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No Gods, No Masters
Nobody owned the old Internet, nobody should own the new one.
This is a piece I originally wrote for the Social Club, an online writer’s collective absolutely worth checking out. The tone here is a little different from usual Stay Grounded fare, but I think it fits in well. Enjoy! ♥ Justin
I’m not a “techno-optimist”, at least, not the in the usual definition. But I do feel that —with vigilance— tech can help us live more fulfilling lives. It’s my perspective that nearly all of the usual “big” problems associated with “tech” are really problems with financial incentives (e.g. Facebook incentivized to encourage a genocide in Myanmar, or push teens into developing eating disorders, etc.) and not a problem with the tools themselves.
With a little awareness, education, and personal responsibility, it’s possible for individuals to reap most of the rewards of modern technology while minimizing its ability to negatively intrude in our lives. But there are other issues (y’know like the aforementioned genocide) that can’t be fixed on the “user” end of things. Some problems can only be solved when a bunch of people make small changes. Big, societal issues like polarization, misinformation, and the “simplification” of our collective understanding; when our brains get overwhelmed to the point we all prefer skimming art and information —to quickly get the gist— instead of putting in the effort to be educated on anything in depth.
It feels like there’s a danger here, the danger that if individuals are never permitted time to deeply consider, y’know, all of this, we might collectively lose the ability to.
Kids These Days
When you see the Zoomers injecting TikTok depression directly into their eyeballs It’s easy to shake your head and think “kids these days don’t want to put the effort in” but I think this misses the mark a bit in two ways:
Nobody ever wants to “put effort in”. Effort is hard! We put effort in because we’ve learned that the goal is rewarding, not because effort is fun.
“Kids” of the past were not significantly more eager to “get deep” in their intellectual or artistic endeavors. They just had more time being bored. More time being bored means more time to be creative.
I also feel confident suggesting that past generations did not have a greater number of artistic and scientific works available to them, and that the works that did exist were not on the whole “deeper”, than what we have today. I believe this to be true in part because well, people never change, but also due to most “regular” folks not having the means (or access to the necessary knowledge) to produce and disseminate physical works, not to mention the widespread literacy rates needed to consume them.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that today most people have the tools, capability and mental foundations, to create and consume challenging “deep” concept stuff. So why when we look at society, does it feel like this ability is so painfully under-utilized?
Brave Old World
I recently came across a quote from Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and someone who’s whole deal is warning where our proclivity to select shallow low-effort experiences can lead. Specifically, he feared a world so full of distractions, that eventually nobody would even remember what boredom feels like. A society where shallow experiences become the only experiences; and people are easily manipulated by them.
Here’s the quote:
“In regard to propaganda, the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies - the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
This was from 1958! My dude is describing engagement bait in 1958! He goes on:
“In the past most people never got a chance of fully satisfying this appetite. They might long for distractions, but the distractions were not provided. Christmas came but once a year, feasts were "solemn and rare," there were few readers and very little to read, and the nearest approach to a neighborhood movie theater was the parish church, where the performances though frequent, were somewhat monotonous.”
In my own most read essay, I put this way less eloquently when I said: “There’s only so much new information a caveman can learn about his or her cave.” But the idea is the same. Our brains evolved to be distracted. But they really thrive when we’re not. I’ve cut a bit of the following for brevity (full quote here if interested), but he goes on:
“…in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distractions now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema. In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. […] Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in their calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those would manipulate and control it.”
Huxley’s fears don’t just echo the fears of today, but are quite literally the same. I take some comfort in knowing that Brave New World is ninety-one years old. It tells me that the problem Huxley identified, while not being wrong, maybe wasn’t as hopeless as he believed. That ninety years have passed since Brave New World was published tells me that maybe The Problem™ as I see it —as we all see it— might not be hopeless either. Like in the 1930s, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism are certainly on the rise, and it’s again being boosted along by endless, non-truth distractions. There’s a genuine concern that a critical mass of the people who are both:
In a position to, and
to save us all, are too Twitter-addicted to actually focus on coming up with creative solutions. But that was a concern in Huxley’s time too (well, not Twitter exactly), and the Free World™ has, if not thrived, at least held on since then.
Huxley didn’t live to see the passing of the voting rights act, the Moon landing, or the fall of the Berlin wall. He’s not around today to witness the stigma fading around his beloved psychedelics. He didn’t see the first interracial kiss on TV or the series finale of M*A*S*H. He didn’t see Everything Everywhere All at Once, which I’m pretty sure is the weirdest and most challenging movie to ever reach the mainstream. If you, like Huxley, were afraid of mankind becoming on the whole unadventurous, timid, and uninspired, all those events should be reassuring news.
Huxley didn’t live to see the rise of the Internet. But I think he could have predicted its arc. “Universal literacy and a free press” didn’t account for “man's almost infinite appetite for distractions”, but then again you don’t even need to be literate to use TikTok, and there is no freer press than the World Wide Web. Is it possible we are in the endgame in the battle against distractions? Will the men who control the machines that control our attention soon achieve ultimate dominion over our very thoughts in a way demagogues throughout history have only dreamed?
No Gods, No Masters
The internet’s founding principles are baked into its construction. And those principles are all rather anti-authority if you think about it:
Nobody owns the Internet. Nobody can own it. No government or corporation controls it. Anyone can, with a little effort (yes, more in some countries), plug a computer into it and broadcast a message to anyone willing to listen.
