Waking Up from the Internet: A Digital Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream

Introduction

Everyone dreams of a better world. Big tech companies believe we can solve the world’s problems using their technology. This subject is highly relevant since in recent news, former Facebook employees have criticized its addictive qualities, epidemic of hate speech and the damaging of democracy (“How big tech finally awakened to the horror of its own inventions,” 2017). The paper will list case studies of how the choices that designers use in designing websites and mobile applications have affected society as a whole. Designers should be more aware of the contradictory nature of the Internet when they try to find the most ethical solutions in their work especially with the accelerating technological progress of recent times. Some solutions that have been proposed involve creating a code of ethics for designers or doing thought experiments.

The Digital Dream of the Good Society

The world has become digital, according to Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab co-founder. In his 1995 book (Negroponte 1995), he predicted the ubiquitous use of multimedia online that we see today. Manuel Castells, network sociologist, also noted that the last two decades have seen unprecedented technological breakthroughs that have led to a digital transformation of society (Castells 2010). He cites three distinct stages of telecommunications: automation, experimentation, and reconfiguration. While users only learn by using in the first two stages, they find even more applications of technologies in the last stage (Castells 2010). The spread of the personal computer has placed computer science beyond military and big businesses into the everyday lives of society’s creative individuals (Negroponte 1995). Currently, computers can be manipulated through point and click mouse interfaces and keyboards. Negroponte predicts that people might not even use the machine anymore (1995).

Competing Visions

The full benefits of the digitization of society cannot be achieved because of its contradictory nature as in the example stated above. Mansell mentioned two paradoxes of the information society, information abundance vs. scarcity and complexity vs. control (2012), but there may be more. This section will elaborate more on other competing values and unintended tradeoffs of the new digital communication technologies.

More Transparency and Loss of Individual Freedom vs. More Anonymity and Bullying

David Kirkpatrick, a technology journalist, claimed that the social network Facebook was founded on all-encompassing transparency (Keen 2012). The top management of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are “today’s utilitarian social reformers” (Keen 2012, p. 61). Keen compares Facebook to Jeremy Bentham’s Inspection-House, where individual transparency through the Open Graph and Timeline functions can create a healthier society (2012). “More truth leads to more togetherness, they say; and more togetherness, their logic spirals, leads to a better society” (Keen 2012, p. 61).

Discipline and Order vs. Mass Surveillance and Loss of Privacy

Aside from Facebook, Mark Deuze reported that other corporations and the government are also taking cues from Jeremy Bentham’s model of a disciplined society through constant surveillance (Deuze 2012). Herbert Schiller, the media critic, said that they justify expanding their databases and surveillance technology like GPS (global positioning system) and RFID (radio frequency identification) with vulnerabilities of viruses and hackers for the good of society (2007).

Convenience and Efficiency vs. Loss of Autonomy/Privacy

One advantage of the Internet that people like in work and their everyday life is its convenience. However, there is a lot of behind-the-screen work that occurs to reduce the work needed from users (Mansell 2012). Sociologists and policy makers alike are concerned about its effect on personal autonomy. “As the new new gadget I hold in my hand becomes increasingly personalized, easy to use, ‘transparent’ in its functioning, the more the entire set-up has to rely on work being done elsewhere, on the vast circuit of machines which coordinate the user’s experience,” notes Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek about the growth of personalized technology and corporate power (Keen 2012, p. 166). Jan Philipp Albrecht, German politician and member of the European parliament, feels that the human being has been more and more deprived of his right to make decisions, more and more degraded into a mathematically calculable system that can optimise itself (2015).

Freedom of Speech vs. Misinformation and Propaganda

With freedom of speech where everyone is given a voice, it gets harder to find the signal in the noise with the abundance of information. Some may unintentionally share false information, but there are also some who intentionally use misleading strategies. Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute and edit articles, is “no more immune to human nature than any other Utopian project. Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site. Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse” (Bruns 2008, p. 124). Without gatekeepers for information, a lot of content could turn out to be either “propaganda or plain lies” (Keen 2015, p. 153). At its least, people are paid to post fake glowing reviews on Yelp and Amazon. At its worst, terrorist groups like ISIS have exploited this feature of the Internet to become successful in recruiting (Keen 2015).

Problem Solving vs. Technosolutionism

The powerful tech founders assume that their interests and solutions on how to solve society’s problems align with the general public (Keen 2015). “They appointed themselves as the emancipators of the people without bothering to check with them first” (Keen 2015, p.141). Morozov says wrote on a similar note that although their intentions may seem good, they also rely too much on technology as the solution (2011). He also stated that “clinging to Internet-centrism — that pernicious tendency to place Internet technologies before the environment in which they operate” affects policy makers as well giving them a false sense of security (Morozov 2011, p. 111). And yet the sort of problems that these technologists are trying to solve are not very important (Morozov, 2013). Instead of “democracy and diversity, all we’ve got from the digital revolution so far is fewer jobs, an overabundance of content, an infestation of piracy, a coterie of Internet monopolists, and a radical narrowing of our economic and cultural elite” (Keen 2015, p. 157).

