The Unrealised Potential of Online

One of the things that makes me stick with digital technology is how little of it’s potential I think we’ve realised so far. We don’t seem to have got our head around the ability to reduce the infrastructure required to connect, communicate and share and the internets ability to reduce distance down to zero. We have the ability to send digital signals around the globe today at such an astounding speed that it essentially removes the distance. We are all in a way proximal to everyone on the planet. We can speak and listen to each other from around the other side of the world. We can tune in and watch live events as they unfold and we no longer need a traditional broadcast infrastructure. No towers or wires or cameras or relays – just a smart phone and a connection to the internet. The world is no longer out of our reach.

These connections however have led to an abundance of information that we are really struggling to understand. We are struggling at the moment to understand how we adapt to it because this explosion of information has exponentially increased the level of noise. As individuals what we need is more signal. But how do we go about that? The latest trend is with a digital detox – turning off our devices and the social networks. I understand that is one way of dealing with things, it doesn’t seem to deal with the problem. This is not a failure of the individual but a failure of the technology itself. It’s a failure of the massification of technology being driven by a profit. Put simply, more users equal more profit. It has never been the aim of digital technologies to improve our lives, it’s been to sell us more stuff, create new markets, new consumers, new ways of profiteering and fuck the consequences. Social Media is a prime example. Rather than work on ways to connect and enrich peoples lives, the focus of all the platforms has been about how to monetise and make profits. It’s led to the development of the biggest surveillance and intelligence tool ever developed and the dumpster fire we see today filled with hatred, bigotry and propaganda. This is Troll Country.

These platforms have scaled up without any care for their users. They have become places where we dwell and spend enormous amounts of time doing meaningless and trivial tasks. Often not because we choose, but because we are being manipulated. Actively and constantly experimented on, not for our benefit but in order to make more money. The “news” is unmediated and unedited and this total free for all doesn’t actually work. The reality is that as humans we actually require customs and rules, because that’s how you function as a species that is by necessity social. We have evolved not to be solitary, that we cannot exist in a solitary way, so we need each other. We need to work together, so we need some kind of order. We need order to actually communicate to each other – without them we just talk past each other or simply yell and scream. Sound familiar? As a species we actually need to have dialogue and to do so we need conventions, and that’s what is missing from digital technology.

In many ways this seems odd because conventions are just procedures, and the thing we build our digital technologies with is code, which is procedural. What are the the conventions and the procedures that would allow us to communicate and filter out the signal from the noise? This isn’t a people problem, I think there is a technical solution, but we don’t need another platform or application, we need another business model too. The investment driven business models utilised by the big tech companies have bought us to this point. Profit is now the driving force of success. They’ve written code and applications that simply aim to increase profit with very little thought of their effect on individuals and society.

When Twitter and Facebook claimed an active role in the Arab Spring, in effect a revolution that they helped facilitate, it must have caused huge ripples in espionage and intelligence circles. If social media can help a band of unorganised, unfunded and oppressed people facilitate a revolution, just imagine what an organised, state supported and well funded agency could achieve! The tech world seems to have been oblivious and naive to what has been going on within their midst and on their platforms. While they’ve sort to automate more and more of their operations in order to increase profits, forces have been hard at work gaming and manipulating the algorithms for their own ends. As the tech world has sort to dehumanise their operations state organisations have been using these platforms to interact directly (and indirectly) with those humans. Rather than platforms for collective improvement they’ve become tools of propaganda, surveillance and foreign influence. By removing the human elements and actively ignoring the conventions that allow us to socialise and have dialogue, the system has been corrupted. And dare I say, irreparably.

I think what is needed is for technology to comes back to information theory itself, that idea of being able to divine the signal from the noise. We need our tools to be capable of communicating effectively the message. At the moment we don’t have that and Trump is a great example of just how broken things are. There is inability for the signal to actually penetrate the noise at the moment. Social Media has become a set of Noise Systems and there is a dire need of tools that create spaces for real dialogue and conversation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there is no time where there is a greater need for more civic and civil technologies.

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