Our brave new world

The Internet is wasted. What once was a wonderful commonwealth of enthusiasm and exploration has become an existential wasteland.

3 trends have spoiled it.

Social networks. Almost all interaction and sharing today is done through them. Their convenience is killer: they give us an audience. It quickly became the most effective way of digital interaction, because it was relevant from the very begining. Then came the optimisation phase. User engagement (call it user addiction) became the number one metric towards profitability. Someone realised that people tend to be attracted to content of a certain type. By someone I mean a machine learning algorithm. So fire off all those analytic servers, start profiling people and feed them with whatever the algorithm tells you. Soon you have engaged users by billions, market cap skyrockets, and you’ve turned a significant portion of human kind into sheeps. I shouldn’t have written social networks as the problematic trend, but algorithmically curated content. Be mindful what you eat. If what you eat is determined by an algorithm, you are giving up on something in the process. I guess that something is your soul, your daemon. This is our very own brave new world, conditioned and happy, but also fooled and useless.

Instant sharing. I once wrote around here that when you reduce friction, you increase frequency. When entry barriers lowered (vanished!) for anyone to share stuff online, two things happened. Internet was very quickly democratised; everyone, no matter their digital literacy, started contributing. Then, just as quickly, the signal to noise ratio collapsed. It became impossible to find the needle in the haystack. No worries, though, do you know who can help? Yes! The recommendation engine of YouTube! So, then again, this is an indirection to my point about algorithmically curated content. It is also a reflection on what happens when you give everyone a voice. Democratising is ethically laudable, but we must be aware that we are switching from one set of problems to another. As with everything in life, it all goes down to choosing what type of problems you prefer, and I must admit I miss the days in which this was a gathering on nerds clumsily crafting websites. Some things are better if they just take effort. That effort acts as a filter that at least guarantees that what gets done, at least, shows commitment, perseverance and enthusiasm of the maker.

Timebound publishing. I like and don’t like timelines. When someone came up with the idea of blogging, it immediately rooted. If you were around before, you’d have noticed that we built ugly websites with some navigation in the left by topic and mostly static content. Someone then thought that it’d be good to journal the entries. And it was good because up there, right when you open up the site, the most recent content always shows first. That is convenient, both for the producer of content and for the reader, so it quickly became the de facto standard. It was obviously endorsed by social media when they were born… twitter will show last tweets first, same with facebook, instagram, etc. It’s simply better… but it also has some drawbacks. It puts an emphasis on new, and new is not necessarily more relevant. I know it’s ironic to make this point from a blog, but I myself suffer from this. You may have noticed by now that I make an effort to write with very few reference to time sensitive content. I mostly try to reflect on stuff that is timeless. Then sometimes I point someone to this blog and realise that, perhaps, my last post is not really representative. Time is not really relevant for what I write. I acknowledge this is useful for habitual readers, but again, this convenience comes at a cost: we get fed by new, not by better, and time buries the most powerful ideas into the oblivion of the vertical scroll.

All in all, my feeling is that all these trends have turned the Internet into one big shopping mall full of indistinguishable clothing franchises. The internet is full of people on a Saturday evening, buying the same stuff, getting excited by the last trend, a trend that some big corporation deducted by running analytics on the last purchasing behaviour of the masses. This is our brave new world. We must reclaim our soul, also in the digital space; we must restore our digital souls, run away to the digital villages, to the digital libraries and to the digital bars. We will have to find them, though. We may have to build them.