Suffering Tortured Networks

connectors twistedThe world twists us, with all the cultural inertia we inherit, with all the cultural inertia those within our spheres inherit, torturing our realities into what is sometimes hard to recognize. Social networks magnify this beyond our geographical familiarity, connecting us with those we would not otherwise interact with – an improbable thought for those who have grown up with this interconnected world, a sometimes nostalgic thought for those who existed before the Internet came into being. Algorithms control what we see, shoving us into the echo chambers of our choosing, dooming us to a perception of agreement.

This was all lauded at one time as a great democratization of information, of how it would change the world in ways that would be popular – and in this, it ended up being true where consensus will make fake news possible if only because people lack critical thinking skills that somehow escaped insertion in the indoctrination of formal education systems. Pieces of paper abound by people who followed a straight path and who did no more, who know nothing but what got them past batteries of multiple choice questions and glorified essays on topics graded sometimes with critical thought, sometimes not.

Processed like cheese, graduates come out homogenized and appropriately boring – perhaps, through good fortune, they become insightful in the areas they have studied in, but this does not translate to being insightful in the useful things in life because nobody seems to think life is important enough to talk about outside of the speakeasys of what social contact happens outside of formal systems.

We watch feeds of people arguing, jumping to conclusions, sharing things with catchy headlines that they did not deign to read the substance of. Reading to argue, emotion begets emotion and rationality is left behind. This scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately comes to mind:

Given a new tool for communication, we seem pretty intent with beating each other to death over differences of opinion, the meek becoming exactly what they hated in others and unable to see it in themselves. Good intentions abound, right actions are lost in reactions to reactions to reactions to reactions… so much so that no one actually remembers the actions that started it.

Our tortured social networks have a guided evolution this way, marketing wanting to sell people things that they want on pages that people are more likely to visit because they agree with. Fights are good business on the Internet; more advertising impressions.

And now we see that the democratization that the Internet brought us magnified our social faults more than our ability to affect positive change. Or is it not too late? Can we untwist these networks?

Perhaps we’re just not ready for our own technology.

Retirement Eclipse.

eclipseI’ve grown used to not worrying about things. It’s a comfortable way to live, like a hobbit in the Shire, having done my travels and having avoided coming how with any rings. I’m content, my health is better, and I sleep well at night – something that I’ve not been able to do since I was an infant. I may not live a life many people want but it is a life I have been content with. I’ve been writing a lot more. Some of it has even managed to slowly become something like a book.

I’d forgotten that I’d promised to attend the 13th Caribbean Internet Governance Forum at a local hub here in Trinidad and Tobago for at least one day. Flattery was tried to get me to go, and that almost never works because I don’t believe thinking highly of one’s self is of worth – knowing one’s value is. And in the end, it was the latter that got that promise out of me. From there, it was a simple matter of me keeping my word.

Well, it wasn’t a simple matter. The morning of, as I sipped my coffee and planned the day as I usually do, I realized just how much I didn’t want to go. For about 15 minutes, I toyed with the idea of saying I would come on the last day… but I had given my word, and I had written a day, so I could not do otherwise. Instead, I thought about why I didn’t want to go. Here’s what I came up with. I expected:

  1. The organization of the event to be done on the cheap, with glaring issues, and with inhibited participation.
  2. To hear much the same things I had heard before.
  3. To see more bureaucracy being created to try to change things, which is exceptional in that bureaucracy is created so things do not change. (Read James Gleick’s book, “Faster”).
  4. I would meet new people who would be thinking that these problems were all new and that we hadn’t been working on them.
  5. I would meet old people who had gotten so lost in the details that the larger picture was not as clear to them anymore (it happens; don’t protest too much).
  6. I would have to listen to bureaucratic doublespeak, something more tedious than Latin because Latin has the good sense to be accurate and does not tolerate ambiguity. Bureaucratese, on the other hand…
  7. I would end up involved since so few people are involved and engaged.

And, as it happens, I was exactly right. 

No Matter Where You Go

CavemanIt didn’t start this way.

It used to be that when you didn’t agree with the group, you’d wander off somewhere else on the planet and do your own thing. It could be about anything – if you saw more good in the risk of leaving the group than the bad of staying, you could wander off. Do your own thing, whatever it was, wherever you went. It was all pretty straightforward. If you got a group together that agreed on this, you’d have your own little starter tribe moving off to another part of the world.

No matter where you go…

The beauty of the world was that we hadn’t quite figured out that it was round, much less finite. It was all pretty infinite since we were using our feet back then. Then more you disagreed, the further you and your group walked. Maybe you were very angry but you find somewhere relatively near that was hospitable, and because of that you ended up closer than you probably should have to your original tribe. So you came up with a tree branch that you could whack other people with, or you figured out how to sharpen it. If you encountered people that you didn’t like, it was a simple matter of whacking them over the head or introducing them to your sharp and pointy stick. Eventually they would do the same.

Maybe you reconciled. Maybe you didn’t. At some point, you either ran out of people or one group moved further away than another. Things moved on. Nobody remembers Ug’s last stand where he was surrounded by pointy sticks, all begun because he believed in picking the fruits a little earlier than they did. Ug felt strongly enough to die for it. He’s not in your history books. Ug also had strong feelings about quantum mechanics, but we’ll never know.

If only Ug had wandered away, we might know.

And so diversity in thought came to the world as people moved just far enough away from each other to not get on each other’s nerves. They created little genetic pockets that caused a change in appearance, however small, even as they figured out how to make metal to chop down forests so that they could use that new invention, fertilizer. Populations grew, and soon the distance that was far enough some time ago was no longer far enough away for some. Wars were waged, walls were built, and conquerors decided that their way of life was so good that people wouldn’t mind a little violence to have their way of life.

