All it takes is a spark to ignite a forest fire.
Innocent browsing through Twitter one evening led me to an observation that connected multiple ideas in my mind.
Two boys – hardly in their early teens – had taken the initiative to knock on their neighbours houses and offer to shovel their driveways for cash. They pumped each other up beforehand, delivered their sales pitch and were subsequently ecstatic as they secured their first paying customer. Little did they know, their innocent, excited conversation was being recorded on video via an Internet connected Doorbell.
Once posted online, the video went viral. This wasn’t the tweet that struck me however, it was a reply to another comment on the video which expressed relief at see normal kids living innocent, kind-hearted and genuine lives, engaging in the purest form of business by exchanging their energy and time for petty cash.
While many may think such a scenario is neither rare nor spectacular, I initially found myself empathising with the relief expressed. In times where we hear little else but warnings, doom, rebelliousness and a general disconnection between youth and the elders, seeing these two young boys experience the purity of hard work in service to others (and its subsequent reward) acted as a reassuring reminder that things were right in the world, that there was still a semblance of normality amongst the mayhem enveloping our social fabric.
But it was in turn a reply to this reply that shone the light of truth through the foggy layers of doubt.
It was as simple as that.
This raw, bare-naked truth lay before me, suddenly self-evident and proud.
I had the conclusion, I believed it. But I didn’t have the underlying understanding necessary to justify its accuracy. It made perfect sense, yet it stood hollow without the reasoning to justify it.
I had to dig deeper.
For this idea (that living through the Internet is not representative of the world) to be true, there must a lie that we believe in its place. That is, the opposite – that the Internet and the lives we live through it are true, that what we read, watch, hear and experience online is an accurate representation of the world and those we share it with.
But why do we believe this? Did the inventors of the Internet envision this as their goal? And if so, what went wrong?
The idea of connected computer networks (which eventually morphed into the internet as we know it) originated with the intention of enhancing military communications and then enabling communication between researchers and scientists across distant geographical regions.
Both of these purposes serve an underlying goal and represent an underlying idea. There was valuable information out there at previously untenable distances. Collaboration with great minds over such distances was near impossible with any efficiency. The world was vast and its intellectual resources yet untapped. The Internet was formed and developed with the intention of bringing knowledge and wisdom to us.
With a layer of abstraction across physical borders, the Internet could serve and deliver knowledge seamlessly like never before in human history. Man would be free to form positive bonds of communication with his fellow man across time zones and cultures. The Internet seemed destined to be the great equaliser, the universal translator of the human experience to and from all languages and peoples.
It is undoubtable that much of what was promised happened. We can now instantly communicate with almost anyone in the world in almost any location with lightning speed. More information is freely available today than ever before. One wishing to gain any insight into another people or culture doesnt have to step outside of his room to do so, a simple search into YouTube or Google yields almost endless results.
Yet we simultaneously find ourselves feeling increasingly lonelier, our societies feeling more fractured and popular political narrative becoming more extreme.
So what happened?
First let’s understand exactly how we interact with the Internet, after all, the Internet is a type of technology itself. Author Don Idhe categorised all types of technology by the way we interact with them and what they reveal (or conceal) of the real world.
By understanding his categorisations, we lay the foundation for understanding what the Internet is and how our relationship with it determines how it impacts our lives.
The 4 Human-Technology Relationships
Let’s look at the 4 types of relationships between humans and technology as proposed by Idhe.
The first type of Human-Technology relations is called Embodiment Relations. This type refers to the relationship where the technology in question functions like a body part for the user.
Take a microphone for example. Using one means that by merely speaking into it (and with a corresponding sound system), we can amplify our voice so that it can reach crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. People who cannot even see us in their line of sight can nevertheless hear us as though we were sitting next to them.
Yet when we speak into a microphone and have our voice amplified, we do not feel that we are ‘using’ any such technology. We may feel empowered while not consciously feeling as though the microphone is present and carrying our voice across distances far and wide. The technology in this case ‘disappears’ into the background with withdraws from our perception. It has ‘revealed’ the world to us in terms of new possibilities, but without standing before us obstinately, reminding us of its existence.
