I was, for years, an enthusiastic advocate of the egalitarian, free-for-all, let’s-level-the-playing field aspect of the Web. More voices! More feedback! More participation! Bring it on!
Not anymore. As I’ve mentioned before, I now tend to agree with “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, who said, “Nothing has done more to make us dumber or meaner than the anonymity of the Internet.” Hyperbole? Not by much.
For the first time in more than a century, a fundamental shift occurred in the sacred — but formerly quite cold and detached — writer/reader relationship. Suddenly, readers could respond instantly to a newspaper piece, to the journalist in question, and authors could instantly know the effect and accuracy of their words. No more hand-written, snail-mailed Letters to the Editor that might (but probably won’t) get published two or three weeks later. The feedback loop was made instant, and enormously compelling. It was lauded as a new era, one that would change the newspaper biz forever.
Anonymity tends to bring out the absolute worst in people, the meanest and nastiest and least considerate. Something about not having to reveal who you really are caters to the basest, most unkind instincts of the human animal.
Thoughtful discourse? Humorous insight? Sometimes. But mostly it’s a tactless spectator sport. It’s about being seen, about out-snarking the previous poster, about trying to top one another in the quest for… I’m not sure what. A tiny shot of notoriety?
But the coherent voices are, by and large, increasingly drowned out by the nasty, the puerile, the inane, to the point where, unless you’re in the mood to have your positive mood ruined and your belief in the inherent goodness of humanity stomped like a rainbow flag in the Mormon church, there’s almost no point in trying to sift through it anymore.
Anonymity means that people feel free to express their inner stupidity because they know there are no consequences. It’s like a moron encountering a genius: he wants to walk up to that genius, tell him to go do rude things to himself, and to die in pain, because the moron — not being born a genius — hates all things above him, including and especially, geniuses.
But the problem is not anonymity.
It’s that society reverses natural selection. In nature, we all act alone, and those who do stupid things tend to not prosper. In society, because we want to motivate everyone toward a civic consciousness, we make the mistake of including everyone before assessing whether we want them — this is anti-evolutionary at its core. “Of course, we take care of everyone, come one, come all!” is marketing and not science; however, it’s an effective way to appear successful by having a big group of nodding heads around you.
What our friend above is seeing is not anonymity at work, but what happens after a society tolerates everyone for many generations: the morons reproduce and become accepted by the norm. Next stop, tyranny, and then the third world, as Plato told us.
The democratising possibilities of the internet are in the process of speeding the degeneration of the public sphere into a proliferation of insular nodes, each fighting a war that can never be won. Battles cannot be won on the net nor can they be lost. What remains is a solipsistic politics of ME, ME, ME: my views, my truths, my facts, my pain, my anger. Convincing others and changing the world is forgotten in favour of the perpetuation of one’s own perspective.
It would be a mistake to look back at politics before the internet age as a prelapsarian idyll. But new realities create new problems as well as solving old ones. What is needed is a political model that can beging to redress the rise of solipsistic micropolitics; one that emphasises connection, self-critique and cool, considered analysis. What is needed is a different kind of technology that retains the internet’s openness to participation but without the tendency to push activists and driven individuals towards self-righteous isolation.
He ends up calling for new tools, which is where I leave off from his thesis: what we need are not external tools, but internal self-discipline and possibly, a level of edited discourse where only sane comments are allowed.
Demanding control — or the idea of an order enforced on people — is in the long term less successful than enforcing some kind of natural selection, so you’re left with people of the intelligence and character to automatically behave in sensible ways.
On one side are those who think the Internet will liberate humanity, in a virtuous cycle of e-volving creativity that may culminate in new and higher forms of citizenship. Meanwhile, their diametrically gloomy critics see a kind of devolution taking hold, as millions are sucked into spirals of distraction, shallowness and homogeneity, gradually surrendering what little claim we had to the term “civilization.”
But the very freedom that makes the Internet so attractive also undermines the influence of gatekeepers who used to sift and extol some things over others, helping people to pick gold from dross.
Carr and others worry how 6 billion ships will navigate when they can no longer even agree upon a north star.
Beyond imagination and creativity and opinion, we also need a dance of Shiva, destroying the insipid, vicious and untrue.
What we need to remember is that there is nothing unique about today’s quandary. Ever since the arrival of glass lenses and movable type, the amount that each person can see and know has multiplied, with new tools ranging from newspapers and lithographs to steamships and telegraphs, to radio and so on. And every time, conservative nostalgists claimed that normal people could not adapt, that such godlike powers should be reserved to an elite, or perhaps renounced.
The information we’re processing — opinions, viral videos, computer games, Wikipedia editorial drama — has very little to do with reality. Our technology is building on the shoulders of giants but breakthroughs are not as dramatic. There is more bulk to process, and less of those rare and insightful moments when a change at the center of a structure alters its fundamental character.
Some of this is science. After you discover the digital computer, you must build a whole bunch of them to evolve the process. After you discover DNA, you begin the long process of documenting each part of it. But even that is hampered by our drama. Scientists must get funding for research that generates money; computers are products and so the fancy ones sell more than new technologies.