How the internet created 5 Billion digital refugees.
For almost thirty years we have tried to fathom the internet; how it came to be and what its lasting effect will be. To understand this sprawling metaverse of digital connectivity is no easier than looking upon a far away planet like Mars. A part of our consciousness yet something other, distant, out of sight, yet all too real.
The internet is a dematerialized universal condition but to unpack it one needs to look at it through a universal metaphor of reality.
Let’s imagine, if you would, an unimaginable scenario.
What would happen if the entire world, or at least the majority bar a few bemused bystanders, showed up in one place on planet Earth thirsting for something?
What you can imagine, if it was even logistically possible, is the ensuing chaos. A crushing weight of humanity beyond what the eye could see or the mind could comprehend. Without hierarchy, order, or hope of maintenance. A crowd that would overwhelm and break any existing best laid systems. A crowd that could not communicate from the center because the center ceased to exist. Left instead to distribute the information to the extremes through unstable word of mouth. What you would have is less system shock than total system failure.
Now let us try to imagine what it is or was that drew them to this place. What was it that could cause this mass migration of humanity to up sticks, leave the safety and reality of their worlds behind and gamble on the idea that they might get some, some of whatever it was that started the stampede in the first place. What was it that first drew a curious trickle that would in turn cause the tectonic shifts that would create a human tsunami?
What if it was ‘Attention’.
As humans we are born needing attention, we crave being attended. Our mental, social and physical wellbeing are dependent upon a high level of attention.
In early times it wasn’t a problem getting attention. We lived and moved in small groups and individuals in need of attention were easily identified and satisfied. But as our populations grew we had to fight for attention. Attention became scarce and, in turn, a privilege. Some had plenty and others had none. It became a form of wealth, as much about economics as human nature. The economically wealthy countries tended by nature to be attention rich whilst those worse off were attention poor. The levels of attention and conflict became related. High attention countries were peaceful and low attention countries were more prone to unrest. Or rich countries could be attended to and poor countries neglected. But even in the most well off societies it wasn’t equally distributed.
As the world’s population exploded it became harder to find and even harder to get. We were being starved of attention. The privileged got greedy and the poor got needy. The world as we knew it was out of balance, an unsustainable need had overwhelmed our now limited resources of attention.
So God created the internet and it captured the whole world’s attention. Here was an infinite space, a new gold rush with the promise of riches beyond our imagination, but most importantly, an attentive audience. An attention rich universe created on a universal platform upon which everyone could perform for attention. The internet turned us all into performers who sacrificed our humanity for a single Attention coin. It became the attention capital, drawing first the speculators followed by the dilapidated souls and, in time, the rest of us would follow, motivated by either our greed or our need. But this attention was different: it lacked origin, context or feeling. The performance, the unrequited cry for attention without the possibility for true resolution. It is a metric illusion based on an emotional delusion. This is not real or safe, we are eternal outsiders seeking to integrate ourselves by ingratiating ourselves to others. This distorts our sense of self. The reality of this connection defies our expectation for true detection.
On the interface we are all refugees, untethered from origins or borders and starved of attention, we are seeking much needed solace. On the internet we can be free of origin, without origin we stand out (that is good yes?) yet over time we become unrecognizable to ourselves (that is bad no?). The interface does not assimilate it appropriates — a population too vast to be intimate it doesn’t so much give us attention then beg and steal from us.
So where does that leave us at the beginning of the next chapter of our digital age?
Now more than ever we need to see the wood from the trees so that we don’t mindlessly destroy the forest and starve ourselves of the wood. The greatest regret of the internet is that it is the stage upon which technology itself has been judged.
Is technology good? Is technology great? I suspect it is both but the platform upon which it is measured on a daily basis distorts our ability to see the good from the bad. By making it [the internet] a destination, we corrupt and undermine technology’s true value as a tool.
The legacy of the internet is that technology and our need for attention have become indistinguishably entwined. We crave it and loathe it all in the same breath.
We need a renewed approach, one that disaggregates technology from the internet so we may look beyond the attention of the interface and see the TRUE intention of technology. A power tool which can help us meaningfully attend to ourselves and others around by putting our human EQ on top of technology’s IQ.