A Story of Technology and Us

In these days of 2017 as events unfold in clusters and with almost blinding speed, I often think about the way in which our usage of technology over the past two decades has shifted from a way of doing things to the thing itself that we do. Many of you reading this have expressed to me a diverse set of responses to both the politics of today and the way in which we engage with each other and/or technology. I would like to share a small inventory of events and some personal reflections.

When I think about my earliest memories of the internet, I recall a marginal behavior pattern that emerged in the late 90’s. During that first significant internet boom a small percentage of people engaged in vast amounts of online shopping and spending that far outstripped any savings or earning power that they had–sometimes in just one evening. While it’s difficult to forget the dreaded (and overblown) Y2K bug fears of those days, the internet of circa 1998-2000 ushered in something far more perilous and ultimately unavoidable: our online lives in both a financial and social capacity. Those people who engaged in online compulsive buying sprees are now barely a blip on the radar of the recent past, but their problem told a cautionary tale that has been fleshed out in staggering detail in the ensuing two decades: we are now dependent on and vulnerable to networked technology in a way that has transformed our psychology, behavior, and expectations.

Boats on the Horizon

I was a high school English teacher from the mid 2000’s through 2011, and this period of time and line of work provided me with a front row seat to teenagers experiencing the transitions of old cell phone technology to the earliest smartphones and My Space giving way to Facebook. We now have a vast online infrastructure that has maximized our desire for instant gratification, and yet, as societies and individuals, a substantial majority of people seem to have an unconcerned “we’ve got this” attitude about how we rely on and immerse ourselves in the world of our devices and online interactions.

I made a brief search and noted some of the big tech giants’ milestones of the past 25 years. Taken as a whole, it provides both anecdotally and numerically the effect of one long spike on a chart with no end.

1994: Amazon founded (originally named “Cadabra”)
1995: Yahoo founded
1997: AOL provided roughly half of all networked homes in U.S. with internet service
1998: Google founded
1999: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is Time Magazine’s Person of the Year
2001: iTunes and the iPod released by Apple
2003: Skype is developed
2006: Twitter is created
2007: Introduction of the iPhone
2008: Facebook reaches 100 million users
2010: Introduction of the iPad
2017: Facebook reaches 2 billion users

The internet and the social media revolution were hailed as great tools of democracy, weaponry that could be used to challenge the mighty and unjust, as was the case when the Arab Spring came to life and the networked, grassroots activism of Egyptians played a key role in unseating dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter allowed people to share their experiences of mistreatment at the hands of powerful companies or start Go Fund Me campaigns to finance inspiring projects or pay for dearly necessary medical care. This was the internet of promise and hope that seemed to be a full flowering of the freedom and empowerment only hinted at in the internet age of the late 1990’s.

The other side of the internet is a different story. Identity theft, scamming, pyramid sales schemes, and online bullying and shaming have all reached disturbing levels of frequency and commonality. We had to invent new terminology: “cat-fishing” described the fabrication of an online persona in order to carry on a relationship with someone. The term internet “troll” needs no explanation, and it is unfortunately all too familiar now that an occupant of the White House is engaged regularly in exactly that kind of behavior. Politics and technology come crashing together in terms like Gamergate, which referred to an outpouring of vitriol and multi-pronged harassment in 2014 by male video game players against female players and activists who were campaigning to increase awareness and reduce images of gratuitous violence against women in video games. One of the modes of attack used by these misogynous, antisocial video game enthusiasts was doxing, or publishing a targeted individual’s personal documents and information online with ill intent.

Eyes within the Storm

In light of this rapidly changing social and technological landscape, two creative works that I came across in 2016 had a profound impression on me because of the way in which they captured our fascination and dependence on technology. The first was the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. He examined the bizarre reemergence of public, open-forum mob justice that has occurred in recent years as a result of the reach and unguarded use of Facebook and Twitter in particular. Ronson discusses the way in which social media shamings could instantly transform a public figure into a pariah, and even more surprisingly, the way in which a virtually unknown person could become a notorious and hated punching bag on an international scale within a span of hours—typically for a poorly worded joke or an ill-conceived display of behavior. Ronson lays out very clearly that the inarguable usefulness of social media is what allows it to both lay bare and to shape human psychology and behavior.

The other source of content that captured my attention was the hip-hop CD titled Because the Internet by the artist Childish Gambino, AKA actor and creative personality Donald Glover. While I am not typically persuaded by the glib and profane idioms of this genre, I found the music, the storytelling, and the stagey theatrics to be an incredibly potent tableau of life in the information age at its most over-stimulating. On tracks like “The Zealots of Stockholm [free information]” Glover seamlessly flows from online dating to loss of identity to the availability of off-the-grid weaponry found on the internet. It’s a fairly dizzying display of the life of Glover’s generation and the way in which the internet is always present even when it’s only seething with possibility in the background.

Ronson and Glover were able to assess Twitter, public life, private behavior, and the uncontrolled nature of the internet each in his own insightful way—from within the fray itself. In our current situation, the voices and information streams have been expertly guided by algorithms designed to trigger contagious responses. As former Google programmer Tristan Harris has said in recent interviews, tech companies have perfected the art of addictive engagement, and it turns out that what often gets our attention is the hilarious, the catastrophic, and the morally outrageous.