As luck would have it, during that violence many people who disagreed with the invading way of life would be removed from the planet…. or the invading force who was convinced of how awesome their way of life was were removed. None of this was decided on merits. It was decided by technology, by aggression, and by strategy. There are some that say that this hasn’t changed very much since.

During all of this, one of the descendants of the folks that killed Ug – remember Ug? – figured out that things floated and, with a little work, they could make things that could take them over water. On a planet mainly covered in water, this was a pretty big deal though they didn’t know it at the time. Some guy would later be accused of proving the Earth was round the same year that the globe was invented, all because he was lost. He wasn’t the first, of course, but the people who wrote the history books wanted him to appear first – so he did. We know better now.

And so some people got to wander again, finding different lands where – surprise – they found different people who had been minding their own business and fighting with each other for as long as  they could remember. This was inconvenient, so after a while they conquered them if they didn’t slaughter them. Or, maybe it was time to have some slaves again – slave technology had been around for a long time and hadn’t changed much. For slave owners, who had the authority and power granted to them by themselves, sea faring meant being able to travel with the comforts of slavery to do things that they wanted to do without getting too dirty or sweaty. That these were other human beings didn’t mean too much to them. In fact, they denied it despite obvious indications that this was so.

Populations grew. There was no real place left to wander, and when you get enough people packed closely together for a long enough period of time, they find things to fight over. They did. World Wars came and went, bringing aircraft into the mix even as they started flying around. And so things went.

Meanwhile, with people all over occupying more and more land, there needed to be more effective ways to communicate. Before you know it, there were wires running and people tapping away in code to let other people know something that someone thought was important.

This evolved to the Internet, which you are likely using right now. Connecting the world that had been made of wanderers, it demonstrates how far apart people have grown more often than not.

…there you are.
– Confucius

Perspective

spaceWe used to look up.

I don’t know exactly who I mean by ‘we’. Maybe it was my generation, when we had seen man actually make it to the moon. Maybe it was people of my mindset.  I’d like to think it was my generation, with parents who had watched the original series of ‘Star Trek’ – and our generation who saw the original ‘Star Wars’. Or,  ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, or even, ‘E.T.’.

We used to look up. We used to stare at the stars, some of us, while laying in the grass.

I’ve spent most of the day watching this live stream, in the background, as I read and did other things. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. And we take it for granted, we sit there staring at phones, communicating about little of worth.

The things of worth we do talk about are about how we can’t keep things from flooding, or people from doing dumb things, or arguing over which idiot is better than which – we who could put a man on the moon, who could build an international space station, who could go peeking at other planets like a nosy neighbor.

We have the capacity to know where we are on our own planet with accuracy that would make ancient mariners ecstatic, and we have that on devices that Tesla told us we would eventually have. It wasn’t so long ago that these things didn’t exist. We dreamed big.

Then the Internet happened – a complex system of communication, too complex for our communication as we began to talk to people around the world. Kittens and pornography propagated it across the world.

Some were so intent on selling their products, services and thoughts that they got really good at marketing. In fact, they got so good at marketing that their marketing became better than their products, services and thoughts.

Somewhere along the way, I think we stopped looking up with a sense of awe. We stopped seeing what our combined efforts could do if we chose to work together.

We should look up.

The Technology Dumb

technology and societyIt’s not something new for me to write about – in fact, most of my writing has centered around the constant conflict I feel between technology and… well, just about everything else. I am, at heart, a technology person. By no stretch am I a Luddite, as a Beowulf cluster of Pine64s a few feet away shows.

Our technology seems to continue to surpass our humanity, which really isn’t anything new. But it has become more prevalent and less noticeable because of it’s very nature.

I wrote recently on LinkedIn about technology, democracy and ethics. Almost a month later, “How Technology Disrupted the Truth1 was written about the Brexit vote in Europe… or the part that wants to be a former part that isn’t yet. As I’ve puttered around Facebook between studying, reading and not-writing-enough, I’ve noted a few other things.

People aren’t just having issues related to their writing – they’re having trouble with their reading comprehension. I read about it and went introspective about it. I’ve been writing less over the last few years, true, but I also noted that my writing mistakes had increased – and my capacity to find them required me to not be interacting with the Internet. That’s me, and it’s impossible to extrapolate anything of use from my own experience2, but I see it in all sorts of things from people I know.

And then we get into the misleading headlines that have been popping around social networks, that people share without even considering the larger impact it will have. Where gossip has always been a human problem, we not only have increased it exponentially – we’ve made it a solid business model for clickbait companies.

Some say that all of this is even making us stupid, which is a catchy headline, but for those who make the effort to read the link:

…What we seem to be sacrificing in our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion. The rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which pump out streams of brief messages, has only exacerbated the problem.

There’s nothing wrong with absorbing information quickly and in bits and pieces. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading. The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. What’s disturbing is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself — our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the net’s treasures, we have been blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture…

Skimming doesn’t really help with critical thought when clickbait headlines travel faster than the speed of light. So what’s the answer?

Slow down. Don’t read everything. And take the trouble to read actual writing instead of the drivel that passes for it… if you can tell the difference in modern writing anymore.

1 And I’m tired of letting ‘disruptive’ being batted around so much; I’ll write about that on KnowProSE.com.
2 People who write knowing that would lead to an intense recovery of memory usage on the Internet, I’m sure. We’re all individuals but not one of us has an omniscient perspective.