Was the development of the Internet a wrong turn?


[I posted this on Facebook, seems it struck a nerve based on the likes and responses. Reposting here, perhaps time for a blog revival.]

I argued in the early 90s that the Internet would connect creatives on the fringes and fringe communities would form and have more impact on social and political cultures. What I didn’t see was that communities or armies of ignorant, racist, fascist, paramilitarist, arguably insane, rabid right, false Christian gremlins would form and seize control of an existing political party, that they would undermine their own interest and dismantle the middle class, that they would endeavor to promote dark-age philosophies over advances in reason and science, and that they would not be opposed, but cultivated by politicians and wealthy business and media interests who would see them as a source of potential power, missing dangerous signals from the emergent mob and their unholy alliance with it. These people may be a vocal minority, but they seem to have growing force. I’m not so sure the Internet has proved to be a Good Thing. It may be the catalyst for the rapid unraveling of civilization.

I added a link to Jennifer Granick’s post, “The Dream of Internet Freedom Doesn’t Have to Die.” And Hoder’s just posted “The Web We Have to Save” on Medium. He says “the web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.”

State of the World 2014

Bruce Sterling and I are into our annual “state of the world” mischief. [Link]

Google was going wild in early 2013, they were like android demigods.
Now Google is, all of a sudden, presto, Russia. Google is a
surveillance secret-police empire with spy binoculars on their faces.
Sergey Brin’s pet Moonshots are just a lame prestige show.

It’s sad, really. Larry and Sergei used to be the Not-Evil Guys, they
empowered the users and won their instinctive trust. Now, if Snowden
entered the boardroom of Google, Larry and Sergei would shriek in
falsetto like the Wicked Witches of the West and melt into two puddles
of black wax.

That doesn’t make Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon any better
than Google — Facebook in particular, oh my God — but it’s the first
time that these new titans of American industry have really looked
genuinely ugly. Just, nasty. Because they’re rich and powerful, but
they’re also narcs. They’re creeps and snoops. They’re police

They were kinda tricked into it — but everybody knows it, and their
unwillingness to face up the stark embarrassment is an act of tacit
consent. The Brazilians, Germans, French, Italians, Russians, the
Chinese ten times over, everybody, they all know. It takes a while for
that kind of damage to the reputation to sink in, but it will.

2013 Top Ten (Social/Political/Technical) Culture Blasts

These are things I thought were important in 2013.

NSA Leaks and surveillance society

I always figured the NSA was watching, but it was still a shock to find how extensive surveillance had become – and it was disturbing to see clearly how surveillance of this kind was somebody’s job, something they would inscribe in how-to PowerPoint presentations. This realization via Snowden leaks brought the panopticon home in a big way: as we move so much of our lives into massive databases, we’re increasingly trackable, increasingly exposed to those who know how to capture and analyze the data, and especially vulnerable to government scrutiny. But NSA and government is only part of the story. We’re seeing widespread surveillance by both public and private entities – marketing analytics engines could be or become as robust as NSA tools, meanwhile none of us has ownership of, or control over, our personal data.

In 2013 our level of trust was low and declining. We especially don’t trust governments and corporations with our data because we’re so increasingly aware of the potential for, if not the fact of, abuse. To some extent concerns are legitimate, and to some extent they emerge from a culture of paranoia that has evolved in the wake of mass media and network technology, which have had several relevant effects: greater awareness of abuses when they happen, feeding into myriad fictional surveillance and pursuit fantasies, and more recently the emergence of a social media panopticon. But the Snowden revelations make paranoia feel pretty rational.

Andrew Leonard has a good Salon piece about surveillance/sousveillance: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/27/how_to_defeat_big_brother/

Death of the Internet /DIY/free culture etc.

As the Internet has become the pervasive platform for media and commerce, it has ceased to be the “network of networks” of the 90s. As so many of us predicted, the Internet has been transformed into something more like the cable networks. Content and technology are increasingly locked down behind paywalls and other barriers. Even social media have become more professional, less DIY. Anyone can still participate, but few will capture attention or persistent mindshare as the Internet version of mass media has emerged, more conversational and less top-down than the 20th century version, but nothing like the transitional blogosphere. As small publishers moved from desktop publishing to the web, 2013 saw bloggers moving onto managed platforms like Facebook and Tumblr. We now have a media environment that includes a relatively small number of high-profile content sources, and smaller clusters of online conversation and sharing. Shirkification proceeds (referring to Clay Shirky’s predictions that just such a thing would happen). Question is, how will cream rise to the top? How will new voices emerge and capture attention? Or they be excluded by stricter gateways and media dominance by a limited few. The promise of the Internet was that it could bring a vibrant mix of new perspectives and a cheerfully unmanageable confluence of cultures, but we lose that, if network culture is dominated by a top-down mass media paradigm.

Boston Marathon bombing

The Marathon bombing was similar to the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center, though smaller scale and evidently involving only two Chechen Muslim perpetrators who didn’t seem to be acting as part of a larger conspiracy or movement like Al Qaeda. This seemed to be more the case of “another nut with a gun” (and some bombs. However I find it just as troubling, maybe more so, to see the bombing as part of an epidemic of random acts of senseless violence. Note also that there were 359 mass shootings in the USA in 2013. (http://www.reddit.com/r/GunsAreCool/wiki/2013massshootings)

The Tea Party gets elected

Through a combination of hard work, effective propaganda, big money, and possibly a heavy thumb on the voting scales, a number of Tea Party politicians have been elected to public office, have been empowered by their supposed popularity, and have managed to freeze Congress from producing any effective legislative solutions. 2013 has been the year of peak Tea Party ascendance, much to the dismay of Democrats and pragmatic Republicans whose business-as-usual has been derailed. The debate about the role and extent of government may ultimately be healthy, if it doesn’t kill us first.

