I was going to post another Photo Story today, but sitting here looking at my photo, I see now that it tells another story; one that I’ve been thinking about for quite a long time. Before I get into that, have a look at the photo below. Please remember to click on the image to make it larger and clearer…
Just a guy checking his smartphone, right? It’s the sort of thing that happens everyday. Maybe he’s messaging someone; maybe he’s checking his Twitter timeline? Who knows. Seems pretty normal doesn’t it? I thought so at the time too, having largely become desensitised to the power of the screen myself.
On further reflection, I see something else too. Look at the little pamphlet in front of him: Building Stronger Relationships. In this photo, I also see how relationships between people have changed.
300 Bauds Ahead!
I vividly remember a time before smartphones and touchscreens. This was a time before the Web. Life was a bit slower then. If someone called you at home and you were out, they just left a message for you or called back later. There was no expectation that you’d pickup.
Waaaay back in 1985 we had an Amstrad home computer. A smart friend built us a dial-up modem so that we could call in to the local BBS and try out this new fangled online world. That was before the internet existed as a truly global infrastructure, of course.
We had to place our phone on the modem at precisely the right moment, so we’d have to listen carefully to the dial tone. Once connected, a whole new world opened up. I could chat to people (very very slowly), message someone’s inbox, and even check the latest news headlines and weather reports. By today’s standards the speed was glacial, but it was truly exhilirating at the time! I’d sit there for hours chatting to other people in the neighbourhood instead of doing my homework.
I’d like to tell you that I saw the future in those hours of connection; that I envisioned a globally connected world. But the truth is, I didn’t at all. I was certainly excited by the technology and the type of communication it allowed, but I’d never have imagined then how it would eventually change us, and change our relationships with one another.
The Age of Loneliness
I’ve witnessed a blurring of realities in the last decade or so. We’ve moved from the Web being a novelty, to it being thought of as integral to our daily lives. In 1993, I could go into the computer lab at University and use the old Yahoo search engine to look up all sorts of things on the fledgling web. I surfed the Web, in fact. It was exciting because it was a novel activity. The web was not connected to us back then as it is now. It was still a seperate entity that existed as an information resource for anyone lucky enough to have access to a connected computer. Now it has become a hive mind; a global cloud; a robotic attendant to every thought!
But have these ever present connections brought us closer together?
Welcome to your new memory storage facility
There’s an interesting book called Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, authored by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. I’d not thought of it before, but our intimately connected Web has also become our second brain. In it we store photos, love notes, job Resumes, and all manner of personal data. But who’s in charge? And why are so many of us so willing to give up our personal data to this hive mind?
Mayer-Schonberger suggests that we need to be able to forget our mistakes in order to move on in our lives. If our lives are being tracked and recorded in Facebook updates and stored on hard drives across the other side of the world, are we really able to forget?
There are ongoing studies into the positive and negative effects of social media, but it’s worth noting that services like Facebook have been linked to depression and anxiety, as we seek to live ideal lives through our social media profiles, and keep track of what other people are doing. I’ve even experienced this myself! An old friend finds me on Facebook, and suddenly I feel like I’m nineteen again and having to apologise for making a mistake that I thought I’d put behind me.
In a November 2013 Scientific American article called The Internet has Become the External Hard Drive for our Memories, Wegner and Ward state that the “…tendency to distribute information through what we call a “transactive memory system” developed in a world of face-to-face interactions, one in which the human mind represented the pinnacle of information storage.”
The Intimate Web has replaced the disribution of information between people. We now entrust our data to the cloud. We Google information instead of asking someone else. The transactive memory system of groups of people has been penetrated by the Intimate Web and has been fractured by it. Our social system has been injured and we’ve fallen prey to the profiteering digital corporations that loom like giant planets in a solar system; pulling us into their gravitational field.
A 2011 experiment involving neuroimaging demonstrated that our long-term memories are being affected adversely by frequent web use, as our short term memories are accessed more often during the activity in order to deal with the barrage of information. Similarly, compelling studies are being conducted on information retention in the context of reading a paper book versus reading a screen; and for some people, deep learning and information retention suffers when they use screens.
We don’t surf the Web anymore. We used to do it back in the mid 90s, but it’s a quaint concept now. After all, surfing implies freedom doesn’t it? We no longer have the freedom to surf the Intimate Web because our experience is curated by massive digital corporations with influential gravities. We log into Facebook to check the Newsfeed. We go to Ebay to check our bids. We Google a band and then share it on Google Plus. We check our Twitter feed for the latest 140 character snippets of knowledge from our digital buddies. The digital landscape is dominated by digital giants that lull us with a Siren’s call of free stuff and ultra-fast information.
