Tragedies of the Internet commons

A specter is haunting America. It is the culture of divisiveness and hate fostered by social media. The combination of ubiquitous personal devices with social media platforms has precipitated an epidemic new opiate of the people. The internet as a whole started out as a commons—the Information Highway—only to become a plundered landscape, polluted by advertising and trivialized by misuse. Beginning as a great boon to the common welfare, it has degenerated to a weapon for mischief makers, a mere marketplace, or a new entertainment.

Social media platforms may rightly be held accountable for nefarious consequences to society of their “services,” which include the potential to shape public discourse and even derail elections. But the user, too, is accountable. While it is easy to blame technology and successful corporations for society’s woes, here I want to explore the internet user’s responsibility. After all, it is consumers who enable consumerism. The domination of the world by large corporations is only possible because people buy their products. Just so, social media are only successful because people misuse them and overuse use them—in particular, to relieve frustration and boredom. Commercial advertising has literally filled cyberspace. But, advertising is only profitable because it is presumed to work. Underlying the consumer mindset is a kind of passivity and emptiness, a lack of proactivity and self-possession. The first simple truth I propose is this: those who are not driven sensibly from within will be driven senselessly from without. Social media have stepped in to fill a vacuum of will.

Teens seem to be particularly vulnerable to exploitation by social media. That is because they are by definition not yet completely formed. They may not yet know fully who they are or what they value and intend in their lives and in the world. That is as it should be in a period of experimentation and self-discovery. Education is supposed to elicit knowing who you are and provide the thinking skills to find, evaluate and use information. It is very challenging for educators when students cannot focus because mobile phones dominate their attention. All the more when their attention span has shriveled because they had the misfortune to grow up in the digital society. Exploiting the vulnerability of the under-aged is child abuse. Exploiting the vulnerabilities of those who are old enough to know better may be legal but is unethical. It may have begun with good intentions; yet, it points back at the exploiters as sociopaths, who are either unable to properly foresee the consequences of their actions or simply don’t care. Good intention is not sufficient to guarantee a good result.

A second simple truth is this: Information is of little positive use to those with no clear intention of their own. At best it is entertainment, distraction, noise. At worse, it means giving oneself over to be manipulated. If you are not pursuing your own goals (which might include the deliberate goal of having no goal), chances are you are being used to further someone else’s. There is no excuse for that state of affairs in the adult of the species. But there is a name for it. Anomie is “a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals.” It is the vacuum inside, which makes a society prey to demagoguery and media manipulation.

While America has always been divided (they fought a bloody civil war), it has not always been so vacuous. Just as education has been disrupted by social media and an atrophied attention span, so has the political culture. Neil Postman notes that people who gathered at the Lincoln-Douglas debates stood listening attentively for hours. They would adjourn for dinner and come back for hours more of political debate. Media now typically assume that attention can be maintained for seconds only. But attention is relative to intention. If you are seeking information for your own purposes (such as to know who to vote for), you will have (or you will acquire) the discipline and patience necessary to accomplish your goal. If you have no goal, your mind will likely wander until it is grabbed by the most seductive bauble, the most quotable tweet or persistent ad—or by anything at all simply to fill the void.

Here is a third simple truth: even a conscientious tool user may be raw material for someone else. In our high-tech society, we love our tools and apps. Though they may seem to be free of charge, however, there are hidden costs. (As critics of social media are fond of pointing out, we are the resource they are mining.) If your data profile is commercially worth something to someone, it is because they believe they can influence you in some way, usually to buy something. In other words, they hope you have no will of your own! If you know your own mind, you know what you need and will actively shop for it of your own accord without solicitation (though you can still be influenced by misinformation and how your access to information is controlled). You also know what you don’t need and you will not be a victim of irrelevant temptation or gossip. Advertising and other attempts to manipulate people work best on those who are unclear about what they need and don’t need. The more intentional you are about your tools and your goals, the less likely you are to be (even literally) sold a bill of goods.

And here is a fourth simple truth: profit is no justification. The bottom line is no basis on which to run a decent society. Corporate profit comes down to personal gain of executives and shareholders. But personal gain, personal status, or personal influence is simply a poor reason to do anything­ at all—even commerce. A better reason (yes, even in business) is to promote the general good—to make the world an objectively better place. Since the “world” is all of us, this can only be attempted in respectful dialogue and cooperation with others. This is the common truth that America is missing in its infatuation with individualism and freedom of expression.

The internet began as a giant show-and-tell, where people could share information with others for their mutual benefit. It didn’t take long for it to degenerate into a marketplace. Just as nature was once a commons, in principle shared by all life, the internet started out as a commons for non-commercial use. There were infrastructure costs involved from the outset, of course, and ongoing maintenance, which we continue to pay as fees for internet access, just as we pay taxes to maintain our roadways and parks.

We enjoy the view along the Internet Highway better without the clutter of billboards. The Web was (and should be again) a non-commercial public utility, free of advertising. It is only greed that saw it as a New World to pillage, the biggest post-industrial resource. As with conventional mining operations, there is pollution and environmental destruction. In the case of the internet, the groundwater of useful information is poisoned by self-interest. Ironically, most web sites are frustrating to visit because of the intrusion of annoying ads and notices about “cookies” for the purpose of collecting your supposedly valuable data. One would think the increasing saturation by ads would mean diminishing returns, as the visual clutter renders websites unusable.

One would also think that the atmosphere of invective in social media would turn people off to their use. The ethos of goodwill and confidence is destroyed by vituperation and unsupported claims. Once again the tree of knowledge has been violated—and this time not because it was forbidden—quite the contrary. Again, we have been expelled from a paradise, yet it is the same old serpent at work.

Those of us who know how to find and share information may simply refuse to use for-profit social media platforms or search engines that are biased or track and sell our data. We may avoid websites cluttered with distracting ads. We may refuse to frequent online podiums for venom and hate. Beyond these protests of refusal, there may be some creative and well-motivated souls who will invent new formats for communication that reassert the ideal of the friendly non-commercial internet commons. Indeed, some of the existing platforms were founded on such ideals, which did not prevent them from being eventually corrupted.

So, here is a fifth simple truth: evil always has the advantage in its contest with good. This is because it is a social phenomenon: as the adage goes, a rotten apple can spoil the barrel, whereas a good apple can hardly preserve it. Those who do not know who they are, or what they intend, may conclude that they may as well join the rotten apples who (as an another adage tells us) may seem indefeasible. Those who do know themselves will persist, despite unfavorable odds, to reinvent a better world, because that is the only thing really worth doing.