I’ve been writing a lot today, making sure all my thoughts are coherent and well formed, so I thought I’d share a few sections that I developed today kind of out of the blue. I was contemplating dumping one fragment or just adding it as an endnote, but in rereading things today I realized that it fit into some existing ideas rather well, but in order to do so I had to add another section entirely to make the total argument evenly shaped. So, I would say I accidentally added another three and a half pages, whoops. Here’s a taste of the rough version.
Not Just What, but Where
In addition to the way individuals interact with the Net reshaping society at large, the location of those interactions is having an impact as well. It would seem that those actions are clearly taking place “online”, wherever that is, it is important to realize that the location has and is changing, and as our perception and approval of the new system come more clearly into focus, it will in turn alter society yet again. This section will look at two examples of how the broad location switch on the Internet is enacting that change.
All Hail the Hive
The first change in location is from connections made between two individuals tethered through personal computers, to connections made between anonymous users that exist exclusively in the digital world. What Jaron Lanier calls the “noosphere[i]” or the “hive mind” is quickly becoming the preferred way to find information, make decisions and determine societal norms. The standard analogy for which is that of a crowd of people guessing the weight of an ox in a marketplace. In the story, the average of the crowd’s guesses turn out to be more reliable than any individual’s. [ii] And so, in the case of the anonymous crowd of the Internet, power is given to the hive. The problem with the hive is, that it is not an individual, it is a nameless, faceless mass. It is not held to the same standard, nor does it hold the same values. Seeking the hive mind as the sum of all knowledge is to search for the popular answer, not the best answer and more importantly it elevates anonymous masses while reducing the vitality of individuals. Wikipedia is the most well known example of the hive mind in action. It was born out of a belief that there was an untapped resource in the excess brain power of the world’s minds. Pooling all those minds will, in the case of Wikipedia, be sufficient to create an astoundingly accurate and up to date encyclopedia covering everything from ancient history to pop culture. The broad idea is that eventually either the Internet into which this collective data has been poured or the mass of connected global minds will morph into a “super-human entity”.[iii]There are two things this vision fails to take into account. First, the hive mentality tends “to energize the inner troll, or bad actor, within humans.”[iv]In a virtual world built on fragmentation and anonymity, people do not tend towards cooperation and mutual edification, but remain as ever, glued to their own answers and to abusing anyone who crosses them in the form of “Trolling”. In the digital spaces of Wikipedia and the like, this is the status quo, not the exception. The other aspect that seems erroneously assumed about the hive mind super entity is the classic question of quantity and quality. There are those that believe at some scale quantity morphs into quality, that “a billion fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom.”[v]The problem with this is that it is at best, a theory, on that is much hypothesized and yet remains unproven, and is certainly not something into which we should entrust the framework of the Net. Jaron Lanier asks the question,
“How many… would need to be harnessed to replicate the achievements of, say, Albert Einstein? It seems to me that even if we could network all the potential aliens in the galaxy – quadrillions of them, perhaps – and get each of them to contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, much less a great one.”[vi]
Lord of the Cloud
The second location reconfiguration has been the recent development of “cloud computing”. In terms of technology, not much has changed that allowed this to happen, but what was necessary was for people to begin thinking differently about ownership. Previously, ownership has been broadly understood, at least in our culture, as a general rule that when you own something, you have it all to yourself, and that thing physically takes up some kind of space, even if it is only the space on a hard drive. However, fueled by impossibly fast and reliable Internet connectivity and perhaps frustration with the constant need for more storage space for an ever-expanding digital life, change has come in form of the cloud. It has become more efficient for content holders (Apple, Amazon and the like) to retain what is effectively one version of the content to which, when you make a purchase, you are given access. The crucial shift is that your purchase no longer buys a personal copy, it merely give you access to their copy. The cloud works well and is in many ways more convenient and efficient than needing to manage your own content library, but before blindly accepting this new system, the implications of such a pivotal change to the definition of ownership must be fully understood. In a perfect world, the cloud works, but there are potential threats all around, each with the possibility of unbalancing the current equilibrium of ownership. From malicious hackers, simple power or Internet outages, to an example of human error that allowed users to log in to accounts with wrong passwords,[vii]the list of things that potentially separate you from the things you own is long, which starts to create a schism between the clouds definition of ownership that we are buying into and what is perhaps the innate sense of ownership that each of us understands and feels entitled to. But there is another troubling possibility, and that is the chance that those who own the cloud may decide that their control of the physical bits of data supersedes your right to access it, which puts the consumer in a tenuous position. An ironic example of this conflict occurred in “July 2009, when Amazon discovered it had accidently sold improperly licensed e-books of George Orwell’s 1984 and electronically obliterated them from every Kindle in existence.”[viii] If this error had been made with physical books, such a reaction would not have happened (just picture a Bradburian scene from Farenheight 451 with armed stormtroopers pounding on doors in the dead of night and demanding the book) but since the digital world operates largely outside of typical physical constraints, Amazon felt justified in trespassing our natural understanding of ownership in order to right its wrong. There are many benefits to a future in the cloud, but we should be wary of companies that are using the current lack of regulation to change the definition of what ownership really is. This new perspective of ownership impacts our identities in one clear way, it continues the shift of our field of vision from broad and temporally cognizant, to what is happening right now. You do not purchase an heirloom on the cloud, and you do not even have to worry if you have the physical space to hold the things you do purchase through it. It is another trend that is pushing society towards an exclusive focus on the “now”.
I’m sure there are some errors in there, but rest assured, I do plan on proofreading this thing before I hand it in.
|And here is what I have so far