But that’s not the problem. The problem we didn’t foresee is that those willing to listen face increasing hurdles. I’m not even talking about the ocean of ads we have to sort through to find what we want. Consider that some of the largest services on the internet are not even offering the very service that claim to:
Google’s increasingly useless top search results are all ads, and their de-facto monopoly means they have no incentive to combat SEO on the “real” results, because those don’t make money.
Amazon product reviews are equally meaningless, since their de-facto monopoly means they are not incentivized to be fair. Every day it’s harder to find useful information in reviews.
Similarly, reviews on Goodreads are equally difficult (a great piece by) to glean any useful information from. The incentive to be good, or honest, just isn’t there.
TikTok, Instagram and X (née Twitter) don’t even show you the content from the people you specifically asked to see content from, because their incentive isn’t to show you what you asked for, it’s holding your attention.
I often think about the time when the Internet was new and the seemingly endless opportunities for collaboration it offered. How exciting it must have been to find people across the globe who share your niche interests. Those people are still out there, of course, but the effort it takes to find them goes up every day. And the distractions, those easy, fun, ever-ready distractions, are just everywhere along the path between you and what you’re looking for.
It’s hard for a listener these days. Even for those of us who want to put the effort in. Who understand how rewarding real listening can be, because we remember what it felt like. We’re not distraction-proof supermen (and I don’t think anyone given the choice would ever really want to be).
Is it possible to design systems with better incentives? Somewhere enough smart people can get together to make it worthwhile? Places we can just talk without a corporate middleman siphoning off our attention or sanity?
How beauteous mankind is!
Nobody needs social media, nobody needs the internet. Technology should supplement real life, not supplant it. But it feels like a waste to have this massive, decentralized, interconnected, border-crossing communication tool that nobody owns —that nobody can own— and willingly surrender it to the forces of unregulated capitalism. That’s why I find the experiments going on with “the Fediverse” very interesting. It’s like an Internet built with, well, the Internet. A return to the decentralized first principles. Nobody owns it, and nobody can own it. It’s all delightfully anarchistic, but instead of the anarchist slogan “be ungovernable” it’s “be unprofitable”.
“The Fediverse” refers to apps using ActivityPub (Mastodon is probably the one you’ve heard of). Even though decentralization is a founding principle of the Internet, it’s a hard thing to wrap our heads around, because we’ve spent the last twenty years in a world where big, corporate, ad-filled, centralized platforms are where people talk online. Carl Heath recently described our current state of affairs this way (lightly edited for brevity):
Imagine all the squares, streets, parks, and venues you visit or live by in are owned by just one or a few companies. They not only own all these places but also determine what they are to be used for, and who can use them. They decide who can be there and who cannot. Mostly, it's free rent, for these companies finance everything through advertising.
Since it doesn't cost anything and this has been going on for so long, no one really thinks about it anymore. It has become the norm. It just is. I'm not sure that anyone would particularly appreciate this alternative world. Yet somehow we have chosen to organize our digital lives according to this model.
ActivityPub is kinda like email. Nobody “owns” email, and it doesn’t matter if you have Gmail, Outlook, or host your own one-woman email server at home. Everyone can email each other using email. Nobody owns “email”.
Nobody owns ActivityPub (remember- think “email”) either, and nobody owns Mastodon (the most popular service using ActivityPub). Anyone can quickly set up a website with Mastodon and that website can instantly talk with all the others. Unlike Twitter (er- I mean, 𝕏), If one Mastodon site were to go dark from government censorship, or be hostily acquired by a billionaire with insecurity issues, the rest of the network would be unaffected.
People who choose to make Mastodon-powered platforms do own them, obviously, and can control what other “Fediverse” sites it connects with and doesn’t. There are specialized instances (mastodon.art for example) that focus on what sort of people they would like to attract, and if users don’t like how a Mastodon site is run they can go somewhere else and their followers will still find them.
Social, not Media
Mastodon (the software) was designed by its creators to prioritize conversation over self-promotion. I think this is why I’ve noticed that journalists, celebrities and politicians (those who want to leave Twitter, at least) largely seem to prefer “BlueSky” the for-profit, centralized, Jack Dorsey-endorsed Twitter-clone, over the open, decentralized, and largely nonprofit Mastodon network. Cynically, I think this is probably due to those sorts of people being hooked on that artificial feeling of importance that Twitter provided, at least until its “cultural middle class” started quitting when Elon took over (I maintain that Elon actually changed very little about Twitter and everyone should have quit ages ago). BlueSky is currently invite-only, so it comes prepackaged with that feeling of being in a cool kids club. That all said, I know it’s not exactly easy out there for journalists these days, and as badly as some may want to talk, what they foremost need are clicks, not conversations. We should go easy on them.
It gives me hope that scientists, at least, appear to prefer open platforms. The last thing we need is for the places our scientists are chatting to be awash in shallow distractions. But good science is worthless to a society that won’t (or can’t) listen. Without good journalism to translate science for the politicians, lawmakers can’t understand what laws may need passing (or repealing). Without artists able to get deep, and make thoughtful, deep art, and without platforms who prioritize art’s dissemination, a different kind of truth is also kept from reaching broader society.’
I don’t think a forever-solution to mankind’s distractability is possible to exist. And as I’ve said before, I don’t think distractability is itself a problem in need of solutions. I also don’t think the answer to having people get along is simply to “quit Twitter and Reddit, and move to Mastodon and Lemmy”. But I do think it’s a start1. I don’t expect people to get along. It’s foolish to assume a brave new world like that is even possible. But at least on open platforms people have a chance to try.
They’ll probably still get distracted (after all, we’re only human) but it won’t be on purpose.
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