This is even more telling when it comes to the language we use involving such technology. If a speaker were to present in front of a large crowd of people aided by a microphone and voice amplification technology, he may ask the audience as a reassurance “Can everyone hear me?”.
Note the absence of any reference to the technology.
Undoubtedly, without any such technology, people at far distances would not be able to hear him. Yet the speaker did not say “Can you hear my voice through the microphone and speakers?”, but he referred only to his voice, the technology itself melting into the background.
Further examples of technologies which we have Embodiment Relations with include glasses, binoculars, hammers, shoes, gloves and more. It takes a conscious effort to be able to ‘see’ these technologies in our lives.
The second type of Human-Technology relations Idhe mentions is Hermeneutic relations.
In this type of relationship, technology works like a translator for us. It extends our abilities without us necessarily thinking about the technology itself. Although this may sound indifferent to Embodiment Relations, there is a core difference.
The technology of this type allows us to access a world that we cannot access otherwise without their use. The user of this technology then feels himself to be informed without acknowledging the role of the technology in enabling him to be informed in the first place.
Take the example of a map. One utilises a map in order to gain an understanding of the world around him. Usually the map is detailed enough to provide the user with the information that is important to him. He is able to glean the map for the information which is sufficient for him to carry out his task, be it surveying, travel or even merely filling ones soul with wonder.
While using the map however, the user does not consciously think about his act of using the map itself. Instead he believes himself to be actively interacting with a direct replica of the world around him. As such, he gains knowledge from it without thinking about the existence of the technology he is using. Indeed the map allowed him to understand the world to an extent that may have otherwise been impossible without it, yet its use is almost assumed. This is far from the case however. Without the map, the ability to understand the world in this way would not be possible.
It can therefore be understood that the technology that fits these attributes is one that mediates our access to the world of information we gain from it. Without such technology, we would be none the wiser about the world it reveals to us.
More examples of other technologies in this category include books and even applications like Google Translate.
The third type of Human-Technology relations is known as Alterity Relations. This type is the one we experience where technology functions as though it were another person (or animal) like us.
The technology in this instance acts independently of the user, leading us to feel as though we are interacting with someone else, not the underlying technology behind it all.
Take, for example, a video game. Many have local competitive modes where we can play against the ‘game’ itself. In such a scenario, we personify the game such that we engage as though we are interacting with just another person.
This feeling is also evident in our language. When we succeed in a particularly tough game, we may say “I beat the Computer!”. When we are stuck against a tough opponent we may exasperatedly say “This guy is too tough!”. This is because we can instinctively feel that we are interacting with another being like us, not the technology underlying it all. We would not see it appropriate to say “This programming is too hard” or “I defeated the programming of this Computer that controlled this opponent!”, though this be closer to the truth.
What makes Alterity Relations unique compared to its Embodiment and Hermenuetic brothers is that for the first time, users of this type of technology start to have the real world disappear from their view. Our attentions are focused on the technology themselves rather than the real world we exist in. We would be hard pressed to find a Parent today who has not had to worry about their children forgetting everything to play video games all morning!
The final type of Human-Technology relation Idhe proposes is called Background Relations. In this relationship, technology whirs away in the background as though it were part of the environment. It operates out of sight and therefore out of mind.
This is in direct contrast to Alterity Relations, where the technology becomes the sole focal point of the user. Here, the world is made and kept at the forefront of our attention and experience. What should be noted however, is that the technology that fits these attributes allow us to focus more on the world in the first place. Their meaning is purposeful to this intention.
Consider the example of a Refrigerator. Though its function is invaluable, we do not consider its existence. It keeps food edible and fresh for us to eat at any time, yet we do not devote any of our hours into thinking about how it does so. It simply remains motionless, humming away almost inaudibly in the background.
Thanks to the Refrigerator, we can eat foods at times and in places that would otherwise be impossible for us. The technology allows us to focus on living life by eating what we would like while requiring no attention from us. In fact, the better the Refrigerator is, the less we will think about it, as it will be relied upon to an even greater extent so that it can just ‘do its job’.