Your life is a Newsfeed run by other people
The current business strategy in Silicon Valley is clear: come up with a new way for people to connect through the Intimate Web, get it funded, roll it out, offer a’free’ service, sell user data, and watch the cash roll in.
Of course, free isn’t really free in this scenario. We feed our own data to the new monster in return for use of their services, and they sell our data to third parties to make a juicy profit. Even though most of us know it, we fall for it. We can’t seem to resist the idea of something for free, even though there’s a cost. We used to pay for services, but now we expect stuff to be free online. The problem is that it’s not truly free. Our information is trapped in the intimate web and sold for profit. More worryingly, as evidenced by the NSA spying saga, our information is also accessed by parties other than advertisers. And we’re mostly giving it away for access to an ad-infected timeline!
The very fact that the NSA interception of data has been happening at the hardware level, as well as through software backdoors, should really give us pause for thought. Who really is in charge, and what do they want?
The Intimate Web affects us in other, more subtle, ways. Go to any Amazon site and type in the title of a book. You’ll see a a section entitled Customers who bought this item also bought. It’s your very own robot doing the leg-work for you and offering up other books for you to read. Sounds helpful doesn’t it?
Sure, it makes shopping easier. You don’t even have to think too much anymore. The algorithms have done the work for you. If you’re into Kurt Vonnegut, you might also be into Phillip K Dick, right? The robot has realised that enough people who buy Sirens of Titan also go and buy Valis, and so it offers up these nuggets of goodness for you in hopes that you’ll buy even more. But what is this doing to us?
I think we’re being engineered here. It’s a system of e-commerce designed to categorise us and engineer groups of people who are into the same things. I go out and search for a book on Amazon, the robot offers up more books, and I buy them. In time, we all become clones. All Vonnegut readers also get into PK Dick, and so on and so on. Geek is chic and you’ll explore Twitter profiles, for example, and see the same stuff over and over in the profiles:
- Cat lover
- Coffee addict
- Tea drinker
- Free thinker
After all, the ultimate goal for any system of power and commerce is to so neatly categorise people that people can be sold whatever it is they tell us we need. The robots make us lazy, and lazy people are essential to the functioning of a society with a power structure like a pyramid; with the Kings of commerce at the very top! I’m not even sure it’s being done deliberately. The process of categorisation amplifies as the Intimate Web grows.
A creeping fascism of ideas is accelerated by the ease of access to information. There’s a decline in scientific thinking (that is, working through a problem logically) when we nurture a web culture that makes decisions for us. This online environment further engineers us through a feedback loop, and culture cloning occurs where niche interest groups all tend to be into the same stuff. It gets boring.
Patton Oswalt referred to the death of Otaku and geek culture in a Wired article entitled Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. The web is the easily accessible vehicle for learning so that anyone can become a short-lived subject expert in mere hours. Online life is fast, and offline life is trying desperately to catch up! No longer are we the arbiters of knowledge.
Clone wars & loneliness
It’s often said that the Web is a great way to seek out your tribe. It’s a way to connect with like-minded people. I don’t disagree with this. In fact, I’ve met many interesting people online. I don’t think that’s the problem. I think the real problem is the medium of the Intimate Web itself.
We’re social creatures and we seek out others, but the Intimate Web is a counterfeit freedom; it’s a curated experience where Google decides what search results we see based on what we’ve searched for before. Here again, the robots are doing the work and presenting us with only one version of the web. We’re viewing the web through a pair of eyes that are manufactured by corporate interests.
In Douglas Rushkoff’s concept of Presentism, there is a collapse of future goals and a loss of direction. Life is a virtual flash-fiction, and it is in this world that Amazon’s book robots offer up a safe curated experience where we are provided a sense of direction. In this world, we’re all vulnerable to profiteers as we look for the new chic, the trending #hashtag, and ultimately, for some direction in an ephemeral all-connected world. Our transactive memory system has been wounded, and these new Web powered robots give us direction and tell us how to think. Oh, what a Brave New World!
In conclusion: our wounded tribe
We find our tribe in Twitter profiles and we suddenly feel safe in this ultra-fast online world. We’re not alone after all. We can finally talk to someone who understands who we are. Right?
I think we’re divided. Our normal human social systems, evolved over thousands of years, are fractured, and social media is anything but social. It is part of the Intimate Web, but it does not feel at all intimate. The medium is the problem, and not our desire to connect. The Intimate Web neatly categorises us in order to sell us. So what can we do?
There’s one thing the Intimate Web doesn’t like: the unexpected. If it can’t categorise you, it will struggle to sell you. Resist the engineering. It takes guts to find your tribe, but I’d argue that it takes even more guts to be your own person without a tribe at all! Sometimes, the best thing to do is to cut the cord.