Essays

The Shock of the Now

Despite being founded with broad humanistic goals, when internet companies explode in popularity, they reach a certain size and hubris of engineering where they cannot function as anything other than ravenous, data hungry monopolists, focused purely on fighting for control of your personal information.

As consumers of popular media, we love to speculate about the Hollywood myth of Skynet and emergent artificial intelligence, waiting expectantly for market capitalism to transform into our vision of a dystopia with the onset of a predatory, ravenous cybernetic corporate frame.

Through the public internet and world-wide web, we have built the most incredible cathedral of ideas in human history where all knowledge is open. At the same time, our attention spans are disintegrating in a glut of populism and repetitive information addiction. Our entertainment culture has become an insidious maze of self-referential spasms, optimized visually and linguistically for little more than instant gratification.

“Don’t Kanye me or I’ll Chris Brown you, Tiger Woods your mom, and Michael Jackson your children...”

Imperceptive and egregiously conservative propagandists recoil as they witness this supposed implosion of Western popular culture, while everyone else frolics in horror and glee. The web’s transition from a currency of information to a currency of attention has given rise to a contemporary internet lexicon founded on the principle of treating everything as a hyper-real joke. Carefully researched substantial and informative written content is considered tl;dr. Aggression and link-baited copy editing trumps research and journalistic integrity. Pictures trump words. YouTube, lolcats and failblogs run rampant through the series of tubes, entertaining millions in a colossal amusement park of laimless wit and low quality porn.

Major record labels, once the all powerful dons of popular entertainment, have been reduced to rapacious scavenger hulks, desparately trying to get a bite off the net that feeds, while doing all they can to shut it down.

Even our system of food production is a fractal-like reproduction of this vapid pop wasteland. Corporations mass produce products to induce the feeling of having tasted something, whilst depriving consumers of healthy nutrients.

Multi-million dollar empires are built from little more than the flailing clicks of lonely and desperate typecast citizens, who struggle for survival in a culture of fear and sexual hypocrisy that smashes their self-esteem, leaving them greedily grasping at anything remotely resembling a golden ticket or a fast ride to skill and success. If it was that easy, then everyone would be doing it. Oh wait! They are.

This is the internet now. It’s supplying a tiny percentage of the world’s population with massive, unconstrained revenues and knowledge, but “the price of every genius is 500,000 insensate, greedy imbeciles”.

We narrativize our lives in conversational media as a complex interplay of emotional subtlety; our social experiences span the extremes of love, respect and rapport to hate, rage and violence. Amidst a battered morass of social fiction, search-and-destroy engines usher in a new era of mob rule and inchoate vigilante justice.

In our consumer society, the biggest social problems are all related to a basic dispute between short term gains and the long view. We are not educated, trained, or cognitively supple enough to take advantage of the incredible potential of our tools and technology. Indulging, tweaking, preening, fiddling while Rome burns. We convince ourselves of forming patterns as an expression of our lack of control.

Scale Transforms

Industrial society has one answer for everything: growth. Yet we know that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

We think about the emerging connectivity in terms of the ‘social graph’—we capture this in network databases, we visualize it in connections, diagrams, abstract maps of a sprawling, organically clustered cyberspace. This vision drives software production, but it is totally abstract, and it massively misleads our cultural understanding of the internet as a whole.

Shift your image of the internet from one of network topology, to the physical manifestation of its actual energetic existence:

Google data-center in Belgium

The internet is an ugly, spartan industrial reality. Our abstract models of software mask the true foundation of networked computing as a vast urbis of brutalist concrete, metal, plastic and silicon.

So vast that companies like Google and Microsoft needed to site their newest data centers close to hydro-electric dams. So vast that companies like Amazon have rapidly transitioned from being a retailer selling traditional products to a giant wholesale supplier of computing power to the entire global network.

At scale, everything transforms. Ordinary assumptions make little sense. Google can see patterns, anomalies, oddities in the data that nobody else has seen, that are as much a construct of the decisions going into the algorithms and databases that handle this information as they are of the creative decisions that produce this information in the first place.

In the entire history of civilization, such a singular cultural compendium has never been available. It’s here now, thanks to the mechanical colossus of the modern data center.

The originators

The Leftovers of Creational Clay

Ten to fifteen years ago, the first weblogs and journals were hand-crafted expressions of identity. The evolution of interactive design and typography on the web was derived from these ever changing gardens of pixels and words, built from crazed photoshop experiments and monstrosites of nested HTML tables that extended the visual possibilities of the medium and inspired more and more new coders and designers to participate themselves.

