Cyber Realism

An NYT interview with Ev Williams of Twitter and Medium has prompted some internet soul searching.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”

Paul Wallbank wrote a response to it. I got to thinking about Cyber-Utopianism and the political thoughts roiling around my mind and I started to wonder what a Cyber-Realism would look like. I left some comments on Paul’s blog. I have highlighted four to write about further. What follows is not a coherent argument, rather it is a stream of sense data (or “rant”). All of the feels. There will be coherent arguments next – or so I am telling myself.

Was I a Cyber-Utopian? Well, I am too bitter & twisted to be an anything Utopian but I was captivated by the world-wide web when a friend showed it to me in a university college attic in 1993. I gravitated towards the web-based chat boards of the NME and Barbelith in the late-90s. I started blogging in 2001 as I left the UK and have done so fitfully ever since. For me it was less about the technology than the people it connected me to. I am… strange. Far less strange than I used to be, and far more comfortable with the strangeness that remains, but strange none-the-less. And the people I found, and continue to find, online were not the people I grew up with or met at college or work. One reason people move to a big city is to meet new people. The internet cosmopolitanised my mind.

In the late 2000s, the world woke up to this stuff and I reckoned there might be a dollar to be had here. I was less a Cyber-Utopian and more a Cyber-Opportunist. I earned a bit here and there but I was neither smart enough nor focused enough to gain riches. But it was still fun.

Something changed around 2012. Probably around the time of the Facebook IPO. It felt as though the internet was finally mainstream and properly corporate. It was no longer this cool, counter-cultural place full of interesting people. They were still there but harder to find – what with everyone else around. If this makes me sound like a burnt-out hippy crying into his beer at 11pm, 4 November 1980 – then yeah, that’s about right.

  1. Human beings are apes. We are collaborative, competitive, and tribal.

If we are talking about the internet, then we must talk about people. People are animals. And I don’t mean that pejoratively. We are primates who form social groups. Within those social groups we collaborative and compete, we gossip and we groom, we fight and we f**k. We define ourselves by the group we are in, swear allegiance to our kin within, and death to the enemies outside. Evolution means that we are hardwired to survive in a hostile, resource-constrained environment. And to our ape eyes, all environments are hostile and resource-constrained. If we found paradise by mistake, we would probably bare our teeth at it and mark it as territory with piss or blood.

We might have wi-fi and routers and smartphones and apps and yearn to leave our hairy, sinewy ape bodies but we cannot. We take the savanna and the tundra into cyberspace. We do what comes naturally. Ape is what we are. We can be no other.

  1. Human beings are broken. We cannot be fixed by either technology or ideology.

We remain apes with aspirations. Technology cannot change this unless we so drastically change our bodies that we are no longer human. We might tame, train, and constrain ourselves with technology – wearables and apps to augment our willpower and limit our harmful behaviours. The Quantified Self as Personal Panopticon. We might hope that allowing groups to communicate would reduce hatred – although miscommunication was not the reason that our ancestors slaughtered each other. Technology can only do so much.

We had hoped that some form or ideology or social engineering would fix everything. Efficient Markets would enable trade between individuals and groups, allow price discovery, unleash innovation, allocate risk and reward with a near-divine fairness. It didn’t turn out like that. A Dictatorship of the Proletariat would eliminate oppression, famine, and war. It didn’t turn out like that. If we liquidate the treacherous others of different colours, creeds, sexualities, politics then our purified Nation will become Strong. It didn’t turn out like that. Ideology is a good question on which to start and a terrible answer on which to end.

Broken is what we are. For now, we can be no other.

  1. Human beings are creative. We will use technologies is ways that we cannot predict.

It’s not all bad news being an ape. You can have ideas in your brain. You can make words with your teeth and lips and breath. You can paint those words leaves or hack them into rock. You can make tools. Out of flint or obsidian. Or finely-machined silicon. With these tools, we can transform ourselves and our environment. We can change the ecologies of an entire planet. We can drive other species to extinction without noticing. We can also make skyscrapers and action men and dams and cars and malaria nets and planes and tanks and missiles and my little ponies and stuff. We can tweet amusing pictures of startled cats that make a stranger on another continent smile (or we can threaten to rape them because of a word they said). We can take military equipment invented to fight wars and use it to play games. Or we can do the reverse.