Once more, we can notice this relationship from our language. Upon eating food that was kept in a Refrigerator, we say “This food is delicious!” instead of “This food, which was kept cool, fresh and edible thanks for the Refrigerator, is delicious!” We have an enriched experience in life due to the technologies that fit this relationship.
The Internet Relationship
Now the question begs to be asked, which type of relation is the Internet, and how does our relationship with it determine how we live our lives?
Taking into account its attributes and how we use it, our relationship with the Internet is clearly a Hermeneutic one.
The Internet is a technology that reveals more of the world to us. What was once unfathomable to mankind is now at the tips of our fingers. We have access to the words, speeches and videos of all mankind, and for the most part , this information flows freely. What once men would have travelled across the oceans and plains to learn, we know access with a search. Information is now abstracted above distance.
But aside from merely defining what type of relationship we have with Internet, we can take our understanding one step further.
The Internet, like any tool, is not a blind force for good. Its effects are conditional upon its use. The criminal can use it just as effectively as the researcher.
So what happens when things go wrong?
We’ve defined what Idhe believes to be the different types of Human-Technology relationships. But like all relationships, sometimes things can go badly wrong. Idhe calls these instances where the technology stops doing what we would expect ‘Breakdown Conditions’.
In earlier times, products and technologies were simpler and made of more robust material. They weren’t necessarily made for the mass market, so whatever units were made, we built to last. Nowadays however, technological products are produced en masse and almost entirely automated in their methods of production. In most cases they are more prone to breakage and obsolescence than ever before.
Breakdown Conditions are unique for each type of Human-Technology we have discussed, to summarise:
- Embodiment Technologies: We feel empowered when these types of technologies work, but during a breakdown condition they also belittle us by our loss of ability and expose our dependence on them to function.
- Hermeneutic Technologies: We feel enlightened and educated by the use of technologies of this type, however when things go wrong we can be left feeling betrayed by how much trust we may have put in them and how badly misinformed we are due to our reliance on them.
- Alterity Technologies: When things are working as expected, we feel entertained and engrossed in our interactions. We may feel as though we are entering a new world or releasing stress accumulated from the real world. However in it’s Breakdown Condition, we may feel enraged. Think of when a computerised opponent in a video game is unbearably unbeatable, we get immensely frustrated and angry. We may even step away from the game to finally realise how meaningless it is and subsequently wallow in our regret at how much of our time and energy we have invested into it.
- Background Technologies: When these experience Breakdown Conditions, we are suddenly faced with our own incapacity without their existence. All the technologies of this type that serve to allow us to focus on the world suddenly serve to show us how limited our experience of th world is without the ease their abilities allow. Once more, we realise with feelings of disappointment and regret how reliant on technologies we had become.
Seeing as we understand the Internet to be a technology representative of the Hermeneutic Relationship, some of the issues we experience in our times start to make a lot more sense.
Even though the perils of the Internet are not entirely hidden from us, we may feel more able to to tolerate them by thinking of them as a necessary trade-off, a price we must pay in exchange for access to one of the greatest technologies of all time.
As Author Nolan Gertz analogises, this can feel somewhat like the constant struggle of a bad relationship, settling for what we have while eagerly waiting for a distant solution. This inevitably leads to a sense of loss of control. We tolerate this suboptimal relationship with the Internet because we see no alternative. Thus we feel less like an active partner and more like a passive consumer.
We can illustrate this with some examples of some of the harm that has resulted from this unhealthy relationship.
Freedom of (dis)Information
Along with the free, largely unrelated flow of information online comes some hidden dangers. We are more susceptible to disinformation like never before. In recent years we have been exposed to scandal after scandal of organised, targeted disinformation campaigns aimed at swaying voters and the general public at large to serve local and political purposes. Regardless of whatever political views you may have or whichever country you live in, this affects you.
Where once the Internet was hailed as an equaliser, with all people having access to the same information, modern algorithms developed and introduced into our lives without our consent now present to each of us a personal view of the Internet. The most regularly used websites track and learn our behaviours online. They know what we like to see and what we can’t stand. The desire to keep you engaged and on their platform results in the emotionless desire to feed you what you want in order to keep you around. the result is what Nolan Gertz in ‘Nihilism and Technology’ refers to as the ‘Daily You’. An algorithmically generated, personalised digest of everything you are likely to read. Truth and quality is of no particular concern to this faceless publication, just what will keep you engaged. The ultimate result of this is an echo chamber which leads you deeper into the darkness of misinformation.
