I think people’s digital habits and tastes – mine included – are changing due to how we are forced to use the internet by the designs and methods of mammoth sites whose habits become ubiquitous. Using these sites, we learn to think all information should be free – even as tons of money flows to the big sites from their selling users to advertisers. We think there should be no effort involved for us to find and make judgements about information, and that things should generally be fast, faster, and fastest – as well as easy, easier, and easiest. We start to demand nearly no time required from us, nearly no serious choices put before us, and certainly no in depth work sought from us. We even start to think of these attributes and of monster corporate entities like Google and Facebook as exemplary.
More – and here the trend is perhaps less advanced than regarding site structure, design, and navigation – our habits start to train us into feeling that even content should be quick, quicker, and quickest. Content should be displayed more and more in the form of nuggets – tweets, even – with less and less in depth exploration, and with no challenging interaction.
Yes, I know a richer experience is technically available – but the more restricted mode typical of quick browsing takes up ever more of our digital time. Content, our habits start to tell us, should be in line with what we think before we view it. Content, our time budget begins to require, should certainly not demand that we pay close attention to serious argumentation or that we assess evidence and logic in ways we aren’t comfortable with.
Of course, other trends and habits exist. The internet can be used far more insightfully, creatively, and subversively than as a commercial conduit of uninspiring cash flow to corporations. But I do think the above trends are widespread and powerful – and I even think they are explicable, not accidental.
The internet is a potentially very powerful and subversive instrument (like schooling could have been very powerful and subversive, or even TV could have been). Via the internet, massive volumes of information can flow to huge numbers of people at very little cost. Production and provision is relatively inexpensive compared to other media. Even beyond inexpensive dissemination, massive digital intercommunication and exploration can occur fairly readily so that trust building, agenda sharing, vision sharing, and even organization building can result.
All this potential creates a serious problem. Power brokers in government and business like the internet as a tool to sell commodities, as a tool to make profits, as a tool to track the public, and even for as a vehicle for pleasant and diverting entertainment – but they do not like it as a tool for exploring and advancing change from below. If the internet were to be used by huge numbers of people for critical thinking including disseminating important information, sharing critical ideas, and debating, refining, and finally advocating dissident agendas, well, that would be a nightmare for those at the top of society.
But how can government or business elites curtail creative, effective, and wide spread dissident use of the internet?
The old fashioned way is to outlaw the internet completely or to coercively censor sufficient elements of communications to subvert the potential. Some countries are trying that, but not too successfully. In other countries, even a modest attempt to censor would create mayhem, not least because it would subvert not only dissident but also commercial use of the internet.
A second approach is to levy prices for access to providing content so that only elites can use the internet intensely enough to have impact. Others can shop on it, as consumers, or view a quick video, or get a song, but cannot become seriously engaged with socially important pursuits, much less provide a massive source of dissident content. This is what a two tiered internet, really fast and much slower, is in considerable part about. But this path too is running into serious obstacles.
A third and far more sophisticated system for ensuring the internet isn’t too subversive exists. One has to (a) flood the internet with tons of content that doesn’t challenge the status quo and that most often ratifies or even strengthens familiar social oppressive elite-serving relations and customs – and (b) one has to somehow create an online culture, process, and practice that causes people to personally freely prefer for their own selves the innocuous use of the internet to the much harder to accomplish activity that could be really dangerous. Over time, people’s tastes and habits alter so as to incline them away from the subversive and empowering and toward the commercial and acceptable.
This is not conspiracy theory. There isn’t a small cabal of folks behind closed doors doing this to us. Yet it is happening. Think about current use of the internet. Which type of use is bigger, growing faster, governing how we interact online, and crowding out the other type? Is commercial, innocuous, and even vapid, and certainly corporate acceptable internet activity growing faster? Or is inspirational, engaging, subversive, and corporate unacceptable internet activity growing faster?
How does this type of drift toward what sustains the status quo happen?
There probably are some mega manipulators explicitly thinking about and implementing crafty policies that bend everyone away from what might empower us instead toward what empowers them – but that kind of sophisticated self conscious intervention isn’t required for the result to occur anyhow. Rather, individual choices that are consistent with elites’ preferred scenarios are separately selected by donors, promoters, owners, and the high level people they hire, leaving us as users most often having to relate on their terms, their way – thereby becoming tied to ways of using the internet that they like, until other ways of being online are not only far less familiar to us but, being quite rare, and being quite different from what we have become used to and even habituated to, they begin to seem to us tired, old, slow, hard, pedantic, etc.
The dominant practices of giant sites like Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple, among others, not only govern most activity, but via our ubiquitously using them – and of course we have to use them since how else can we search, or get a book, or whatever – they start to contour what we like and even what strikes us as logical and aesthetic, and then even what strikes us as digitally doable at all, until, finally, using the internet for really serious, anti-authoritarian, anti corporate, much less anti capitalist activity begins to look weird and even contrary to the logic of being online at all, contrary to our habits, and especially contrary to our need for speed.
Call me a doomsayer, but I think in various shapes and forms the above scenario away from serious engagement and learning via in depth reading and thinking and toward in its place rapid consuming, gossiping, tweeting, and the like is slowly but steadily happening, not because it must happen – but because some want it to and the rest of us aren’t stopping the trends. If so, what the left has to do to counter the trends is to create spaces and practices that buck the dominant approaches, and that fulfill the promise of online interaction, rather than falling into easy, quick, nugget like patterns that steadily undercut that promise.
Declining attention spans seem rampant all around us. But it isn’t due to bad diets or afflict only the boorish – I can see and feel it happening to me, too. I fear, indeed, that many on the left understand, what a good article is, what constitutes a worthy petition, what a fruitful extended debate or discussion involves, and what a serious effort to deal with differences and to develop shared clarity for a campaign can accomplish. Yet even with that understanding, and with all the good will in the world, due to wanting things free, wanting things quick, wanting things that work like other things we often use, may not be doing what needs doing to combat bad internet trends. In fact, I sometimes think the situation has gotten to the point where we are, even with the best intentions, nonetheless slowly but steadily becoming part of the bad trends.
Is the danger real and serious? If it is, can we hold the digital line in the name of radical change, much less revolution? There is still plenty of time to succeed, supposing I am right the task needs doing – but I don’t know if we will, though I do know that we won’t succeed if we don’t try, or even worse, if we mistake failure for success.