The Magic and the Miasma of the American Internet

It must have been love but it’s over now.
It was all that I wanted, now I’m living without.
Swedish Philosopher — Per Håkan Gessle

I have always loved technology, but I am finding the relationship at a crossroads. I can recite specifications of machines I have owned, but the machines were only an avenue, tools of creation and connection. We no longer see the creation as sacred and I no longer know if we deserve the connection.

To paraphrase David Auerbach, in regards to Twitter, a miasma is overcoming the magic of discovery. We have unprecedented bandwidth and fill it with politics, hate, and trolling. We are degrading the connection between the machines, the connection between us. The connection has become a miasma of user aggregation for sake of monetization and advertising, the gold standards of the social network age, sans design for hospitality.

Ethan Zuckerman, in an 2014 article for The Atlantic:

‘I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.’

Print, Radio, Television, Internet, Virtual Reality — each generation we craft technology into novel mediums for the art of communication, yet advertising always inundates them. The natal magic of the Oculus Rift consumed by Facebook. Saturn devouring his son.

Saturn Devouring His Son — Francisco Goya

If Bill Hicks referred to advertisements as “evil fucking machinations” what conclusions should be drawn on the nature of an Internet built on this machinery? Our relationship is not what we thought it was.

I will not be the only one broken hearted as the miasma overcomes the magic.

So, it’s definite then 
It’s written in the stars, darlings 
Everything must come to an end
We thought love could change our names
And free us from our earthly chains
Oh you wanted to believe in this, to believe in this
But they couldn’t
Susanne Sundfør — Darlings

We wanted to believe in the freedom of the online without the realization it was bound to our earthly chains. We are not mature enough for the Internet. They, the social networks, create entirely new connections between people built on outrage and politics and harassment. We seek belonging in superior tribes based on our contributions to this miasma.

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The online world can hurt us. This is a reality not often designed for in mainstream programming.

Accepted practice in medical science, was at one point, to administer drugs to immobilize babies for surgery without any pain medication —the belief being babies do not experience pain as we do.

The Berlin Wall would fall at about the same time this thinking was being questioned by mainstream medicine. In a field so rich in pure science and technology, how did we arrive at such dogmatism devoid of empathy? How can we be so blind that we separate ourselves from a simple truth apparent to not only mothers, but common sense?

Pretend That Everybody Here Wants Peace

First I’ll build a sword / Get some words to explain / It’s a plan, brother, at least / And I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins — Rabbit Fur Coat

A little less than ten years after George Wallace was photographed grandstanding in a schoolhouse doorway in support of segregation, he was nearly killed in an assassination attempt. Secret service protection would be assigned as a precautionary measure to congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm and George Wallace were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. She would, however, visit George Wallace in the hospital, remarking:

“You and I don’t agree, but you’ve been shot and I might be shot, and we are both the children of American democracy, so I wanted to come see you.”
Holmes Alexander, Lewiston Evening Journal, May 17th, 1973

Unfortunately, in politics, change is slow. Howard Dean, while running for president in 2003, would say:

“White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us, and not [Republicans], because their kids don’t have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.”

The language of hate is spoken by both parties. Divisions are wedged deeper to create life-long constituents. We all have someone to be afraid of for political reasons. Search filter bubbles preserve these differences making the Internet not global, but regional.

Carnage wrought online will bleed into the world just as carnage wrought in the political world bleeds into the world. Some of us never acknowledge this.

Because in truth, there are no sentences that can justify the behavior of a troll, or that can explain it and make it make sense. The only response that demonstrates some closing of the gap between troll and trolled, that shows that the pain one has caused has finally entered one’s thoughts, is an emotional reaction, one that says: I get it. I’m human like you. — Rebecca J Rosen, The Atlantic

Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government — and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one’s own antagonists. — Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand simply does not support the guarantee of Freedom of Speech on private platforms (i.e. “the expense of other men”). We can allow engineers to attack the miasma. There is no need to host content and then disclaim the content “does not reflect our views.” A network will come to reflect the views of those who support it financially, be it users or advertisers.

Rand’s defining of Freedom of Speech from governments can only be ensured by encryption. Unfortunately we have yet to experience a golden age of encryption.

Social networks are afraid of encryption. The controversy of encryption is bad for advertising sales.

The problem of encryption, especially in America, should be addressed by imagining the implications of Watergate as if it occurred in the smartphone era. Encryption is the fail-safe that ensures private citizens will be treated fairly by politicians with unchecked surveillance powers.

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Emotion is not the opposite of logic and love is emotional, not illogical. Engineers are encouraged to get lost in the minutiae required to make a platform run, not the community that makes the platform work. Silicon Valley obsesses with minmaxing engineers, but engineers are people, not parts of the machine.

There is something sacred about feats of engineering where the means and the end were simple appeals to curiosity. We need to understand that for all of the logic, engineers have an emotional attachment to their art.

Amanda Palmer, artist, TED Talk speaker, and author of The Art of Asking, recounts a conversation with her mother, who was a computer programmer in the 1960s and 1970s:

You know, Amanda, it always bothered me. You can’t see my art, but… I’m one of the best artists I know. It’s just… nobody could ever see the beautiful things I made. Because you couldn’t hang them in a gallery.
Amanda Palmer — The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help.

The magic of technology is the art and curiosity in engineering, the miasma is monetizing the network’s users. We have forgotten there is no minimally viable art.

Death

Advertising may attempt to convince us otherwise, but technology remains unsuccessful in dividing us from death. Death is the common ground we all share. Technology has yet to raise any of us from this fate. To quote Zora Neale Hurston:

“What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then.”
Zora Neale Hurston — Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In a response to the certainty of death, Peter Thiel was quoted in an interview as saying:

‘You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.’

There is a fourth outcome to imagine to this worldview of death. Technology overcomes death too late for our generation. This possibility compels an acceptance of improving community in the here and now. Death connects us with a universal experience and disconnects us in the same breadth. Solving the problem of tribalism becomes paramount.

We fear a Singularity prioritizing technology over people. We fear an Artificial Intelligence because we fear ourselves in all our intelligence. The discoveries of new technology are applied to warfare. We use drones half a world away to kill people in a frightening display of global connectedness.

We are the children of the American internet at the crossroads of the Internet. It is our responsibility to forge hardware and software that surpasses our primal divisions. We must see ourselves, despite regional differences, as human.

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