Manipulation at this scale has only been possible because of our willingness to put too much faith into the world that the Internet opens up for us. From the comfort of our living rooms or the manufactured discomfort of a public transit bus, we all have leave ourselves wide open to be exposed to misinformation. With vast swathes of the population not even aware of this issue, let alone equipped to deal with such manipulation, we leave our communities vulnerable to be moulded by forces who do not necessarily have our best interests at heart for gains that we will never be given.
The conception of the Internet for the wider masses intended to allow the free flow of information to help progress humanity as a whole. With the advent of the 2000s however, we began to see an evolution of the Internet fuelled by the desire to monetise this revolutionary new economy.
Fast forward two decades and we find ourselves in a reality where content and data is voluntarily uploaded to the internet, mined, then profiles built from it to target us specifically with the ultimate form of internet monetisation – advertisements.
For the Tech Giants of the modern world, data is more valuable than oil. The more data made available – rather, ‘volunteered’ – by an individual online, the better a company is able to redact what they like and more importantly, what they would want to buy.
This data is then either directly or indirectly sold on to advertisers who achieve much higher conversation rates on their products being bought than the traditional pre-Internet methods.
In theory this may not sound so bad, we get access to tools for communication, connection and convergence for free and all it takes is some data which itself results in relevant advertising. But to take this view is to take a shallow look at the repercussions we find ourselves in.
In order for people to use a service, spend large amounts of time on it and volunteer their information to it, they need to be engaged. They need to feel that the service is important to them, that it makes them feel good and most importantly, that it makes them feel important enough to continue using it.
This is where the problem lies.
The feeling of importance can be artificially induced by simply appealing to our base instincts. Feelings of anger, shock, disgust, curiosity and horror compel us at an instinctual level to react to what we see. It therefore follows that in order to consistently engage the most amount of people possible, content must engage us in ways that are infuriating, shocking, disgusting and horrific.
The current trends we see with the abuse of our attention on the Internet show the results of these methods. Many people are simply unable to actively withdraw their attention from something that has approached them in this manner, they feel that it demands a response from them, a reaction. Who will respond and engage if they dont? This innocent desire to react is what gives them their sense of importance, and the platform owners their revenue. More engagement will always correlate to higher profits, therefore engagement is king.
Our Resulting World
The effects of such a predicament lead us to the social issues we experience today. We have record breaking rates of depression, political fracturing and loneliness. As a result, an increasing number of individuals are vulnerable to seeking the solution to their issues by throwing their lot in with increasingly extreme political and ideological movements. This resulting polarisation is engulfing and disabling our capacity for nuance, moderation and balance.
We projected our fears onto the Internet, and it returned them back to us, amplified.
Remember, the Internet is a era-defining tool. But we must acknowledge that the world after its invention is not merely the one before it “plus” the Internet, rather it is a new world entirely. Boundaries have been redrawn and definitions rewritten. The Internet has changed our capacity to understand what it means to ‘know’ something and to discern what is truthful and what is false.
As Neil Postman says in his book “Technopoly” when referring to the Printing Press:
“In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry.”
If we do not first acknowledge our new world, we cannot deal with its effects.
We know what type of relationship we have with the Internet. We understand how its Breakdown Conditions affect us and we see how its ripples turn into waves, compounding its effects through our societies.
So how do we combat this?
Here we come back to the original tweet referenced in the beginning:
The first action we can take is to step out of the bubble we find ourselves indulged in – by default – due to our simple participation in modern life. We must understand that the depiction of the world we see, hear and ‘experience’ online through endless pages and feeds is not a 1:1 copy of the real world. There is a difference, no, a chasm between the two. Once we have awoken from this delusion we can attempt to take this understanding further.
But what does “not living through the Internet” actually mean here? Does it simply mean a mental acknowledgement? If not, what actions does it entail?
Here are some outlooks and actions you can take which will allow you to steer the course of your own life, your relationship with technology and the world around you.
