The realization that the machines had taken over hit like a boulder dropping from one of Colorado’s 14ers onto my head. I was driving during my daily 90-minute commute talking to my mom through my car speakers thanks to my hands-free Bluetooth enabled iPhone when my mom said, “Hey, Lady Gaga is going to be on American Idol tonight.” I almost drove off the road. My mother is 70+. The last album she bought was, well it was an album. She spends most of her days hanging out with her “posse,” a gaggle of older women who she totes around Chicago’s hinterland in her Chevy Avalanche to various grocery stores and beauty shops. She never uses a cell phone. And her idea of technology is a television with cable. Yet she has e-mail, talks to me on Skype and thanks to the media machine that is made up of the Internet, Google, Apple, Facebook and all sorts of technology genus she knows about Lady Gaga.
Privatizing Internet Democracy
To me Lady Gaga is a euphemism for our tech-driven instantaneous culture. Her meteoric rise represents all that’s wrong with the popularity contest Google, Facebook, Twitter and others have forced out of the schoolyard into the virtual landscape. No longer is it the best ideas that get heard but the most popular. Lady Gaga may have talent but she’s no Alice Smith or Lizz Smith. I can see it in politics, in economics even in religion. Dissent is drowned out. Popularity rules. In Facebook’s first iteration of their world domination they introduced the “like,” button. Soon after they instituted the “unlike” button but no “dislike,” button. You can disagree but keep it to yourself. The Internet was supposed to be this bastion of democracy that neither government, capitalism, or other corruptible evil geniuses could touch. Google’s famous motto is to “Do No Harm.” But to deal with the enormous amount of data that floats behind all those 1’s and 0’s Google created its search ranking system. And to make money Google took something that was irrevocably invaluable and put it on the auction block – it put a price on words. So, now you buy your way into the top. Nevermind, that your product sucks or what you have to say is irrelevant or that you repeat what a million others have already said you can buy your way to the top of the search engine. The democracy of the Internet has been privatized.
The Dead Hand Kills Internet Democracy
I’m currently on the second book of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. There’s an exchange in the book in which an Empire general is discussing the war between the Empire and the Foundation put into motion by Hari Seldon. The Empire tries to convince a Seldon devout to work with him to defeat this far-flung Foundation world which threatens the empire. The devout tells him not to worry that the outcome has been predestined, the Empire will lose.
“The place, time, and conditions all conspire mathematically and so, inevitably, to the development of Universal Empire.” The Seldon devout says.
The general answers, “You are trying to say that I am a silly robot following a predetermined course into destruction.”
To which the devout later says, “Do whatever you wish in your fullest exercise of freewill. You will still lose.” ”
Because of Hari Seldon’s dead hand,” the general shoots back.
“Because of the dead hand of the mathematics of human behavior that can neither be stopped, swerved, nor delayed,” the devout answers resolutely.
Asimov’s fictional world where mathematics predicts and to some extent determines the future is analogous to how the Internet has changed the way we communicate. I feel like the general sometimes, connecting to people not because I want to but because the dead hand of the Internet makes it so.
Our relationships, socializing, businesses, communications etc., and our very choices are being directed by a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. The Internet has become our dead hand, changing our behavior forcing us into segmented columns where we’re surrounded by all those things we like. Our data comes in likes. The music we like, the people we like, the political views on blogs we like, the food we like, the neighborhoods we like, even the men and women we like, nevermind that when you’re in your 20s you have NO IDEA what you want in a relationship but that of course doesn’t stop Match.com from making money. All this is tied up in a neat little bow on our Facebook page. Can we even have dissent in a world where the popular wheel gets the most grease? The Internet allows us to stay in our own camps, to hang with the like-minded, to choose our friends and defriend whomever disagrees with us. Has this democratic tool made us more insular rather than more democratize?
