I’m in the middle of rereading How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World and I just watched moot’s TED talk, and it puts in my mind some of the tradeoffs of the world we seem to be building with the Internet.
Facebook and related social networking media have brought us closer to a Borg hive-mind utopia than ever before in human history. I was just marveling at how I’ve been in fairly regular contact (of some sort) with people I generally assumed I’d completely lost contact with. Also, this sort of media places its users in contact with a lot of people all the time. Most people find this experience much more compelling than I do.
But I can certainly understand how it may feel as if we are building a more perfect human society with these tools. In a way, it seems like the same utopian vision that has inspired fictional societies such as the Borg.
At first, I, like nearly everyone else took the obvious interpretation of this idea and thought of them as the existential threat to the protagonists, as they were presented. But on closer inspection, it’s easy to see the appeal of it: effortless communication between individuals (now parts of a whole), reduced costs of communication, reduced social tensions, the elimination of deception. One of the largest flaws of central economic planning is that it invites great effort to be directed towards gaming the system or corrupting the central planning authority completely — but imagine if an individual or clique could not lie to the society at all.
In a way, this greater sharing of ourselves in near-realtime with social networking media seems almost like a first step towards such a utopia. But, typically, the failure of utopias is that they, almost by definition, fail to admit that they may be wrong. The closer you get towards the ideal utopia, the less substantial differences are permitted. Even under the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke et. al., you still can’t satisfy the person who insists that the worldly community must be governed by a strict interpretation of their particular flavor of religious law.
This is uncontroversial, you can’t find a lot of advocacy for a true utopia today, in fact, it’s much easier to find quite the opposite. But, what I want to know is, what is this social networking utopia we are building towards, and what are its consequences? Compared to the Internet of times past, it’s frequently less anonymous and more likely to push the user toward a shared, mainstream experience, both in the content itself and how it is presented. There was a time when a large percentage of internet users (a smaller absolute number) discussed things on Usenet groups, for example, using their own choice of client software, identity being only mildly fixed and traceable.
(Sidenote: it’s kind of a perverse fantasy, but it’s amusing to think of Facebook or Google as a sort of central planning committee, deciding how your time and attention will be allocated.)