly...but abuse comes more readily. It's just easier to deride someone you don't know than it is to assume they know what they're talking about...or to challenge them on a more intellectual level. When you consider the typical mindset of a person who lives a large chunk of his or her life on the Internet (and yes, I include myself in this), it's all the more understandable, and all the more disheartening. You can't have a level-headed, intellectually-stimulating debate with a person with a chip on their shoulder. Whether that individual is a Born-Again Christian convinced that AIDS is a plague from God on our permissive society, or a transgendered vegan militant who wants to legalize heroin, it makes no difference. Strong opinions plus relative anonymity minus the simple courtesy found in face-to-face contact equals arguments of such ugliness that it makes one lose faith in humanity. Difference of opinion will become misconstrued as a personal attack, and will be met with personal attacks, and we're back to a bunch of weird strangers swearing at each other.

So, the social function of the Internet doesn't work. What about the educational function? Well, it does have some advantages. The Internet started life at a university, as a means to exchange and preserve information. In that capacity, the Internet works startlingly well. The previous example of the Iranian election riots is one of the best. There have been instances of newspapers and periodicals - some very old, well-established ones - going out of business because they simply can't keep up with the pace of the Internet. That's the medium's greatest strength again: speed and accessibility. It signifies a sort of "democratizing" trend in news reporting: you don't have to be an established reporter or anchorperson; if you're there when the news happens, and you have a way to tell everyone in the world about it, you're in. But just as before, this has its own built-in downside. Speed is one thing, but accuracy is another...and when it comes to exchanging knowledge and information, accuracy is VERY important. And with the democratization of news comes the eroding of that sense of authority that legitimate news outlets have. Network news programs have fact-checkers and editors; the kid on the street filming a police stop with his video phone doesn't. Granted, you could make the argument that this is a good thing - we get to see events unfolding in their "raw" state, without editing and without commentary - but common sense dictates we maintain a healthy skepticism, a desire to confirm that what we're seeing is really what we're seeing. And in the case of the kid on the street with the video phone, where do you go for fact-checking? That's the downside of democratization of information: in the absence of any set of standards to verify accuracy, how do we sort out what is true and what isn't? If traditional news outlets can no longer be relied on, then who do we rely on? If nothing can be verified, then is EVERYTHING potentially true? THAT is the rub, Horatio. Healthy Skepticism devouring its own tail like some kind of metaphysical Ouroboros. We can't trust news outlets, because they're too slow to respond. And besides, some news outlets are just corporate and/or political tools, right? So then...what? Whose information is true, and how do we go about confirming that it's true? And if we can't confirm that this story is accurate and that one is not, then do we have to assume that they are both equally accurate? Is Global Warming any more factual than the latest Bigfoot sighting? Accuracy is sacrificed in favor of speed, thoughtful analysis exchanged for the all-important "scoop." It's easier to be clever than smart, to slap together a catchy by-line than to write an insightful piece of information. Nothing new in the world of news media, of course, but the speed of the Internet just multiplies the potential problems.

So then, we come to the commercial uses of the Internet. You'd think this would be where it shines the brightest. Never mind that Internet access is very much a commodity in and of itself; with access to a global market, a user can potentially have ANYTHING they want, ANYTIME, from ANYWHERE in the world. Just stop to ponder that for a moment. This was a thing unheard-of even a generation ago. If you can afford it, you can have the latest piece of Anime direct from Japan, or an antique writing desk from a seller in Florence, or even something as simple as fresh strawberries in the dead of winter. The impact of this cannot be understated...yet even THIS has its share of problems. Because the online market is such a relatively new way of doing business, and it changes so quickly, traditional rules of doing business don't often apply. In particular there are things like licensing fees and copyright law to consider, as rules that have served commercial interests for centuries have suddenly become obsolete. Nowhere is this more obvious - and infuriating to the consumer - as in the world of music sales. The trials and tribulations of the recording industry have been shared far and wide, and the precedents set are alarming, to say the least. You can buy an album, but you don't OWN the album. You can't share it with your friends. You can't listen to it on any machine you want. In fact, if you do, you're BREAKING THE LAW. You're a pirate, and the RIAA will come down on you like a ton of platinum records. Sure, the RIAA can make as much noise as they want to about "protecting their artists' livelihood," but it's pretty clear what's really going on: rather than change their business model to suit new technology, they are trying to constrain the new technology to better fit their business model. It's a dangerous legal precedent to set. What if this rationale were applied to other industries? What if, say, Sketchers suddenly decides that only YOU can wear the stuff you bought from their online store, and if some teeny-bopper lends her cute new hightops to a friend, they're both subject to arrest for "sneaker piracy"? That's about as ridiculous as it sounds, but it could happen. You'd think that a company that will not adapt its business model to new markets would subsequently fail, but if a corporation has enough clout, it could wind up killing the new market. Oldest story in capitalism, really.

That leaves us with entertainment, and it's no mystery why that seems to where the Internet thrives. It's the simplest of them all. How many of us have just whiled away a lazy afternoon with aimless surfing, looking up interesting facts or watching funny videos on Youtube? That's what most users do. It's so much easier to observe and consume content, rather than create it. Creating content is HARD, after all. Opinions are subject to scorn. Information is subject to scrutiny. Products are subject to intellectual property argument. But keeping yourself entertained? That's the easiest thing in the world. As easy as clicking a mouse button and watching a little red bar go from the left side of the screen to the right side of the screen.

Therein lies the problem, and I can't help but feel that maybe the Internet is simply not designed to be anything else. Maybe the information found on the Internet is of questionable accuracy because it's not DESIGNED to be accurate. Maybe the Internet simply wasn't designed to accommodate meaningful intellectual or emotional connection among individuals. Maybe, as a species, human beings would prefer to simply observe than build, and the Internet accommodates that need. The current trend toward smart phones and "palmtop" computing seems to confirm that: these are not devices for users creating serious content. These are devices for people who need to use the Internet for quick, simple uses: looking up a fact, checking e-mails on the go, etc. And maybe that's what the Internet is best for. If so, then it's resounding success.

But the idealist in me keeps nagging me that it could be so much MORE. That's probably why I keep coming back to this blog; some faint hope that someone will read my words and take something worth thinking about away from them. But I know that, like any tool, the Internet is only going to be as useful as the users themselves let it be. So ultimately, it's up to the users to put this wondrous tool to better use. It's up to the users to police themselves, to create content that is worth viewing, to be mindful of one another, to be as honest and accurate as possible when sharing information, to push for laws and business models that make more sense in this changing world. And I don't know if we as human beings are very good at that. Maybe someday, if enough of us get tired of how things are going now. If enough of us push for change, in how we act online, in how we shop online, in how we demand our information online. It could be scary. It could also be wonderful. It could be almost Marxist in its consequences, as users create and own their own content. Maybe even own their own service. Maybe even truly become a free society.