I finally had the chance to watch Adam Curtis’s documentary, “All watched over by machines of loving grace”. At least the first episode, anyway.
At first it might need some adaptation to the calm tempo and the seemingly unrelated plots, but it soon fits together and connects quiet impressively. With many points to reflect on, one in particular caught my attention; a women by the name of Carmen Hermosillo, was an avid user of the new cyberspace and as early as 1994 published a rant against it.
You can read the full article here. Her argument is mind-blowing, to say the least. It is so rich with avant-garde ideas that, years later, it leaves you doubting your relationship with the web – something that has long been taken for granted. Summarizing her points would not do her justice, but let’s do it for the sake of the argument.
I’ll dare to say that Carmen’s main point is that the idea of cyberspace giving each person his or her voice is complete falsehood, and at the end of the day, it comes down to converting all sorts of interaction on the web to commodities that are traded like products. She argues that we as users vent out our feelings to feel good about ourselves, and then websites use them to ultimately make money. She went as far as saying that since there is minimal human interaction via cyberspace, we do not act in humane ways and in fact commit unethical actions as result of the medium.
Perhaps more-importantly, Carmen shares the sad-but-true story that the idea of power spreading equally across the masses is an illusion – it is just that power becomes transferred to an elite in cyberspace. We’re just replacing elites with others. Talk about cynical.
For the most part, I agree. Sometimes we as human beings get carried away into thinking that computers and technology will feed the poor, educate our children, and discover the future. We bet our blind faith on ‘innovation’ and technological developments. Our definition of progress is ironically old-fashioned and traditional.
Moreover, our channels of communication are businesses exclusively after making money. In the ‘humdog’ days, it was CompuServ and America On Line, now it’s Google, Facebook, twitter and the likes. Whether we’re nurturing the feel-good factor inside us, or simply expressing ourselves online, we’re ultimately helping a few business make more bucks.
Not only that, but it’s gotten worse because there are a limited number of ISPs throughout the globe controlling a handful of cables that deal with the entire internet traffic all over the world. Therefore, if any website is hosted on a server according to the terms of the hosting provider, any user accessing has to go through one of the ISPs in the country that are allowed to function under government surveillance. The hosts themselves have to stick to their country’s ISPs and governments and travel through the cables. Ultimately, there is no such thing as control-free information on the web.
Added on to that, social networks like twitter gave birth to the term ‘infleuncers’. An influencer is someone who has a lot of followers and therefore his or her word is valuable and results in notable change. People go to an influencer for advice. In fact, people trust the influencer and are less likely to question. In short, an influencer is powerful and has a great say on how matters will be perceived, and thus how we will move forward. In short, an influencer is part of the elite.
But that’s the extent of my agreement with Carmen.
When the makers of twitter put together a startup and gave birth to a revolutionary social network, they had a vision. As fascinating as their ideas might be, they are completely irrelevant. And the reason is that we, the users, are the ones who make the call. We decide how this network is used, and we redefine it, repeatedly. It’s gotten to the extent that twitter themselves would not dare make any decision that we don’t agree on; the backlash would be unbearable.
Thus, as the internet users grow in numbers, we, as a group, become more powerful. There’s no doubt that businesses attempt to squeeze every penny out of us, but that is more of a problem of capitalism on a global scale – something beyond this argument. And of course we have elites who receive special treatment, but it is completely different to elites in a traditional hierarchical society.
The elites in society are born as such, with little social mobility and never earn it. On the web, however, you become part of the elite after consistently providing valuable content for long periods of time. When you work hard, you are rewarded elite status. However, if you commit mistakes, you can lose that status, and therefore you have to keep up. Moreover, as an elite, if you watch a YouTube video, it goes up one count. If you retweet a tweet, the retweets go up one count. If you vote in a poll, your voice counts as one, and only one.
Therefore, the internet’s elite is no more than a wise man (or women) whose voice is given more weight, but he or she can never ultimately dictate the masses.
Our interaction via the web is relatively minimal, yes. But with time it’s becoming easier and cheaper to cut the distance between the two. Thanks to the web, you can now chat live with video, and it’s becoming increasingly available on the phone. That’s not exactly practicing the sense of touch virtually, but it is decades ahead of plain text forum chatting from back in the day.
Progress does not necessarily mean gadgets and wires, it has a much more profound meaning to that. But the human race hasn’t done much progress since poverty and misery are only getting bigger. However, such a drastic change requires some sorts of revolutions, and it is the web that is the ideal tool to exchange information across space and time and mobilize the people. In theory, if we were all on the web, bringing about social change would be as easy as wanting it. I said in theory.
One major player that Carmen failed to mention (and understandably so, it was .94, remember?) is open-source. This is a true demonstration of effective collaboration via the web that creates products and services whose sole function is make our lives better and they are all absolutely free.
Open-source single-handedly fights the disadvantages of the web. For example, the issue of lack of privacy and controlled information via the monopoly of the ISPs and the cables could be solved via Tor – which is a web of virtual channels that ensure communication is encrypted. There are infinite examples of open-source projects that help protect the people from censorship, surveillance and lack of privacy.
In conclusion, Carmen was right. Cyberspace is mostly a silent place, a commodification of its users. That is what cyberspace was. However, the web is different. We, the people, the users, the masses, have taken control and redefined what the web means and how it is used. We have given birth to an organic system that grants the elite status to those who deserve it, but is purely prestigious in nature – we each have no more than one vote. We have embarked on an information super highway where companies have learnt not to go against us, or even attempt to push us in a certain direction.
And what better way to illustrate than with my all-time favorite YouTube video?
This is, my friends, power to the people. And it’s just getting started.