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The Internet Was A Mistake

In October of 1992, when the world wide web was just a few years old, and the idea of streaming terabytes of pornography was just a far-fetched dream, a presidential candidate had an interesting idea: “I will have a unique mandate… that we’re going to inform the people in detail on the issues, through an electronic town hall, so that they really know what’s going on.” Ross Perot wasn’t talking about the internet, exactly. He wanted to use technology to revolutionize democracy. For instance, televised town halls or debates could allow viewers to chime in with their phones, Press 1 for agree, 2 for disagree.

Like many others, Perot believed new technology could break down barriers between decision-makers and the average citizen. “Now, all these fellows with thousand-dollar suits and alligator shoes running up and down the halls of Congress that make policy now — the lobbyists, the PAC guys, the foreign lobbyists, and what-have-you, they’ll be over there in the Smithsonian, you know — ‘Cause we’re gonna get rid of them!” Perot wasn’t the first to suggest this kind of electronic democracy, and he won’t be the last. For those who lamented the corporate-controlled media, or the limited flow of information in authoritarian regimes, the internet was a godsend. One Wired article proudly announced that netizens were better informed and more civically engaged than their unconnected peers.

By 1997, a mere 8.5% of the population was considered “connected.” But they voted more, had greater trust in democracy, and were more likely to know basic information – like who the Chief Justice is. In other words, these connected citizens were a bastion of light in the political ecosystem. But has this light dimmed? Was it ever there at all? Sure, we can now access unprecedented amounts of information, but as you’ve probably guessed – something is wrong with the internet. Let’s fast forward to 2010. young people are doing exactly what futurists predicted: connecting on Twitter and coming out in the streets to protest oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The media heralded The Arab Spring as the first social media revolution. The promise of the internet in action.

Before the internet, political organizing was risky business – stump speeches and flyer distribution were great ways to end up in jail. Now, in the age of tweets heard round the world, one can instigate change from the safety of one’s own home, until your movement is too large to quell. But despite the praise the internet earned for its role in the Arab Spring, some have argued that the uprisings prove that the internet can actually stifle politics. Why? Because, in Egypt, at least, the real revolution didn’t start until the internet went dark. On January 28, 2011, after several days of widespread protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut down the country’s internet. Like, all of it. Cell phones, too. “In anticipation of what had been billed as the biggest of four days of rallies, the government completely shut down the internet in an attempt to stop people from communicating.” One paper argued that the lack of internet intensified revolutionary unrest in three ways.

It angered those who were otherwise unaware or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication; and it decentralized the rebellion – making it even harder to put down. Similarly the Iranian revolution of 1978 and 1979 took place only after a news blackout. Which raises another question: what if exposure to information doesn’t necessarily compel us to fix injustices, or clamor for a better world, but just makes us more content with the status quo? The author was inspired by another paper that looked at East Germans living under Communism who had access to Western media. “I understand our gathering today is being broadcast, as well, in the East. To those listening in East Berlin, a special word.” You might think that seeing a world of freedom would inspire East Germans to detest their oppressive regime and spur them to rebel. But it did exactly the opposite. Eastern Germans with access to Western TV found their life under communism more tolerable than their peers without it.

TV offered an escape from food lines and state propaganda. Why fight for a better world when you can just watch one? Why jump over a shark on water skis, if you can just watch the Fonz do it? And why participate in politics when you can retweet someone else’s virtue? In 2014, researchers looked at the “Save Darfur” cause on Facebook. What they found, at this point, probably won’t surprise you: “The vast majority of Cause members recruited no one else into the Cause and contributed no money to it -suggesting…

Facebook conjured an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.” To be fair, there are counter-examples, like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised unprecedented amounts of money to fight the disease. But entering a credit card number is a lot different than being an engaged citizen – where problems are a little more complicated than dumping money into research. And what about our electronic town halls, or the promise, that digital citizens will be more informed than previous generations? In 2014, a Pew Research poll claimed that, thanks to the internet, at least people felt more informed. But what should we make of “feeling” more informed? Well, as early as 1996, MIT researchers prophetically declared that the internet ran the risk of becoming what they referred to as a cyber-Balkans. Like the countries of the Balkan Peninsula, which became increasingly fragmented and hostile toward one another, the internet would create insular realities for its users. In other words, they identified echo chambers 20 years before everyone freaked out about them. The point is: access to more information doesn’t necessarily dispel falsehoods, it can amplify them. Rather than discrediting flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and whatever the hell Goop is, the internet has helped them thrive.

And for the rest of us, why challenge your own perspectives when you can find sources that think like you do? So, what gives? As one philosopher notes, as we produce more knowledge, what we gain in breadth, we lose in depth. Everyone has an opinion, but is never committed to act on it. Why? Because of what he considers to be two of the worst calamities of the modern era: anonymity and the press. But this philosopher wasn’t talking about the internet or even the modern era because he died in 1855. What Soren Kierkegaard identified as problems in the 1800s – anonymity, public opinion, and armchair intellectualism – have been given mega-steroids in the age of the internet. Kierkegaard argued the press invited us to become detached spectators, divorcing thought from action. Ideas were homogenized as everyone began to read the same sources. Now we read the same sh*t and hit like and share if we agree – no independent thought needed.

But before getting too cynical, should we ask: is this the fault of the internet itself? Or things on it, like Facebook or Logan Paul? There are tons of examples, some studied, and some not, of the bright side of the internet: times where the internet helped organize a community, or connect old friends, or let people explore who they really are. But rather than looking at specific content, it’s important to understand the modern internet as a system with a supreme mandate: to produce knowledge. Specifically, knowledge about you, tailored for you, and often produced by you. The internet isn’t about what kind of knowledge is produced, it’s concerned with the ever-accelerating exchange of information in general. More photos. More kickstarters. More video watch time. It’s a system that cares about scale, not quality, not integrity. And despite this ever-increasing exchange of information, the internet seems to generate isolation wherever it goes. From early internet studies that show users feel more lonely and depressed, on a micro level, to the balkanization of our political landscape on a macro level.

Whereas internet evangelists thought that access to information would connect people like never before, it’s managed to do exactly the opposite. But hey – at least there’s this: .

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