We have lost the aesthetic of the hacked personal homepage, the archetypal online creative space for personal storytelling and web-page-as-art-experiments. This subculture is now almost entirely dissolved to fragments in the Wayback Machine.

“As Clement Mok observed in 2003, designers are the only professionals who describe their work in media-specific terms. A surgeon says, ‘I heal people;’ he doesn’t say, ‘I make cuts.’ A lawyer says, ‘I prosecute people;’ he doesn’t say, ‘I make legal documents.‘ And yet, designers say, ‘I make websites. I do print work. I’m in video.’ We are so focused on the medium that we often lose sight of the conceptual goals that inform our overall design practice.”

Beyond the Medium. Toward the Goals.

The emergence of so-called Web 2.0 applications is significant—the clarity, convenience and simplicity with which we can publish and curate content online today would have been unthinkable back in the 1990s. Professional web developers have been striving for years to raise the quality of the medium to where it is today.

Web designers know that for all the inspiration and expression that the early craft afforded, it actually sucked most of the time. We gave up our complex tables and spacer gifs for smaller CSS pages with fewer graphics and a finely tuned content structure. We threw out old browsers and supported web standards aimed at making the web accessible to any device, while supporting the cutting edge of browser features. We embraced the logic of code as communication and the rise of RESTful APIs, using web technology as a fundamental building block of distributed systems. Around the world, open data movements are beginning to transform the way government interacts with the public.

These are all major collective achievements of the web community, achieved largely through grassroots activism, open collaboration, and sharing of knowledge freely.

The values of the early internet culture were imbued with the idea that to get online and publish content, you had to set up your own personal website. This is still viable and accessible, but now has less influence, less bearing on what gets published. Increasingly, there is a path of least resistance. We share our ideas and broadcast our experiences through little silos of contacts locked up in the high-scalability data megalopolis. Managing ones identity—becoming a publisher—is too much work for most and we need to outsource it.

The Sheer Face of the Open Web

“We have the technology. We can hyperconnect in so many ways, through so many media, across the entire range of sensory modalities, it is as if the material world, which we have fashioned into our own image, wants nothing more than to boost our capacity for relationship.

And now we have two forces in opposition, both originating in the mind. Our old mind hews closely to the community and Dunbar’s Number. Our new mind seeks the power of the mob, and the amplification of numbers beyond imagination. This is the central paradox of the early 21st century, this is the rift which will never close. On one side we are civil, and civilized. On the other we are awesome, terrible, and terrifying. And everything we’ve done in the last fifteen years has simply pushed us closer to the abyss of the awesome.”

The network might win

The creativity of the open web is tied to the mast of browser vendors, lashed by the storm of large scale mass internet services, and despite the best advice of free software critics, the mass corporate web is producing amazing results. Many programmers have discovered that eating their own dogfood actually tastes good. In fact, it tastes so good that maybe the dogfooding quip isn’t actually a relevant phrase in software development anymore.

But at the scale of the entire open web, only a small number of organizations have creative control. All the energy and effort to create new, independent things is turning inward, spiraling into a storm of growth and expansion, as emerging internet giants wreak havoc by stacking as many servers together as possible.

Meanwhile, 70 percent of internet porn traffic occurs during the American 9-to-5 workday.

Strangers & Internet Animals

Right now, the Chatroulette kid is the hero. The story speaks volumes as a counter-movement away from a poisonous and obnoxious environment of California tech-firms who totally dominate mindshare and attention on the web today. The internet is a window on humanity disintegrating into utter smut. Perhaps the attraction of Chatroulette is that to see so many anonymous strangers pouring their own personalities and expressions into this clusterfuck of weirdness is utterly refreshing. It provides a real physical sense of how vast and how human the internet really is.

People have always complained about public participation online disintegrating into follow-the-leader pissing contests, and low signal to noise ration chatter. In the face of this vast sea of garbage, people turn inwards to their tightly clustered social networks. The content they post is ever more personal and carefully manipulated to project a certain image or subtext to these tiny exclusive circles of ‘friends’.

Facebook and Google don’t want privacy to be the killer app, they want to kill the traditional idea of privacy. Thousands more branded pretenders to the data-throne scream for attention. More and more, immediacy is valued almost for its own sake, epitomized by the rampant and open nature of emerging social technologies.