We are a creative species. We do not fully understand that creativity – its drives and its operations, its logics and its deliriums. We pull back bits at the edges to package in over-priced workshops or books with one-word titles, but we still operate in the dark.

Creative is what we are. We can be no other.

  1. We hope not because we believe that we can fix human beings but rather because human beings excel at making new mistakes – or what some call “change”

I am contractually obliged to find some cause for optimism. I have a son. I wanted a child for purely selfish purposes – because it’s part of being human (not a necessary part but a part none-the-less). However now that I have him, I can neither lie to him and say that everything will be fine but nor can I just pray for the end of the world and cast him into despair. Not when there are seagulls to be chased and puddles to be jumped in and sonic screwdrivers to be waved all over the place.

I do not know if we will make it. Or if the world will be fit for him. But I do know that human beings excel at making things and doing things and especially at f**king things up. And while most of those mistakes will be old mistakes, a few of them will be new ones. Some of them will turn into something new. CERN employees trying to fix documentation issues for nuclear physicists might create something that 25 years later is used for cat pictures, porn, and Russian propaganda.

If we can find a way to keep on making new mistakes, we might be able to f**k up our way out of this f**k up that we are in right now. Get to it people. I know that you’ve got it in you.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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6 Responses to Cyber Realism

  1. I prefer the phrase “fulfilling the biological imperative” because I’m not convinced that people have children for anything like a selfish reason. In a way they don’t have a choice because they’re programmed to do it. I’m 54 now and I have far less need to satisfy any sexual urge that might remain. When you’re young you want to do all this stuff all the time and it takes up a lot of your energy working out how to do it. As age takes effect you are freed up from the imperative. It’s like the menopause except that it happens to men. Your metabolism slows down, and your testosterone levels might even start to drop. This is what I think. Don’t bash yourself up.

  2. innotecture says:

    Thanks Matthew. I wasn’t bashing myself up so much as acknowledging a reality. It wasn’t even so much about sex – these days, the wonderful array of contraceptives available from all good stockists mean that you can have as much sex as you (& also your partner(s)) choose without entering the Kidspace*. For me, it was more about the whole of the human experience. I could have lived a quite happy childless life but I was greedy for experience. I wanted to experience parenthood. And if you commit to it, it’s not like one of those “experience” holidays where you ride on a elephant then make a souffle. There’s a lot telling someone to put their shoes on at 6:50 every morning. Or cleaning up vomit.

    I suspect that having a child is much like being in the armed forces (not that I have been in the armed forces, my ex-navy father warned me off that) in two ways. Firstly, being in the armed forces apparently consists of immense stretches of boredom punctuated by brief bursts of extreme terror. And secondly, it provides a discipline for you. You have to get up at 6:15 and make them f***ing packed lunches. You gotta be there for school pick-up. Story-reading at 7:20 is a non-negotiable. All this makes it sound more of a drag than it actually is but for a slacker like me the discipline is actually important.

    *A truly wonderful part of the Australian Museum that I would categorically recommend not having sex in. Even with contraceptives. If only because the staff will have to clean all the equipment afterwards.

  3. We’re just monkeys with guns and keyboards, Matt. Once you accept this everything on the internet makes sense.

  4. Luke Grange says:

    Thank you Matt for taking me on a journey I have been grappling with over the last month or so which is what it means to be truly human. With the hype and reality being expounded around AI I have spent a lot of time going maven on it and understanding what it is and might become. This led me to then try and understand what being human really means and thank you for your blog which has set the path alight once more for me. One other good read I had on this was Dan Pinks ‘A Whole New Mind’ which hit on a number of points you made. I look forward to discussing this further with you at some point.

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