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.
But creating maps both reliable and accessible enough to become used by a mass audience necessitates a company operating on a globally commercial scale, and there is a limited number of ways for an endeavor on that scale to pay for itself. You can either give the service away for free and earn money from advertising, build an open platform updated by volunteer users and supported by donation drives, or else completely wall the service off and sell its contents in one simple transaction.
The problem is not simply one of narrow ethics regarding specific uses of Google's technology, but a set of values that may be the inevitable consequence of a vision of the Internet built around massively centralized but freely accessible services. To point out the particular moral flaws in Google's approach to maps is, in a way, to avoid the larger dilemma about what we must inevitably sacrifice in order to make a place for the Internet in our lives, and whether what we get in return is worth it. For those who decide to withdraw, returning to a way of life where digitization is less central, they often find ghostly abandoned spaces which are no less comforting than the coercive narrowness of the Internet's biggest authorities.
To point out the particular moral flaws in Google's approach to maps is, in a way, to avoid the larger dilemma about what we must inevitably sacrifice in order to make a place for the Internet in our lives, and whether what we get in return is worth it.
Over the last year Paul Miller documented his experiences living without any Internet access for 12 months. In the early months he discovered an increased ability to think clearly and at length. "As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded," he wrote. "In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I'm really enthralled, a few hundred...By pulling away from the echo chamber of Internet culture, I found my ideas branching out in new directions. I felt different, and a little eccentric, and I liked it."
At the end of his experiment, however, Miller had reverted to forms of self-isolation, preferring nights alone playing offline videogames to books or attempts at socializing in person. It's tempting to view Miller's experiment as one that suggests withdrawal from Internet services is futile, but this looks past the important fact that Miller's withdrawal took place in a culture that did not follow after him, but instead made his choice an increasingly isolating one.
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. To go without Gchat or Skype is to realize how far away one's loved ones actually are, to confront the fact that the chain of logic underwriting a person's life path is one that favors individual productivity and careerism over community-building and intimacy.
And it is this underlying fact—an awareness of how much fragmentation in our immediate physical surroundings we live with—that simultaneously encourages skepticism about new innovations in digital technology while making them still seem impossible to do without. Google Maps is terrible, and will also continue to be the default map that the majority of people with Internet-connected computers or phones use to locate themselves for years to come. We know it's driven by an increasingly inhuman value set, and we cannot separate ourselves from it even as we're capable of articulating how uncomfortable it makes us feel.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.