Here are some ways to combat the overwhelming sense of constriction we find due to our interaction with the Internet as a technology.
The first tool in your arsenal is the most fundamental. It is something which enables you to reorient yourself in the way you use technological tools and in how you see the world around you.
It is to be optimistic.
But this is not an empty optimism, nor an optimism that lives its time as a slogan. It is the idea which allows you to carry the spark of hope in your soul that reminds us the world that exists before us is not one of blind pessimism, horror and cutthroat competition.
The world before us is not just about atrocities, disasters, betrayals, cruelty and treachery. It is also a living example of courage, loyalty, kindness and above all, man helping his fellow man.
Such an optimism is the antidote to the poison, the shining broadsword to the fiery dragon of outrage economics. It is the righteous neutraliser against the forces that seek to captivate our attentions by enraging us.
By keeping our faces turned towards the winds of optimism, we give nourishment to the idea that the world is not an inherently cruel, evil place. Rather there are always those who help and uplift others. There are those who speak not the languages of their fellow man, yet speak fluently the Lingua Franca of mutual empathy, care, love and cooperation upon good.
By keeping this in mind, you are able to parry the blows of those who seek division and discord among people. By this nourishment of optimism within your soul, you are able to reduce the line between yourself and the ‘other’ so many of us are taught to hate, fear and scorn.
There are more than 7 billion people we share the planet with. If the masses were half as ill-hearted as often portrayed to be, the world would be in a much more chaotic state than we find ourselves in now. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel makes the most noise and therefore gets the most attention. This goes too for the cruel individuals whose actions all too often dominate our news bulletins and imprint themselves upon our screens.
They do not represent you or the people you share this world is. Assume good of people and you are likely to see it.
In cultures all over the world, we find mythical tales of heroes (and sometimes villains) who are not strong or mighty enough to wield a particular weapon. It simply escapes their control because of their lack of experience. Attempting to ignore this limit results in the individual being consumed by the overwhelming power and being led astray.
As abstract as this may sound, a similar situation occurs with our usage of technologies that expand our capabilities faster than we can adapt ourselves to catch up with them. You guessed it, I am referring to the Internet.
Our experience using the Internet is similar to that of a tool which requires a certain amount of experience to use it safely. Currently, everything we do online is engineered and designed purposefully in order to extract the most amount of attention and data from us. Every swipe, scroll and second spent on a specific screen is a data point logged and used to inform future design choices in all the daily apps we use.
How can an application be designed in order to increase the time the application is used? What advertisement services can be added in so that existing mined data can help present advertisements relevant to the subconscious interests of the user? These are the main interests of many mainstream services we use on a daily basis. We are the product and it is time we realise this.
Some attempt to combat this technological invasion of our lives by simply quitting the internet or smartphones cold turkey. This seems less of an option for those who wish to maintain important ties with close relatives and friends however. It is equally important to understand that the world with the Internet is here to stay. Such technology is now so pervasive and ingrained into our lives and experience with the world that it is hard to imagine any productive urban lifestyle without its benefits.
The only reasonable method by which we can reduce the consuming effects of modern technology on our psyche is to engage intentionally with content as much as possible. This means a conscious effort to end blind scrolling, the effort to resist the twitch of our thumbs to wake our devices and close apps only to open them an instant later, to fight the robotic urge to incessantly refresh our feeds.
This also involves taking a critical look at what we do online and compare it to what we wish to do. It can be easy to accumulate a list of accounts that we follow online which only serve to present us with funny memes or otherwise meaningless attempts at crude humour. Once we open the floodgates to the blind following of these pages however, we turn our online experience into a generic circus rather than the idea use of engaging with others on the internet to maintain relationships and grow as an individual through knowledge, hobbies and experiences.
Take the initiative to clean your feeds from meaningless pages which do nothing but attempt to extort cheap laughs from you while robbing you blind of your human, intentional capital. Curate and cultivate your experience like a gardener cultivates his land. For it is only with purpose and attention that a garden can be beautiful. Remove the weeds and focus on your intention. You must use the Internet to keep in touch with those close to you and to grow as a person, learn new things and help others. It is a powerful weapon when wielded correctly.
