The Unfortunate Internet

Imagine a way to engage the internet that nurtures human potential and wellbeing. A way that shows us what’s happening in the world with optimism and sincerity, minus all vitriol and cynicism.

How can we build this place? If it existed, who would prefer it?

The internet today is fog. A vortex of amusement. A storm drain that collects and amplifies the most rubber-necking miseries of the day, juxtaposed with dance videos and cherry-picked curations of people’s best lives. All of this seems to reinforce more misery, more cherry-picking, more entertainment. Engaging with the internet and its contents feels like Times Square for the mind.

Why does it feel this way?

It’s tempting to see the internet as human nature itself. That, it’s merely a mirror of who we are – good and bad. I refuse to believe it’s this simple. Believing this fails to see bias in the way things are built. Misses the concealed economic incentives and agendas. Misses the deep appeal to people’s identities, their anger and fear, as opposed to their objective understanding of the world and each other. Believing this misses the power we have to understand how vulnerable we are, and optimize our information networks and communities to account for those vulnerabilities.

I see today’s internet as a mere stumble on the way toward something better.

In the meantime, I reflect my own emotional ups and downs as I process my internet experience…

A Vicious Cycle

Over and over again, I plop down at my desk to see what the world is up to. Immediately I’m overtaken by regret and disheartened by the way people behave. It all feels really alien. I wonder – how many people feel the same way I do, as they watch this? I like to believe for every extremely pissed-off person on the internet, there are 10,000 others in the world who aren’t.

WHY would I repeatedly subject myself to this? Is all the conceivable good I might find worth the price I pay, in feeling anxious about the bad?

What are the alternatives, anyway?

  • Stop using the internet
  • Simply ignore the bad parts

I can’t accept either. I cannot refuse (at least some time) interacting with billions of humans on the planet, sharing ideas, understanding what’s on people’s minds, and figuring out best way to live together. I cannot deny all the obvious good and potential unity that comes from that. At the same time – it is impossible to simply ignore the stuff that bothers me. The mind just can’t block certain things out. One can try, for a little while… but it seeps in eventually. In addition, I don’t WANT to ignore this. I don’t want to feel like there’s an elephant in the room – a royally shitty view of the world that most of us are pretending doesn’t exist. I would much rather address it – talk about why it exists – acknowledge its causes – how we feel about them – and what we can do in response.

An Alternative

One of the best visions for the internet I’ve heard comes from Jaron Lanier, who imagines it as a network of human curators, who hand select ideas share them thoughtfully. He imagines this as an alternative to using algorithmically driven social networks, which attempt to understand you and your beliefs, and decide what shows up on in your news feeds based on what everybody else is liking or engaging with.

What I like about the curation idea is, not only do you establish a network of trust with other real humans, but it enables people to bond around certain principles, such as optimism, sincerity, integrity. Imagine that? Thousands of people who abide by values as they share ideas and interact – because they rationally understand it as an antidote to what predominately exists today: outrage, mindlessness, and cynicism.

In some ways, the internet already features human curators – after all, you can follow whoever you want on several major platforms. But it still feels like we have a long way to go – both the curators and the communities. It seems most people are mostly participating in identity arguments, looking to win points and cancel one another, as opposed to propping people up and trying to anchor themselves to golden values. Something deeper about the way people conduct themselves needs to change. A restoration of civility.

In the meantime, writing this helps me understand my own frustration. It reminds me that I am vulnerable. I’ll continue to share ideas on the internet, and carefully consume them, but I have to keep in mind that it comes with price… which will always be trying to pull me toward rage and cynicism and losing faith. Understanding this will help keep me centered, and help imagine ways to usher a better internet.

Update:

11/11/2022 – working on a project to improve things.


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