The most important technology in the world, the one we’re all using every day, was shaped by incentives that never aligned with ours. And we simply accepted it.
May the Ads be ever in our Favor
The most glaring example of how the Internet’s inner workings go against our interests is the ad-revenue model. The insidious nature of this mechanism goes deeper than many understand. It colors what we think of as the essence of the Internet. It starts with the most basic concept of the Web: the notion that most anything is (and should be) free. Of course, there is some exclusive content online, and paywalls abound, but these are the exceptions, not the rule. One of the fundamental tenets of using this technology is being able to simply “go online” and “browse.”
Of course, on its face, this sounds like a good thing. And in fact, the roots of the Internet, as conceived in America’s colleges, go back to ideas of knowledge freely shared; of the democratization of information. These ideas, indeed, ideals, gave rise to the notions that seem obvious to us now: information on the Internet is supposed to be free. But, as the Russian saying goes, “the only free cheese is found in a mousetrap.” Few things in our world are free, and so anything that appears to be free is usually paid for in some unseen manner.
Just as the roads and hospitals we use each day aren’t really free, but rather paid for with our taxes, so is the Internet’s seemingly free content is being paid for with our attention.
A consequence of the ad-revenue model is the omnipresence of recommended content. Platform owners have a huge incentive to surround us with content that we’re most likely to to continue watching — content that keeps us on their site longer. And it works: On YouTube, over 70% of all watched videos come from recommendations.
But what’s wrong with getting recommendations that people actually watch? Isn’t the fact of us watching those videos proof that the recommendation was apt? Alas, things aren’t quite so simple. The fact is, we aren’t good at self control. And YouTube is very good at making us offers that we can’t refuse: irresistible propositions, tailored specifically to keep us watching. The system is designed to surround us with more of the same, rather than to introduce us to new (possibly challenging) ideas.
“Likes” as currency
There are other examples of ideas initially good taken to their inevitable extreme, perverted, and turned back against us. The “like” button is one such beast.
The “like” started as a convenient replacement for writing a few words of agreement or encouragement. Over time, it has turned into the currency of the Web. The quality and influence of our speech is now measured in almost monetary terms: views, likes, shares. What matters now is how many of these you can get, not what you got them for. We never agreed to use these metrics to define the value of a piece of content. Nevertheless, they shape what we say, and how we say it.
What We Lose to the Internet
These mechanisms — the ads, the likes, the recommendations and auto-plays — highlight the many tradeoffs we’ve passively accepted as the price of participating in the online community. But is this deal fair? Is it good for us? Do we gain more than we lose? And what do we lose?
Losing our Attention
We collectively trade our attention — arguably one of our most human attributes — for access to the vast knowledge base of the Internet. We don’t always think about it; it’s simply how things are. With the advent of increasingly sophisticated algorithms, the ad-based model has moved from simply showing us banners with useless products, to shaping our conversations online and influencing our purchasing habits to an unprecedented degree. Considered this way, the deal no longer feels as fair. And yet, how many are shutting down their online presences? How many can?
Losing our Knowledge
Much of my interaction with the Internet is done in the form of questions and answers. A thought pops into my mind, and my reaction is to construct the perfect query to submit to Google, and alleviate the unbearable feeling of not knowing. Only when I’m in conversation with others I am able, through them, to challenge myself to actually think.
The rest of the time, I’m my usual Homo Internetus, whose chief talent is being able to look things up online.
The Internet’s amazing ability to serve up facts has given us the illusion that it is capable of providing answers. But knowing something, really knowing it, is not the same as having the capacity to look it up. Crucially, being able to find a piece of information is a useless skill, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. A human might understand the underlying intent behind a question, but Google can’t.
I see the great gift of information given to the human race by the World Wide Web wasted on looking up irrelevant pieces of pop culture trivia. What percentage of the online traffic is spent on entertainment, mindless consumption and time wasting, as opposed to research, learning and true connections?
Losing our Humanity
It has been said that we are what we pay attention to. I propose that the Internet makes us less human than we used to be (or perhaps could have been). We pay less attention to ourselves, to our thoughts, and so become less like our own selves.
Inherently internal processes, like thought, introspection and remembrance, are being externalized. We outsource our thought process to the Internet, through both search engines and social media. This draws us away from real introspection. Why waste time thinking to yourself, when your brilliance can immediately be shared with the many? Why bother reveling in dull recollections of past events, when the photos you’ve shared from these events are right there?
Losing Each Other
In one of his most insightful moments, Louis C.K. explained the difference between an online and an in-person interaction.
Online, the addressed person’s reaction is not apparent to us. We can’t look them in the eye; we can’t gauge their emotions based on their facial expression. In person, we can — even if we don’t want to. We’re forced to confront the consequences of our interaction, and hopefully, that makes us better people. The complexity of human relationships is ill accommodated by the 2D screen.
In the same prescient clip, Louis C.K. also addresses the final, greatest capacity that we seem to be losing. Our most primal of abilities — the ability to be alone with ourselves — is being extinguished by the phones in our pockets. An endless supply of entertainment is turning us into consumption automatons, incapable of finding solace in our own minds, reliant on the web to keep us pacified and entertained. We, ourselves, are no longer enough.
I’m yet to articulate these losses even to myself, but I have a deep sense of having relinquished something profound, paid as the price of being a citizen of the Internet.