Their Electronic Daydream, Our Digital Nightmare

These contradictory features of the Internet have contributed to its dark side of it that people may not be aware of or willingly embrace as the norm.

The Effect on our Brains

Tech journalist Nicholas Carr, writes about how the Internet physical changes human brains like in the way we read in screens has affected our attention span and understanding of the content (2010). People distracted by hyperlinks and ads are rewired to keep switching contexts in the name of efficiency. Internet users are scatterbrained, have a weak memory and rewired to actually crave the distraction (Carr 2010).

Power Inequality and Erosion of Trust

The open Internet where anyone can say anything has benefited “mostly young white western males with a slight personality defect” (Perkins cited by Keen 2015, p. 155) and where the “wisdom of the crowd” is prioritized instead of “accountable experts.”. The transparency that Web 2.0 promised, took away freedom and “ironically spawned opaque bureaucracies controlled by anonymous elites” (Keen 2015, p. 155). People who don’t belong to this demographic are silenced. These power inequalities are something that big tech companies prefer to sweep under the rug when they make their grand proclamations of making the world a better place.

Lucidity in Design

“Every technology is an expression of human will”

(Carr 2010, p. 44)

Relying on purely data-driven decisions made by machines, which are not neutral (O’Neil 2016, p. 171) allows tech designers to elude responsibility.

Every Design Action has a Reaction

Showing a Number or Adding a Word can Manipulate and Lead to Conformity

Another criticism that Keen noted about the Internet is that it is the opposite of its intended goal of “networked intelligence,”, rather, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, etc. are “creating more social conformity and herd behavior” (Keen 2012, p. 50). “Men aren’t sheep,” he quotes John Stuart Mill, the greatest critic of Bentham but on the social network, we act like sheep. This leads to what cultural critic Neil Strauss describes as “the need to belong,” becoming the rule instead of genuine nonconformity (Keen 2012, p. 50).

Default Settings can Betray

Nodder thinks that companies like Facebook take advantage of human laziness to read the fine print and that they assume that companies will do no harm (2013). For example, Facebook keeps revising its terms and conditions (Nodder 2013). In 2004, the concept of Facebook was that only friends can access a person’s information but in 2010 Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview that “the new social norm is openness, not privacy” (Nodder 2013, p. 54). The new default settings allowed third party advertising to proliferate while Facebook profited (Nodder 2013).

Everything is Political

Bolaño claims that in the structure and organization of mass media, the choice of technology is not neutral and “the development of a specific possibility removes others, sometimes irreparably” (2015, p. 65). When these choices are made by designers, it won’t just have an effect on the economic value of information but also its social value ultimately affecting how people live (Mansell 2012). Designers have to be careful with language where power resides especially those working with news media platforms since it affects the political process (Bruns 2008). “Individually none of these little lies are ruinous… but they add up and they take both an economic and cultural toll” (Wu cited by Keen 2015, p. 154). Under this “informationalized capitalism” and “historical tension between capitalism and democracy,” bad choices could lead toward “full blown authoritarianism” (Schiller 2007, p. 55).

Wake Up, Designers!

Being aware of the competing social imaginaries of the Internet is the first step in designing technologies better than before. Mansell believes that these differences can still be resolved (2012). Although Morozov is known for being a technology critic, he actually defends it by ending his polemic with “Technology is not the enemy; our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who resides within” (Morozov 2013, p. 358).

Introducing a Code of Ethics in Design

“As designers, investors, commentators, we need to seriously ask ourselves whether some of these systems are legitimate and worthy… not from an investment return point of view, but from an ethical and moral point of view,” Marc Andreesen tweeted in March 2014 (Keen 2015, p. 152). More and more designers and writers are realizing that the capabilities of technologies available today make their jobs more complicated to do.

Conclusion

Although in the past decade, technologists believed that they could “make the world a better place” by giving Internet access and democratizing creative tools to everyone, evidence shows that the Internet is not as simple as that. Values are hidden behind blackbox algorithms, which can only be understood by a privileged few. The Internet promised to equalize everyone but it has only served to reinforce hierarchies. Although there is a lot of talking about innovation and democracy in tech events and on media sites, big tech has shown that they are more about lip service than actual effort. The time to wake up and introduce a code of ethics for design was yesterday.

Bibliography

1. Bolaño, C. (2015). The culture industry, information and capitalism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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