When the Internet was born in the late 1970's, hopes were high that this miraculous child of Arpanet would change the world, connecting us closer together in a global village, bringing unprecedented peace and prosperity. But the fairies that presided at its birth were apparently wrong. Lately, the Internet has been getting a bad press.
First, Jaron Lanier, a star Silicon Valley guru in the 1980's, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, a man who was on a first name basis with "Steve" and "Sergey" (Jobs of Apple and Brin of Google), in short, one of the inspired futurists who helped create the Internet world as we know it, recently turned against the web. His best known book is his latest, published in 2013, with the ominous title Who Owns the Future?
The answer: big digital corporations, from Facebook to Google to Amazon. He calls them "Siren Servers", a reference to the sirens Ulysses had to battle. They reap information about individuals and use that information to their own advantage, ruining the middle class. The solution he offers - a complex two-way accounting system of micro-payment for every bit of information provided - is fuzzy at best, if not downright contradictory: any entity assigned with such an accounting task would be in a dictatorial position and a threat to everyone else in the system.
Next, in December 2015, Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian star activist whose anonymous Facebook page was the spark that started five years ago the revolution in Egypt, declared in a TED talk in December 2015 that he no longer believed as he did back then that "if you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet." He admitted he had been wrong: "Today if we want to liberate society," he said, "we first need to liberate the Internet". And he set about establishing a forum for political debate that he called Parlio.
The theme was recently picked by Thomas L. Friedman in a New York Times ed-post, asking the question: is social media “better at breaking things than at making things?"
But is Parlio the answer? The questions asked on Parlio are all highly relevant as anyone joining Parlio will soon discover (I did); here are some recent examples:
- On Apple vs. the Justice Department: "IPhones shouldn’t be safe zones for terrorists" (yes, but what about privacy issues?)
- On climate change: "The 400 words that change people’s opinion on global warming" (apparently a marketing ploy...)
- On opening to Cuba: "The sad spectacle of Obama’s upcoming tribute to Cuba" (why sad?)
- On Donald Trump: "What a Trump presidency means for the Gulf States" (more to the point: what does it mean for the US?)
Parlio’s membership is impressive, mostly journalists often working at highly respected, mainstream media, university professors and business managers, former politicians etc. But they are surprisingly few in number, to date, some 257 are listed (here). Members are allowed to post and have a chat with celebrities; this is what they did in June 2015 with Friedman; it resulted in a Q & A session that you can read here. When asked about the outcome of the Arab Spring for which he had held so much hope back in 2011 and had set him smiling, Friedman had to admit "now I have no smile on my face -- only a pit in my stomach."
Thus, Parlio is undoubtedly interesting and bills itself as a place that "values maintaining civility in constructive, thoughtful discussions about current affairs." Trolls are kept away, inflamed discourse is banned. Unfortunately, that means the site is not open to newcomers, you have to be "invited as a member" to participate and make a comment. If you just join out of interest (as I did) you are registered as readers. As explained on Parlio: "A reader will not have the ability to contribute to a discussion, but may upvote and follow those who can". You click the "upvote" button next to the items of discussion that interest you, and that’s it, not much…Really quite frustrating. But as a Tech Crunch article explained, Parlio is still in the early stages.
It seems that the only way to have an intelligent intellectual life on the Internet is to set up a closed, carefully guarded and curated group online.
If that’s the case, how sad.
FROM THE ARAB SPRING TO THE AMERICAN WINTER
More to the point, how did we get to this stage? First, let's briefly examine why Twitter and Facebook caused so much disappointment in someone like Wael Ghonim, a man honestly and genuinely dedicated to improving the political and economic situation in his homeland. Since he was working at the time for Google, he was particularly well placed to understand (and use) social media. In fact, he demonstrably used it very successfully, gathering 100,000 followers on a single Facebook post of protest - that post is generally considered a historic turning point in the rebellion that had been brewing in Egypt, effectively launching the revolution that eventually unseated President Mubarak. No small feat.
So what’s wrong with Facebook and Twitter and, now, Instagram and Snapchat and all the other social media we use everyday?
Observation number one. All those media give voice to individuals: It's their chance to speak about themselves online and most people grab the chance. Some of us may get frustrated or even dismayed by the result: most social media users seem only concerned with spreading word about themselves, their personal lives, their families, their travels, their dogs and cats – and if they’re writers or artists, they tell you about their books and artwork; if they’re businessmen, about their products. They all turn social media into a gigantic marketplace.
The Internet has provided everyone with fantastic ego trips.
But five years ago, something different happened and it started in the Arab world. For the first time, social media suddenly seemed to acquire a new dimension: it proved to have political pull, especially in countries where the press is controlled by the government – this was the case of Egypt, Iran and all the countries affected by the so-called “Arab Spring”. Hundreds of thousands – even millions - flocked to the Tahrir squares of this world, pushed there by Facebook posts and tweets.
