Examining the futility of Internet skepticism.


Skepticism is the easiest attitude to take when writing about the Internet. The irony is default skeptics, like me, are no less dependent on the technologies they mistrust than the enthusiast. The culture of criticism and complaint is almost exclusively rhetorical. We all know how to complain about Facebook privacy settings or Google's data harvesting, but there is no corresponding culture of withdrawal.

Technology critics cannot help but be hypocrites, and the more we criticize something the more we confess our secret dependence on it. For all of my mistrust and dislike for Google, Facebook, Twitter, they are still among my most frequently visited sites. For all the negative qualities described in their newest features and changing agendas, there is never a red line that an angrily informed user will not cross.

Over the last month, I spent a few weeks trying to see if I could redirect my impulse to use Twitter, by instead sending Tweets as direct text messages to specific friends. Our thoughts are not immaculate conceptions, after all, but the product of a relational flow of experiences, and new ones should naturally have addressees. Twitter weakens the social specificity of exchange by encouraging it to happen before an audience that might, at any moment, insert themselves and recontextualize something that ultimately was never a part of them. 


We have already invested so deeply in the idea of world-spanning technologies like Google, that access to many of our most intimate and enlivening experiences depend on them.


This experiment quickly led to a dead end, changing one form of technological dependence (Twitter) for another (SMS) both of which address the same basic difficulty of not having anyone in my immediate vicinity to safely address whatever new thoughts of feelings have come along. And I came to see the pathos behind my Twitter brain was not the same as the one I used for text messages.

When I entertained strange quotes or filthy vulgarities I realized they only had meaning because of the presence of a mass audience, which might further the randomness, or whiplash it into strange new areas. I had built up a part of my brain that was now fed by the surface pleasures of a robotic column of incoherent human thoughts, and it was that robotocism I wanted from my individual exchanges with my friends. It immediately made the exercise of withdrawal feel like an act of self-delusion.

In a story for Slate, Evgeny Morozov writes about the newest update to Google Maps, which will use a person's collected data from emails, Internet search history, Gchats and friend's habits to filter map queries—ennumerating everything new and horrible about yet another Internet-driven technology.

Search for a simple address and the map will populate the surrounding neighborhood not with everything there but only places Google's algorithms determine are relevant based on your personal slice of the data graf.

"To succeed with advertisers, [Google] needs to convince them that its view of us customers is accurate and that it can generate predictions about where we are likely to go (or, for that matter, what we are likely to click)," Morozov argues. "The best way to do that is to actually turn us into highly predictable creatures by artificially limiting our choices. Another way is to nudge us to go to places frequented by other people like us—like our Google Plus friends."

Morozov's criticisms are persuasive descriptions of Google's overriding project, which has switched from making Internet search more accurate to creating the world's biggest human behavior database to drive its advertising business, which remains its most important source of revenue.

Yet, describing the myriad negative outcomes from this shift leave the problem of Google's centrality just where it is. Morozov is not arguing for the Internet to be taken out of maps and searches, but making a case for how the company that holds the central authority for map searches should structure its values.

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