One could argue that the timeline of my life has coincided almost precisely with the emergence of a meaningful Internet. (I use the term “meaningful Internet” to differentiate the Internet of the modern era from the Internet that existed as a tool used by the Department of Defense as far back as the 50s.) When I was a teenager, we had computer bulletin boards. (Interestingly, I remember a guy giving me several floppy disks worth of video games he downloaded illegally from said bulletin boards. Even back then file sharing was a problem.) Then, in my 20s, we saw the emergence of the web browser and web graphics. As I’ve matured and become wiser and only better looking, we’ve seen the advent of social networking, Internet enabled phones etc.
And I find, as time has gone on, I become more wary of Internet. I become weary of the overwhelming access to information it offers, the endless distractions it flaunts. I find myself genuinely yearning for an Internet free existence, but realize that would vastly limit my employment options and general swinging lifestyle.
Jaron Lanier is a guy I’ve read about and been interested in. He contributed quite a bit to the Internet technologies referred to as “Web 2.0″ and since then has largely condemned the Internet. His reasons are numerous (he has a book on the topic) but in particular he condemns the philosophy of “information wants to be free.” In relation to music file sharing, he says:
“I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.)
“Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’
“And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments.”
He also makes a point that I’ve made (and thus can be presumed to be quite wise): that anonymity on the Internet has led people to become ugly and wicked in their political disputes. Instead of causing us to come together, the Internet is forcing people to calcify in their own tribes.
At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.