The Dark Forests of the Internet

Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Yancey Strickler, cofounder of Kickstarter, has written an interesting piece on Medium about how the Internet is becoming segmented into different channels primarily out of people’s desire to feel safer to express themselves honestly while being free from the barrage of advertising and tracking. I can relate to much of what he says there.

I went dark on the internet a few years ago. I took social apps off my phone, unfollowed everyone, the whole shebang. This was without a doubt a good decision. I’ve been happier and have had better control over my time since. Many others have done this and are doing this. A generation of modern wannabe monks.

I haven’t been off for years – a little over a year maybe – and it does start to feel monk-ish. It’s been an interesting experiment, especially when you run into people in real life who are still on various platforms and didn’t even realize you’ve checked out. There’s sometimes an awkward back and forth when you try and figure out what to talk about when they discover that you’re not up to date with everything they’ve been seeing daily in their feed.

But even as my personal wellness grows, I see a risk in this change.

You could argue that these decisions removed me from the arena. I detached from the mainstream of conversation. I stopped watching TV. I stopped looking at Facebook and Twitter. I silenced my voice on the platforms where the conversation was happening because of the strings, risks, and side effects they created in return.

This detachment wasn’t just in politics. It was also true of how I shared my personal life. Milestones for me and my family were left unshared beyond our internet dark forests, even though many more friends and members of our families would’ve been happy to hear about them.

While I too feel the sense of better overall ‘wellness’, I don’t know that I feel or see the same associated risks. One thing I do think could become – or possibly already is – a problem is that people become continually more ‘siloed’ in their respective ‘dark forests’ and channels, leading to increased polarization – if that’s even possible. In much the same way algorithms are currently gaming people to reinforce biases or think certain ways, if they get comfortable only with the viewpoints found within the familiarity of their own ‘dark forests’, could it become even harder to see and or consider other viewpoints?

It’s possible, I suppose, that a shift away from the mainstream internet and into the dark forests could permanently limit the mainstream’s influence. It could delegitimize it. In some ways that’s the story of the internet’s effect on broadcast television. But we forget how powerful television still is. And those of us building dark forests risk underestimating how powerful the mainstream channels will continue to be, and how minor our havens are compared to their immensity.

I think there’s a giant hole waiting to be filled by whomever can figure out how to optimize the social aspects of the internet for the good of humans instead of the corporations – pretty much everything Douglas Rushkoff has been talking about with his Team Human project. Like the impending crisis of climate change though, it will take wholesale changes on a massive scale by businesses – and possibly even government involvement – to change the direction and business models towards the interests of the users vs. treating them as product – a huge ethical leap to take.

I myself haven’t been hanging out in many ‘Internet Dark Forests’ – save maybe listening to more podcasts – something that Strickler mentions as an emerging channel for people to cloister themselves within online. Aside from my posts here and selective reading, I’ve been staying away from screens altogether and trying get out more into the literal ‘forests’ of both green and humanity to rediscover and experience what is there.

Strickler’s article and conclusions are thought-provoking though, and clearly highlight the direction things are going. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, especially if the ‘side channels’ become prevalent enough that advertisers and corporations no longer feel they’re getting their bang-for-the-buck from the mainstream firehose of the Internet.

Digital Contributing to Climate Crisis

Gerry McGovern writes in his latest newsletter: Digital Contributing to Climate Crisis:

According to “The Cost of Music,” a joint study penned by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, greenhouse gases were recorded at 140-million kilograms in 1977 for music production activities (vinyl; plastic packaging). Moreover, they were at 136 million kilograms in 1988 and 157 million in 2000. In 2016, the age of streaming, greenhouse gases were estimated between 200- and 350-million kilograms in the U.S. alone.

“Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy,” Dr. Kyle Devine, an associate professor in music from the University of Oslo explained, “which has a high impact on the environment.”

Furthermore, I read an article a while ago, which said that the amount of energy consumed by a voice assistant while turning the lights off or on is significantly greater than the amount of energy required for a human to get up and turn the lights off or on.

Bet you thought doing everything online was guilt-free or carbon net zero. But vinyl is made from petroleum, so that is bad too, right? Do we go back to 8-tracks? Cassettes?

I know that I have been giving more thought to the volume of data I keep ‘online’/in the Cloud. Photos, documents. All this stuff takes server space which also means electricity and energy. Whereas before I had been keeping things redundantly on different servers/platforms, I’m trying to trim down my ‘digital footprint’ as well.

It also raises an interesting question with regards to my kids and the next generation of data users/hoarders. My kids will be of the first generation to grow up completely ‘online’. As such, when they move out, presumably, I’ll have to facilitate some sort of ‘massive data transfer’ of all their photos, documents and other ephemera that are currently stored on the ‘family’ computer. There’s a discussion there to be had and a protocol to be established for sure. In the case of my oldest, she has already set up her own Flickr Pro account to house all her photos.