“The network shapes us and where you are located in the network has significant implications for the experience you have in life.

You can take two different adolescent girls. Both of them have two friends. It turns out that if a girl’s friends do not get along, she’s more likely to think of killing herself than the girl whose friends do get along.”

Does this social network make me look fat?

There is a threshold of mass-participation where the wisdom of crowds becomes the tragedy of the commons. Twitter, Facebook, and Google Buzz are so effective and so psychologically destructive because they leverage the principle of intermittent variable reward—the same principle that keeps gamblers going back for another spin of the slot machines and lab rats running through the same maze seeking pellets of peanut kibble.

Kathy Sierra recognized this immediately and she was slammed for it. Early Twitter addicts did not want to be told that they were being psychologically tricked, and they responded with a torrent of animosity and abuse.

Social media is visceral and compusive, driven by repetitive, addictive action. In the context of massive algorithmically accessed information, we start outsourcing our own thought and memory to the interface and its clever hybrid of linguistic and social cues. It becomes our springheeled crutch, filling in the gaps of our lack of patience and our brain wired instinct to ignore detail and complexity and reduce reality to simple patterns. Even if the pattern is utterly false or fictional, our brain still prefers the pretense of order, over perception of the unadulterated numinous.

Just look at the comments from this RRW article:

Energy flows towards the path of least resistance. We have engineered a massive internet ecosystem that is reshaping our communication standards toward low level limbic responses. Like addicts, we must reach out to push the button again. To check the list. To squash the popups. To whack the moles.

Flickering laptop screens and the cognitive style of powerpoint have eroded all the subtlety of reading prose. Comment forms cajole us into privileging the instant response over more time-intensive and thoughtful contemplation. Nobody listens to albums anymore when we can just cherrypick the most compelling soundbites and catchy hooks.

It’s no accident. Our brains are wired to respond to the immediacy of these connections. Any media that cannot cross the threshold of instant gratification gets resoundingly ignored, despite whatever intrinsic value it may possess. We drive this evolution of communication because we want it neurologically.

The shift in social media participation has nothing to do with community, culture, or content. It arises as designers and developers begin releasing creations that expand beyond our ability to cognitively control them and Google and Facebook become too connected and convenient for anyone to ignore. For communication design, this is a self-similar reverberation of the innovative leap in games that began in the early 90’s with id software.

Neither web designers nor game designers were prepared for todays explosion of aggressive psychological techniques for extracting money from micro-continuity payment systems and hidden recurring billing traps. Facebook is terrifying and unexpected for the game industry but the future of this technology is even more frightening–a world where sensors are embedded in items like toothbrushes and cereal boxes; where consumers gain points for brushing their teeth or eating the right brand of cornflakes; where governments give tax incentives as game points for traveling by bus; where lighting up each cigarette incrementally increases ones personal insurance premium. These tensions spilled over at GDC10, where FarmVille won Best New Social/Online Game:

“FarmVille winning the award wasn’t strange — it was, in fact, depressingly predictable — it was the acceptance speech that followed that kind of set the room on edge. The Zynga guy opened with a blatant shot against the indie community, asserting that games like FarmVille are ‘just as indie’, and that indies should jump into the social games space and put their money where their mouth is. Apparently Zynga guy has no fucking idea what the indie community is all about, i.e. precisely the opposite of commercialized Skinnerian time-and-money-sinks driven by business and user metrics instead of love of the art.”

FarmVille, arguably, isn’t even a game, since it fails to satisfy key criteria defining what a game is, although this distinction is meaningless for FarmVille’s audience. There is now a very clear divison in the game industry, between persuaders building a ScamVille ecosystem of hell who seek to make money by the most efficient means possible and designers motivated by artistic aspirations.

A similar tension is present in the web industry, although it’s less frequently discussed. It’s easier to operate in a vacuum, denying the omnipresence of porn, poker and penny-auction gambling scams, just as it is easier for print publishers and book designers to deny the massive rise in e-book sales through affiliate marketing funnels like ClickBank.

Civic Retrogression

The First Things First Manifesto is over 40 years old, yet everything in it is as true today as it was in 1964. More than being doomed to repeat past mistakes, we are on an unstable trajectory, rushing towards forms of social organization that we have no moral, philosophical, or cognitive foundation to adequately deal with. The positive social intentions of many designers have rotted away in a rancid sea of profit motives; many technically adept creative people are imprisoned in a hall of mirrors, reliving a constant groundhog day of bloated product updates from cynical vendors, ending up with the products they build themselves echoing this same mediocrity.