Pope Francis

As religious figures go, this is a breath of fresh air. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from the Americas, is known for his humility and openness, and the simplicity of his demeanor. These are welcome traits in the leader of the world’s largest, and arguably most influential, Christian religious organization. He hasn’t sold all the Catholic gold, but he’s wearing less of it.

Economy, what?

We keep hearing that the economy will tank any day now, and for anyone who’s on the exasperating downside, that doesn’t seem so speculative. Tech is booming (but it could be a bubble), and there are signs of life in the world of manufacturing. Innovation is everywhere. However the American middle class is on the ropes, and much of the world’s money is socked away in Swiss bank accounts, i.e. out of play. And while there are many experts in the infosphere, nobody seems to have a definitive clue. There’s a lot of “next economy” talk, and we may very well see a collapse of traditional means of exchange and the ascendance of new forms – worker cooperatives, alternative currencies and barter systems, resilient communities, etc. These are gathering steam (and may have to be steam-driven, as fossil fuels burn away).


Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) depends on the commitment of citizens and corporations to make it work. However opponents who see in the potential for broad mandated insurance a kind of socialism, where the strong support the weak, have undermined that commitment. Those that are healthy/wealthy don’t want the sick and the poor in their insurance pools, just as they don’t want their tax dollars spent on benefits or “entitlements” for the lower and middle classes. The actual launch of Obamacare was the best they could’ve hoped for: the web technology to support ACA exchanges and enrollments was poorly planned and executed, and this seemed to validate the opponents’ arguments that the ACA would be a disaster. But the botched website development doesn’t say anything about the viability of the ACA system itself. While the law’s not ideal, it’s a step toward universal healthcare and improvement of the whacky dysfunctional American healthcare system. As of this writing, the website’s working better, so we may be past that particular glitch. Meanwhile ideological wrangling over the complex (ergo not well understood) legislation sucked much of the political energy out of 2013.

Chelyabinsk meteor

What happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? We’ve often wondered, and the answer depends on the size of the particular rock. Many think the Tunguska event in Russia was an asteroid or comet strike. The Chelyabinsk meteor, also in Russia, was also thought to have been an asteroid, and the first case where a meteor blast caused documented widespread injuries. I’ve used the word “strike” here, but in the case of both Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, there wasn’t a direct hit. Both exploded above the earth; most of the damage was caused by shock waves.

How can we prevent larger asteroids from striking the earth? NASA’s currently planning an asteroid-tow-and-study mission that would be a step in the right direction: http://www.space.com/22764-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-candidates.html

Miley Cyrus twerking

Miley’s unconventional, racy MTV Video Music Awards appearance shocked the Twitterverse and escalated her prominence as a pop culture icon, not so much because of the performance itself (which I saw as a clever, entertaining parody of pop culture excess) as her smart handling of the supposed controversy. Can’t say that there was any shift in mainstream commercial pop culture as a result of the furor, but hey, it was just a bit of fun.

Google Glass

I guiltily admit that I haven’t taken any opportunity, and there’ve been some, to give Google Glass a try. I’m skeptical whether I’ll be able to see much of the overlay, but it might be cool to shoot photos and videos on the fly, though a GoPro would be better for that. To me, the real significance is not so much of the specific product or platform but the boost for the wearable computing meme, which we’ve been talking about since the early 90s. However my pocket device is useful enough, I don’t have to “wear” it (though I’m jonesing for a wearable health data tracker like FitBit.)

The point of “wearable” is that computers are increasingly embedded in the fabric of everyday life, via devices like Glass, Nest, FitBit et al, and concepts like the Internet of Things. 2013, two decades after the Internet’s mainstreaming began in 1993, these next generation technologies have arrived. Soon enough, they’ll be commonplace and boring.

Roger Ebert and “Democracy in the Dark”

My first impression of Roger Ebert, many years ago when he was doing the Siskel/Ebert weekly dustup, was that he was a smart guy whose intelligence was undermined by platform – the half hour run-through of the week’s films was always rushed, his written work was better. Little did I know how amazing and strong he would prove to be as an e-patient, after losing his mouth, jaw, and ability to speak and eat to surgical complications connected with thyroid cancer. You have to respect a guy who’ll keep trucking after that kind of trauma, and with those constraints. He didn’t surrender, and continued to be one of the most knowledgeable and forceful film critics.

For some years Ebert was part of the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs in Boulder. I saw him do his Cinema Interruptus thing there in 2001, when he made an in depth review of “Fight Club.” It blew me away, seeing how much I’d missed about that film, and how deep he’d gone into it, finding quirky subliminal cues planted by Fincher.

Cinema Interruptus involved going through a film one shot at a time, described by Ebert in this blog entry:

This all began for me in about 1969, when I started teaching a film class in the University of Chicago’s Fine Arts program. I knew a Chicago film critic, teacher and booker named John West, who lived in a wondrous apartment filled with film prints, projectors, books, posters and stills. “You know how football coaches use a stop-action 16mm projector to study game films?” he asked me. “You can use that approach to study films. Just pause the film and think about what you see. You ought to try it with your film class.”
I did. The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together. The ground rules: Anybody could call out “stop!” and discuss what we were looking at, or whatever had just occurred to them. A couple of years later, when I started doing shot-by-shots at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the conference founder, Howard Higman, described this process as “democracy in the dark.” Later he gave it a name: Cinema Interruptus. Perhaps it sounds grueling, but in fact it can be exciting and almost hypnotic. At Boulder for more than 30 years, I made my way through a film for two hours every afternoon for a week, and the sessions had to be moved to an auditorium to accommodate attendance that approached a thousand.