By acting intentionally, we make it more likely that we connect with other likeminded people who seek to make the world a better place. Our focus in this way can provide compounding results. We will be able to form more meaningful connections than before and deepen our hobbies and interests. In this way, the Internet truly becomes a tool for betterment and growth rather than cheap laughs, distraction and paralysis.
Lead the way and light the path for others. Show people that the Internet is not merely a tool for cheap laughs, argumentation and mockery. Show yourself and others how the Internet was intended to be used.
Intend your experience and don’t let the weeds outstay their welcome.
Experience the Good in the World
Now we know two things, how to use the internet purposefully and that we should carry feelings of optimism when looking and thinking about the world. But how can we reinforce that sense of optimism so that we know it to be true rather than merely believing it so?
By far the biggest remedy to the propaganda of division and discord we feel in the background of our lives is to travel, deal with and mix among those who are from different cultures than you. Only an ignorant person would have anyone believe that the world is absent of all evil and that all people are good. Rather, the opposite is true. Evil exists in all places and amongst all people, but so too does good, righteousness and justice; and it is by far more prevalent than the evil is.
You will find it surprising that though you may not share the same language as someone from another land, you are both capable of fluent communication in kindness, empathy and care. Everyone can recognise a stranger, and most people are capable of generosity beyond your expectations in response. This is only visible however, when we are in a situation where we open ourselves up to that kindness and generosity. The state of a traveller is such a condition.
Much of the externally over-imposed fears of racism, xenophobia and prejudice melts away when you travel and experience the selfless aid and hospitality of strangers. It is the breath of fresh air away from the pollution of manufactured division, and by far the most effective way to realise that we have more in common with the average person in the furthest land than we dare imagine.
Experiencing this will allow you to see the common humanity shared by all sons of Adam. Each act of empathy, kindness and even simple proximity will tear down the wall build between different people, brick by brick. We naturally fear what we don’t understand, so the first step is just that – to understand.
Learn about other people, other cultures. Learn about how they live and the struggles they face. We share a common bond with everyone on earth, realising this is the foundation to an optimistic outlook, and to this end, genuine travel is the key that unlocks those treasures.
A Bold Step Forward
A simple set of concise, heavy words at the right time can unlock connections between different bits of information you have in the background of your mind.
Those entrepreneurial young men in the original video on Twitter were not doing anything extraordinary in our times. For us to even see it as such is to reveal our own submission of our mind to the eyes of the Internet. This was my position, and yet I felt uneasy because I knew deep down it wasn’t a solitary beacon of hope in an otherwise dark, story sea.
I have travelled and mixed with people with whom the language between us was unwritten yet punctuated with smiles, handshakes and nods. People who I believed would have thought me a threat or a dangerous person had they believed everything they saw online. But such instances allowed the real world to puncture through the façade that the shadow of online media and 24/7 breaking news cycles have cast upon our nations, and indeed our minds.
The relationship we have with the Internet is a a Hermeneutical one. We see it as an extension of ourselves, our abilities. We therefore are susceptible to the technology of the Internet itself disappearing from our conscious as we accept and integrate ourselves with the new world it has revealed to us.
What we fail to realise however, is that the world revealed to us by the Internet is one that we have negatively projected onto it. This is one that is then multiplied and shown back to us. The result is a deep level of mistrust and suspicion which ultimately results in a negative perception of the ‘other’ at a national and international scale.
The world is full of kind, caring and generous people. Children regularly embody the raw innocence many believe has been lost to the pages of history. The elderly still smile, support and encourage those who have yet to trod their path. Normal men and women still go out of their way to help a stranger in need and to stand up for justice.
I realise now that I had fallen for the trap of believing the lie native to my home and the home of so many in the digital age. I was guilty of living my life through the internet and seeing humanity through its tainted eyes. My journey is not complete and I still have much reflection and improvement to do, but I know now that the world is a brighter, more colourful place than any screen would have me believe.
- “Nihilism and Technology” by Nolen Gertz
- “Technopoly” by Neil Postman
- What can we learn from Don Ihde? (futurelearn.com)
- The Invention of the Internet – Inventor, Timeline & Facts – HISTORY