Ten years ago, web design was an evolutionary offshoot of graphic design and information architecture. Today, with visual norms and technology condensed into the latest generation of internet services, web design is essentially applied sociology. Widely used phrases like ‘cyberspace’—even the very concept of ‘being online’ itself—are dissolving into irrelevancy. People are simultaneously online and offline and everything around us is network aware. Game design and web design are merging in a frenzy of psychological hacks and credit card baiting. Aboard the end-train, we’re on a blithering rail into the dust of digital reality, where entire cities and systems of cultural objects become networked and daily life is evolving into repetitive computer game mechanics taking place in a virtual urban environment mediated by cameras and sensors, backed by big data.

The internet has evolved in a complex interplay of anarchic organisation, bureaucratic standardisation and corporate subterfuge, and its success is due in large part to its completely open nature. The internet is an anomaly; a place where outliers are multiplied. Out of a violent bubble of 20th Century ideology and military command and control came the ultimate expression of human agency and collective endeavor. A global network of information that is now coming into conflict with consumer society and authoritarianism. Under the gaze of what Aldous Huxley described as monolithic scientific dictatorships, this open network faces a present threat of extinction. The more we turn the web into a global slot-machine, the faster we hasten the onset of a digital distopia.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, as individuals, and participants in civil society, we have a responsibility to maintain and preserve the collaborative and open nature of the web because Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. If we don’t assert initiative for the mass freedom of the internet as well as our individual freedom of speech, then the network will become increasingly locked down. We must prevent the mass filtering of the open web towards G-rated content, and the censorship of political material. An alternative, corporate sanitized, pay-per-page global web is a frightening prospect.

Our society has no proper political channels for dialogue about these issues. That’s why it’s senseless to lambast Anonymous for Operation Titstorm. What else can people do that isn’t feeble and played-out? These kinds of lowest common denominator reactions are an expected result of such a poverty of government imagination. It’s the politics of distraction and statistical warfare—about numbers, not about morals.

The only thing that we understand about the future is that the world is becoming extraordinarily weird. Humanity as we have known it, is ending. The key question now, is how much longer will we try to resist massive change, clinging on to the jetsam and dreck of a fundamentally flawed industrial society, as if petty cultural artifacts are our only source of buoyancy, keeping us afloat in a shark-infested foam of horrifyingly numinous evolutionary entropy.

Despite enormous volumes of scientific information, whatever such thing we have as global society is unable to reach broad consensus on even the most urgent challenges. Many people have become equally disgusted with the left and right wing framing of today’s political reality, yet feel powerless in the face of massive institutional corruption, and the general malevolence of institutional and oligarchical capitalism, which has eclipsed most communist and democratic political systems that were founded in the 19th and 20th centuries. Clearly, war is still the modus-operandi of our civilization.

This seething, clawing, violent existence is something that is almost universally acknowledged as fatal to long term social stability, but we need to start imagining a philosophy of social stability on a larger scale—the militarized society being an assault against the survival of open communication, democracy, perhaps even the entire planet.

To evolve politically, our society needs to resolve the tension between the primacy of the individual and the power of the collective. The internet—connected to urban infrastructure—is quite possibly the most powerful tool we have to share information, localize, educate, and mediate harmonious communities, whilst enabling a level of personal freedom of expression and dignity. A tool that is both universal and also deeply specific to its context. If we throw it all into the hands of private money and militaristic governments, we lose something that is profoundly open and profoundly human.

It would be foolish to stand in the way of 500 million people and expect to completely change the course–switching off Facebook or boycotting Google. That would be to deny the power and potency of these entities, the equivalent of running round with our fingers in our ears shouting “I can’t hear you.” These companies are no more or less evil than any other institution in our society. They have their problems, but we need to learn to live with them.

In the context of internet communication and publishing, the way forward is to invest more in building our own places on the internet as individuals, rather than languishing in the walled gardens of mass-scale services. Escape the feedback loop of by publishing independently. Make things. Break things. Invest in shaping your own unique part of the internet. Support your local networks of artists, writers, hackers and publishers, and show love to the people who inspire you directly. Start plastering the interwebs with new art and design content, and hacking every platform—every form of media—to their furthermost limits.

Endnote