Social media even proved useful in emergencies and Twitter was warmly embraced by humanitarian workers to warn colleagues about problems, to call out for help - this happened, for example, in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
Had Facebook and Twitter done a miracle and changed the political discourse, "waking up" the masses, overturning dictatorships, as Wael Ghonim had hoped?
If you listen to Ghonim's TED talk, you will realize that is not the case. Dictators may have been shown the door in Egypt and elsewhere, but there was no follow-through, no political maturity in the society to permit the establishment of a new, functional democracy. Facebook and Twitter cannot do the work of decades of civic education; they cannot operate cultural change where that change is a function of many other elements that have nothing to do with what happens online.
In fact, the only country where the Arab Spring led to a successful political change was Tunisia, and that’s because Tunisian society was already more mature, with a relatively broad-based, well-educated middle class, where women had been enjoying for decades a parity status with men, a somewhat unique position in the Arab world.
Observation number two. As one watches the unfolding of the primaries in the United States, with Donald Trump winning center stage, one is justified in wondering what is happening.
American politics have never been so deeply polarized in twenty years.
The Republican party of course has already once before brought to the presidency someone who didn't come from the political class and Congress: in the 1980’s, it brought Reagan, a Hollywood actor to the White House and turned him into an icon for conservatives. But Donald Trump is not Reagan. First, he is a failed businessman, he has lost more money than he has made, and according to Forbes, he would have done far better if he had simply invested in index funds. But he is definitely a successful reality television star. Some of his political rivals have even termed him a “con-artist”. Yet there is one fundamental difference with Reagan: the latter brought to the White House his experience as Governor of California (he served two terms), Donald Trump has no such experience. In fact, he has no experience of government at all.
How can someone like that run for the presidency? How can the political parties be so polarized that Republicans prefer to immobilize the Supreme Court rather than allow the normal process of nomination to follow through as has always been the case in the past?
What has happened to political discourse in the United States, the world’s prime democracy, the most technologically advanced nation? Whose fault is it? The Internet appears to be a prime candidate.
Consider the logic of social media. We are talking here of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram-like media - not of Thingser that is both a newcomer and an exception: it focuses on user interests and allows in-depth discourse and analyses through several channels, the usual one with uploading a link and giving space for comments, and the more exceptional one like the article function I am using here for this article. For the analysis here which looks at the past, we necessarily must leave Thingser aside. What we are trying to do here, is to explain how social media has impacted our lives over the past 15 years.
Two problems facing the users of Facebook-like social media are ingrained in the system:
- the user is prodded to talk about herself, to post an "update": Facebook asks you "what's on your mind?" and that's very inward-looking. Twitter's prod for a tweet is a little broader and outward looking, it asks you "what's happening?". Nobody asks you to share what you know about, nobody seems to expect you to say anything intelligent or new or interesting - just whatever comes to mind, whatever you happen to see. And it can be anything, a dog gnawing his bone, your baby sister stuffing her face, your GPS position in a town you happen to drive through. This is the first part of what I would like to call the dumbing down effect of the Internet;
- to talk about something interesting, users can have recourse to "discussion groups" and start a debate around a topic close to their heart; writer groups do this a lot, especially on Facebook but you also find large writers' groups on Linked In and Google Plus. Is this the solution? If you have ever joined a group online, you know that it isn't. I am well place to know, for having started in 2012 a group on Goodreads to discuss Boomer Lit, a new genre aimed at Baby Boomers. At first, we were few, it was fun. But soon the group expanded (today, three years later, it is over 600) and the discourse degenerated into a screaming place where everyone was peddling his or her book and nobody was listening to anyone else.
More generally, it's a fact that online forums start off well, promising interesting exchanges, but they soon collapse under their own weight. The same people keep talking, new ones don't join, ideas get repeated as threads lengthen and nobody has the time to read earlier comments. Sometimes, things can turn ugly, debates can be high-jacked by trolls and/or other aggressive types that won't allow for any dissenting views. This is the second aspect of the dumbing down effect of the Internet. In short, group discussions don't work online and I hold little hope for the likes of Parlio, especially if one day it opens up allowing readers to intervene in debates (as it should if it wants to stop being elitist and anti-democratic).
Yet, in spite of the lack of serious debate to sustain it, social media is very powerful in society. Twitter is considered an effective "relief tool" in humanitarian assistance; Facebook and similar networking services have demonstrably worked to sustain political protest over and over again. It is no surprise that Weibo in China (that functions like Facebook and Twitter rolled into one) is considered so dangerous by the Chinese government that it has gone to extremes of active censorship to throttle it.
If today, political life in the United States, one of the most technologically advanced and mature democracies in the world, is reduced to tweetable discourses filled with tags and keywords rather than ideas, and if the politician closest to a TV reality star is winning the presidential race, we should not be surprised. The Internet has set the stage for this to happen. Without thoughtful debate that has an educational effect on the masses, you cannot expect the millions of users on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to rebel against the polarization of politics and simplification of arguments reduced to 140 characters.
Far from the Arab Spring, we have come to the American Winter of our discontent...