What came next was difficult to see around the corner: the collapse of people’s faith in anything but their own chosen cocktail of information. The conservative author Tom Nichols has chronicled this trend, which has particularly picked up momentum post-2012, in his recent book The Death of Expertise. The internet is so eminently useful and indispensable now because it is fully capable of providing all things to all people. With the ever-present option to cherry pick information that supports gut-level assumptions on every topic, any point of view can be affirmed and will be, no matter how detached from reality or appropriateness. When you pair this phenomenon with the presence of fabricated news and a reactionary backlash against the shamings of bad behavior that Ronson chronicled, one can much more easily see the way in which the election of 2016 could be possible.

Discoveries and Exposures

So, ready or not, it’s happening. What’s the it? Not Marshal Law, not the end of civilization, not necessarily a descent into populism-fueled autocracy, and not a golden age of connection and technology. The “it” that’s happening is a change in the speed of life and the way our brains anticipate and take in stimuli. Technology has illuminated and magnified every moment, potentially, for maximum usage in this new “attention economy.” We are experiencing a sort of ‘uber-exposure’ fueled and facilitated by social media, global connectivity, and social change crashing against ancient traditions and long-held assumptions.

It’s happening. A political showdown. A social media storm. an actual storm in the form of a hurricane. A police shooting. The ambush of a policeman. A so-called honor killing of a woman. A protest descending into violence. A rare act of incredible heroism by a nurse or a pilot or a teacher. We will have the opportunity to see these events because virtually everyone has the technology in their pockets to capture them as they occur and follow the ready-made narratives. We are not in short supply of information or storylines; but what we need most is the presence of mind and the training to process what unfolds with more social and historical literacy.

In this age of instant internet discovery, I’m reminded of the following conversation from the movie Men in Black:

Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.

Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

Edwards: What’s the catch?

Kay: The catch? The catch is you will sever every human contact. Nobody will ever know you exist anywhere. Ever. I’ll give you to sunrise to think it over.
[starts walking away]

Edwards: [shouting after Kay] Hey! Is it worth it?

Kay: Oh yeah, it’s worth it…
[starts walking again, stops and turns back briefly]

Kay: … if you’re strong enough!

The internet has at some point in our lives made nearly all of us feel as if we are discovering some amazing conspiracy or newly emergent story that somehow changes everything. However, rather than agent K’s emphasis on the stamina to live a solitary life of secret knowledge, the strength that concerns me is the mental energy and ability to balance complex, contradictory, and sometimes painful information and interact constructively with others. Here in the United States, crime and homicide are well below the national rates of 20 or 30 years ago except for a small number of individual cities. This is demonstrably true, and it even takes into account acts of terrorism. However, many, many people assume uncritically that crime absolutely has to be up. This assumption stems from local news coverage and horrifying and salacious crime stories shared on social media. I don’t know how to fix this except to stress it as often as I can when people cite crime as a national issue. Really bad news, just like car wrecks and flashing lights, gets attention and easily skews our perceptions.

Life on and off the Web

Just a few days ago, I found my late uncle’s Twitter feed under his usual pseudonym. He had only posted a total of 11 times within a span of 3 months way back in 2009. That platform was still relatively new then, and he seems to have been experimenting with it before deciding to abandon it forever. Finding those tweets momentarily re-connected me with Dan as I pictured him in his apartment in Los Angeles, sporadically working on his music and navigating into the most difficult years of his life. As I was haunted by the terse intimacy of those previously unseen tweets, it reminded me of the power of the connected world: the more the technology develops and branches out, the more we find ourselves in it. These platforms offer a kind of control, an emotive megaphone, and an opportunity for self-invention that is quite powerful and magnetic.

The most pressing challenge here is to think critically and step outside periodically from all of these media. After all, as useful and attractive as these social media are, they have made us—through our own clicks and choices—into sources of free labor, information, and ultimately income. My wife has summed it up as follows: if you are not paying for a product like Facebook, then it is because you are the product. So for many reasons, we shouldn’t be flying on emotional and intellectual autopilot in these spaces. We can’t afford the kind of thinking that has caused people to opt their children out of vaccinations for crippling and fatal diseases based solely on narrow reading of a few internet articles. These kinds of behaviors have brought us to a very difficult year of opposition and moments of grave tribalism. In a time in which the President of the United States has trafficked in the most misleading and self-serving information imaginable (from birther-ism to mass voter fraud), it is of the utmost importance to insist on the most reliable path to separate fact from fiction and substance from superficiality.

Life under the heavy influence of technology will not be abating any time soon, and the information and images will keep pulling us into the next one in the algorithm. Create your own algorithm. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can stop at any time. Stop often. Take care of yourself. Don’t say what is assumed to be true. Do make a good faith effort to find out what is true, and recognize when another person in a given situation is factually correct. Yes, sometimes expert advice and skill doesn’t produce the best outcome. Grievances and deep-seated feelings about outcomes can short circuit our logic and our sense of fairness. So be prepared to change how you feel by facing complexity and uncertainty with honesty. Commit yourself to learning accurate information that will disrupt and fine tune your opinions. That’s my input for this time we’re in. Some or all of this advice may be wrong. I’m simply sharing the best model of action I see for a human who has to live in this future. It will be an ongoing conversation in all of our lives and our children’s lives as well.

C.S.

For further reading and viewing:

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017) by Tom Nichols

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (2017) by Jonathan Taplin

The Social Dilemma, a 2020 Netflix film

Jonathan Taplin: Sleeping Through a Revolution

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