I can see it coming as a bit of a shock down the road though, so should probably get started planning now.

“Congratulations on your new place, son! Here’s your 17 terabytes of ‘crap’ – find somewhere to store it! Mom and I will be in our cabin in the woods if you need anything.”

Also, get your lazy ass up and turn the lights on and off.

Facebook Co-Founder Says Break It Up

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has written an interesting opinion piece over at the New York Times, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook”.

I’ve been off Facebook for over a year now and about six months ago stopped using Instagram and Messenger. While I had my own issues and struggles with social media use affecting my mental health and general disposition, what finally got to me was the realization that Facebook’s business model is at it’s core, unethical. While I could remain on the platform and dismiss it or monitor and curtail my use, I felt like using any of the products was a tacit endorsement of their business practices and that just didn’t sit right with me.

A few choice nuggets from the article, which I suggest you read in full if you’re at all interested in these things:

Mark’s (Zuckerberg) influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government. He controls three core communications platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — that billions of people use every day. Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares. Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.

Facebook makes its money from targeted advertising, meaning users do not pay to use the service. But it is not actually free, and it certainly isn’t harmless.

Facebook’s business model is built on capturing as much of our attention as possible to encourage people to create and share more information about who they are and who they want to be. We pay for Facebook with our data and our attention, and by either measure it doesn’t come cheap.

The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.

Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them.

You may be saying to yourself, “if you (meaning me) quit facebook, why still so much interest in it?” The simple fact is I find it fascinating. The story is – in its truest sense – far more engaging and interesting than science fiction. It’s a massive experiment being carried out on humanity in real-time. It’s like the car-crash of the digital age – one simply can’t look away. The interesting thing is that the majority of people are still in the car – and even when being told it’s about to crash opt to sit tight.

Dollars for Data

Do you ever stop to think about how much data is being collected on you daily by everyone from Google to your bank? Did you ever give them permission to do so? Well, in some cases you may have via the checkbox at that massive ‘Terms of Service’ document that no one reads, but the reality is that many companies were/are collecting data even without those, and sharing and selling it as well, in addition to analyzing it, primarily just to sell you product or keep you on the platform longer.

Whether they can ethically do all this, or should be doing it, is a massive discussion. That aside, many people are proposing that if large corporations are going to essentially use us individuals as data collection points – we should get paid for it.

Livia Gershon writes in her article We All Work for Facebook:

Writing in the Harvard Business Review with Jaron Lanier, a prominent critic of social media, Weyl argues that if Americans were paid for our data, many would make $500 to $1,000 a year the way things stand now (an estimate that the authors believe is low). If AI were to grow to represent 10 percent of the U.S. economy, Weyl and Lanier add, that amount could rise to $20,000 for an average family of four—though in that information economy, we’d all pay a little more for the services we use.

As a family of 6, I like that action. If we’re all gonna be digital zombies, lets at least pull down a decent salary while we do it.

The Rise of Digital Unions

Gershon notes that the best way to start demanding compensation from companies is for individuals to band together and deny the companies that which they’re seeking, until demands are met – to form unions.

Digital labor rights, like any labor rights, depend on workers’ ability to organize in pursuit of their interests. The idea of demanding pay for data depends on internet users coming together in something like a labor union or a craft guild, bargaining with data buyers and using strike threats to win contracts. Skilled translators or people with a specific medical condition might band together based on their knowledge of the value that their data could provide. Weyl suggested to me that users start with Wikipedia, since it has its own complicated, semi-democratic governance system.

At the end of his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari presents the viewpoint that moving into the future, our society can take one of two paths; one that is dominated and driven by data or one that is founded and continues on a humanist philosophy. It would seem that unless we prefer the former, humans must come together to become more than just ‘cogs in the machine.’

Arizona Cardinals Give Players ‘Phone Breaks’

“Alright Gentlemen, let’s take 5 and check your notifications!”

Interesting article on Cal Newport’s blog, about an NFL Coach giving his players phone breaks during team functions.

(Do you know what lasts much longer than 20 – 30 minutes? NFL games. And there are no phone breaks once you’re on the field.)

Instead of accommodating his player’s twitching hands, therefore, perhaps Kingsbury should see this reaction as a crisis. Elite level sports require phenomenal concentration. Even a small epsilon degradation in this ability can be the difference between a cornerback disrupting a play or being burned on a slant, which itself can be the difference-maker in a game.

How long before this starts getting written into player contracts?

“Setting a new precedent, star running back Steve Ferguson signed a 3-year contract with the Cowboys for 47 Million and 120 hours of phone access per season. That’s 30 more hours than any previous player. ‘I’m really happy I’ll be able to keep my fans in on the action,’ Ferguson commented. ‘Guess I’m really going to have to up my selfie game'”