In my previous post I spent a few minutes reminiscing about my early time on the internet and my webiversary. While I was out for my walk yesterday I was pondering how I used to think of the internet, say, in 1998. The web was just emerging and I, an anarchist activist in my Memphis community, thought it would eventually prove to be an important part of the democratic process. At the time it seemed the roadblocks to a more meaningful democracy were ignorance and apathy. I thought that as the footprint of the web grew, that it would become a tool that would inevitably lead to a better informed citizenry which would lead to a less apathetic citizenry.
Oh how wrong I was.
Of course at the time “social media” did not exist, at least not in the modern, popular form. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube. LiveJournal would be the first to gain a foothold in 1999. Others soon followed, Friendster in 2002, MySpace in 2003. But none had the reach of Facebook in 2019 which for many people is the web.
Rather than a diverse web we have a web largely dominated by a few huge entities, Google and Facebook being the best examples. I’m not going to do a deep dive into the many problems that might be explored here. Suffice it to say that the pervasiveness of Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter (in approximate order of influence) have arguably increased ignorance as they have decreased apathy. The dynamic that has been put into play is a citizenry that is emotionally manipulated away from understanding or even attempting to understand present day social, political and scientific facts. Rather than a more informed citizenry engaging in a more active democracy, based upon knowledge and reason, social media, as the face of the modern web, has led to an increasingly fractured and hostile social experience based on rumors, conspiracy theories, pervasive misinformation. I’m using the term social experience to encompass our digital social interactions as well as our “real life” interactions, which is to say, the experiences we have face-to-face in our families, with friends and co-workers.
By chance I came across this post Ryan Murphy at Fulcra which, in a way, touches on some of this dynamic but from a different direction. He starts with a quote from Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. I’ve mention this book by Sagan before and this quote fits well here too:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
Murphy, in his post, mentions a thread on Reddit about the growth of anti-intellectualism and conspiracy theories. I confess I’ve not read through that thread yet so I’m not sure what ground it covers but Murphy ends his post with:
People in the Reddit thread point out that these seemingly recent trends have been taking root for a long time. While this is true, it’s also true that (just like seemingly everything else) these phenomena have been moving much faster and growing much larger in recent years. Which leads to a curious tangent: how do accelerated scales of change play on our biases? Does the interaction between these biases and our accelerated experiences change our perception of the world?
I think the answer to his last question is yes. The accelerated experience is a part of the dynamic. I deleted my Facebook account in 2015 after being on it for 5 or more years. Almost every family member and friend that I can think of are still using Facebook. According to Statista, there are 190 million active users in the U.S. Wikipedia’s Facebook page provides an excellent overview of the influence that Facebook has had including its rapid rate of growth and the many issues/scandals/controversies that have surfaced.
It seems obvious that the processes of modern social life have, in just 10 years, become deeply influenced by social media, specifically Facebook. What is less clear are the long-term implications and effects as well as the response to this new dynamic. As of 2019 there have been numerous serious scandals that have been broadly reported by the media and thus far the company seems immune with the user base seemingly uninterested. From the 2016 elections and likely to the 2020 elections we see far reaching affects in U.S. electoral politics but also on family and community relations.
We’re just over a decade into the online social media experiment and while we seem to have shed some of our apathy, our new-found enthusiasm for engagement is less informed. We’re allowing ourselves to be tweaked by algorithms designed to manipulate us so that our attention and our data might be sold at great profit. Why? We say it’s for baby pictures. We like the fun memes about animals, the clever jokes and pranks. We tell ourselves it’s our way of staying connected. But the social media software engineers behind the scenes will tell you that your engagement, your attention is more about dopamine and social reward.
Rather than a diverse World Wide Web that leads to an informed humanity and better democracy, we have a comforting interface that is designed to stimulate the chemistry of our brains into a range of emotions that will keep us clicking and tapping, consuming but not actively thinking. A tool for keeping us entertained so that we can be sold and, to some degree, controlled.
I’ll end with a modification of Sagan’s quote updated for 2019:
…when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our smart phones and nervously consulting our social media feeds, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
I came across a post the other day talking about the early web and it got me thinking a bit about my time on the internet and specifically the web. My very first experiences, pre-web, were with email via service called EcoNet back in 1993ish. As I recall the service was a sort of basic internet that offered a text-based access and email. The service was provided by the Institute for Global Communications:
In the early ’80s people from four San Francisco Bay Area non-profits (ARC Foundation, Center for Innovative Diplomacy, Community Data Processing, and Foundation for the Arts of Peace) came together around a vision of a computer network to support the work of individuals and organizations working to reduce the risks of war and to promote peace. As a result of that collaboration, PeaceNet was launched. Another early online network, EcoNet, joined with PeaceNet and the project became the Institute for Global Communications (IGC).
I used My first Mac, a Color Classic with that service for a couple years then dropped off for a couple years. In 1997 I was working with various community groups in Memphis and we wanted to set-up a website. I guess that at the time I was the nerdiest of the bunch and volunteered. I quickly discovered that my beloved Color Classic was not up to the task of running the early version of, Netscape Navigator. I went shopping and purchased my second Mac, a Performa 6400.
It was with this Mac that I wrote and coded my first website, Liberated Existence.. A static website that I updated almost daily. It quickly grew from a single home page to a series of pages for the various projects our group was creating. The first crawl by the Internet Wayback Machine was August 2000 but the site had been in existence since 1998. Of the various things I’ve done in my adult life publishing a website on the web is probably the one which I have engaged in most consistently.
I coded the site by hand initially, using a text editor, BBEdit and uploaded via an ftp app, Fetch. That was it for the first couple years. At some point I started dabbling in a variety of web creation tools ranging from Claris Homepage to Adobe GoLive and Macromedia Dreamweaver. This was the beginning of my continuing life-on-the-web.
My first “blog” was built on Blosxom which is still a thing apparently. At some point I bounced over to Typepad.com and then to Blogger at some point. During that time I changed the name of the blog several times. I believe the first iteration was the transition of the static Liberated Existence site to a Blosxom blog and at some point I used the name Where We’re Bound. At some point around 2008 I renamed the blog “Our Tomorrow” which I kept until 2015. Both of those titles were meant to evoke thoughts of the future. In the case of the first title, I thought Where We’re Bound had a nice double meaning. Where are we headed but also, in what ways are we bound or tied up from free activity. In what ways are we humans incapable of dealing with our present and our future. I think the follow-up title was a good choice as humans in the first two decades of this century are making crucial choices which seem to be limiting our future survival on the planet.
I expect the current title, Beardy Star Stuff will stick around until I’m done on the internet. The archive contains all previous versions of the above mentioned blog titles and goes back to April 6, 2003, a post titled God Talk.. I’m fairly certain there were some posts previous to that but they seem to have been lost at some point during one of the above mentioned transitions. Oh well.
So, yeah, it’s been 21 years now that I’ve been building my tiny little corner of the web. None of my sites have ever been heavily trafficked and I’m okay with that. I did them as much for myself as anyone else. I suspect I’ll continue in my haphazard web-building practices for a good while. At this point it’s a practice that probably leans more towards habit than the passion it was 20 years ago. But I still enjoy it so I’ll keep at it.
Note, I’ve only spoken here of my personal creations. I’ve also been busy building websites for clients since about 2005 but really, that’s another story for another time. Perhaps it’s something I’ll reflect on at my other tech-oriented blog at Beardy Guy Creative.