With the overwhelming amount of data that is now flooding the Internet, the Long Tail has become the Short Trail. The really obscure is still out there but good luck having a search engine find it for you, unless you use the right key word that everyone else looking for that obscure data has used. It amazes me that the most inventive, innovation in the last 50 years now runs on assimilation. Even the innovative thinkers are corralled together under TED’s moniker of “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Um, who gets decide the value of an idea? Google, I guess. Someone had to find a way to categorize all that information out there. But has our categorizing become homogenizing because that’s the way the only way the machines can process it for us? Does mathematics allow for dissent, chaos, the unpopular? It seems so structured, elegant and perfect. Can 1+1 ever equal 3?
It’s All Semantics
To answer the information overload a new school of thought, call it Internet the Next Generation, has emerged. Dubbed the Semantic Web, this new philosophy seeks to add context to our data search by mixing the quintessential human need to relate with the systematic categorization found in databases. Mashable posted a fantastic documentary from Kate Ray that boils down the complicated semantic theology into 14 minutes.
I watched the video approvingly and with a chorus of “Amens.” As a person who deals with a lot of data, thousands of photographs and reports sent each month from countries all over the world, my motto is: the only relevant data is easily found data. Data without context is useless. If data cannot by processed in the way that humans can use it, it might as well not exist. But one quote in the video arrested me. A critic of semantic web questioned whether the semantic web proponents were trying to categorize data in the way machines, computers think, not in the way humans process information. In short, he asked if semantics is just trying to get us to think the way the machines do. This is, I reckon, is what Wolfram Alpha is doing. With its motto of “Making the World Computable,” this new search engine seeks to take the esoteric and make it concrete through mathematics. At least that’s my interpretation, I can’t even begin to believe I’m smart enough to understand it.
What does all this have to do with Facebook likes? Well, it occurred to me that Facebook and all its programmers have interpreted the need for humans to be relational to mean that humans do not want or necessarily need dissent. So as a computer would do or one of Asimov robots, it eliminates the dissent possibility. There’s no “dislike,” button it expects you to vote with your feet, I guess. If you dislike something you won’t press the like button. But what if our Internet gods control what you get to see? Then you can live your entire life in a world where dislikes are moot.
We Rule the Machines
Asimov is a good framework to talk about these issues because he of course popularized the notion of machines being in control. In reading his short stories about robots and their interactions with their creators you can’t help but think of God and humans. But it seems Asimov had a better respect for the robots, their willingness to do what’s right despite evidence to the contrary. They were, as one of Asimov characters asserted, better than human beings. I fear that if we do not have people who believe that the ugliness that is being human is fine, even necessary, the next Internet evolution will be an even stronger dead hand. It’s a future, where maverick musicians, damaging dissidents and unlikable theorists will get left on the search engine’s proverbial cutting room floor, never to make it to the light of day. Already China succeeds in giving its population a narrower information funnel by making deals with search engines to stop what it calls dissident or revolutionary search terms from appearing inside China’s new wall – its Internet firewall. Burning books is no longer necessary. China just made Google and Yahoo its Fahrenheit 451. The Internet of China is nothing like the Internet we partake of, and the search engines like Google are complicit in this sanitation because of the almighty dollar.
There are whole innovative fields of the Internet that are being shaped by people who don’t believe in God, have one-size-fits-all politics, are singular-minded and worse yet, have grandiose ideas of saving the world from itself. Despite the 16-year-old creating apps for iPhone it’s these techno Gods who have the power over what technology gets pursued and what doesn’t.
Today is much like it was right after the Middle Ages when the Age of Enlightenment came about. Those asleep at the wheel awoke to a future that had deleted entire industries replacing them with 1’s and 0’s. I’m not technophobe but I would like to make sure that the messiness that doesn’t exist in the elegant world of mathematics and technology but does exist in human nature doesn’t get left out of the next Internet iteration. Otherwise we’re just stumbling around in a really cool, high-tech version of the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy. We need to continue to think and not like the machines think for us. Popularity, to me, is by definition mediocrity.