empires of information
If I have to create one more log in for one more platform – just to do something as simple as view my friend’s photos they’ve shared with me, or watch a video tutorial on how to prune my ficus – I swear…
My love-hate relationship with the internet has been moving steadily more towards the negative end of the spectrum over time. At first, I took it as an inevitable fallout of the increasing democratization of the internet: the more of anything there is, the greater the probability of things we dislike. Then I realized that the internet really is just getting a worse place to be.
The early days of the internet are a recurring theme in my conversations. Not just the “I was there” statements, but the genuine nostalgia I feel almost constantly for the heady days of dial-up modems and gURL.com just continues to grow as I become more and more cynical about what my magical corner of the world has become. I used to be so excited about the phone line becoming free so I could dial up and poke about the Geocities and Angelfire pages springing up around the topics I loved. The internet used to feel so small it had a capital I.
Fast-forward 20+ years. What used to feel like an opportunity to connect with people all over the world over specific interests has now transformed into a global marketplace where capital is king, a vast space where our every click is backhandedly rewarded with another attempt to steal our attention or earn our money or track our data. Convoluted algorithms spin our microscopic behaviours into bundles that can be sold as marketing personas to the highest bidder. Whereas the key commodity in industrial capitalism was our bodies and labour, the key commodity in technocapitalism is our psyches, our attention – and our spending.
I’m sure you feel it too, a sense of overwhelm, too sinister to be wonder, like a deepening dread. We know that there is more to this than meets the eye, but in a world where our attention is spread so thin and constantly being jostled for, we just don’t know where to focus our investigation (something I’m convinced drives up the currency of conspiracy theories).
Mark Weiser, the Xerox computer scientist who coined the term “ubiquitous computing,” spoke longingly of the day when computers would “vanish into the background,” weaving themselves “into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”Meghan O’Gieblyn in WIRED
And so “the Internet”, my childhood playground, a palace of wonder and freedom, is now a web of clickbait, pop ups, influencers, cookies, and lies, optimized to grapple for the biggest share of my attention in the hope that I will buy, subscribe, or recommend. As much as I adore how the worldwide web has connected us around this planet, I am so sad that future generations will never see the untapped potential we stumbled upon in those early days. All digital natives will ever know is how to extract value from their activity data.