[Kleinrock] and his small group of graduate students hoped to log onto the Stanford computer and try to send it some data. They would start by typing "login," and seeing if the letters appeared on the far-off monitor. "We set up a telephone connection between us and the guys at SRI...," Kleinrock ... said in an interview: "We typed the L and we asked on the phone, "Do you see the L?" "Yes, we see the L," came the response. "We typed the O, and we asked, "Do you see the O." "Yes, we see the O." "Then we typed the G, and the system crashed"
And thus the internet was born on October 29, 1969, with a bang and a crash. We celebrate this day as Internet Day, and it’s the perfect time to look back and take stock of what it has done for and to us, what’s happening now, and what we can do as freethinkers.
The internet changed the way we communicate with each other, the way we share and process information, and how we entertain ourselves. It destroyed entire monopolies and built up new ones. Even disregarding the subject matter, this article is entirely dependent on the internet. As I write this, I am typing on my computer, sending keystroke and command packets to another computer somewhere in the world, where my co-authors thousands of kilometers away can see in real-time what I am typing. Later on, we will have published this on a different computer, which will then have sent the same information down the wire to your own computer. Magic.
The internet is a powerful tool, and like tools, its effects depend on the hand that wields it. It has been used to uplift, to educate, and to spread love, but also to oppress, to misinform, and sometimes even to kill. It is an amplifier of things that exist, good and bad, and it touches all of our lives (except maybe the few that are so determined).
Up until a few years ago, the internet was a strong force for good. Early social media in particular gave voice to marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community, the non-religious, and the various ethnic minorities all around the world. It fostered the formation of online communities and support groups, which were particularly important in places where physical congregation was difficult at best, forbidden and deadly at worst.
In this time, the internet deepened knowledge for some and broadened it for others. YouTubers like the Green brothers, Veritasium, and VSauce (Michael here) gave Science that extra bit of pop and realness that traditional sterile classrooms just couldn’t provide. Meanwhile, Natalie Wynn and Alain de Botton rounded out the hard sciences with philosophy and introspection, emphasizing compassion and understanding. Here was a good foundation for a secular philosophical awakening in many viewers, young and old, myself included.
These days, the internet feels more like a tool for evil. Capitalistic pressures inevitably cause tech companies to consolidate, and growth-first business models encourage tech startups to make their offerings “free”, choosing instead to monetize their users’ attention and data. You know the saying: “If you aren’t paying for it, you’re the product”.
Looking back, it seems almost inevitable that the freeness of the internet would lead here.
Of course you want a social network to be free.
Of course you still need to monetize this social network, so you monetize attention.
Of course you change the way your platform works to optimize attention.
Of course clickbait, inflammatory content, misinformation, division, hate.
Of course echo chambers.
Of course Trump and Brexit.
Of course Duterte.
Of course Antivax.
Nuanced discussion has always been boring and tiring. It just so happens that the internet gives us access to a yummy, easy, and fast alternative. Even worse, it allows us to share, retweet, and repost with the tap of a button.
Wow, that’s depressing. But is this pit we’re in inevitable and inescapable?
Inevitable, yes. Inescapable? Maybe not. Like the world, the internet is read-write. We can change things, and if you’re a freethinker, you probably want to change it for the better. We can do this by being aware of the system, by being aware of ourselves, and by working together:
Awareness of the system
This article barely covers—excuse the cliché—the tip of the iceberg. We take so much for granted, but we need to be able to see the myriad connections between the internet and all the things we hold dear in order to do anything about it. Listed below are works that help flesh out this understanding of the online world.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
A book and documentary about Big Data as a business model
The Great Hack
A documentary on Cambridge Analytica: www.imdb.com/title/tt4736550
A documentary on Social Networking: www.imdb.com/title/tt11464826
A documentary on a researcher’s quest to push for legislation against bias in algorithms: www.imdb.com/title/tt11394170
An easy-to-digest infodump and podcast on disinformation in the US, and really the whole world too. Yes, the fact that anything that affects America affects the whole world can be an article in itself. rigged.ghost.io
Awareness of ourselves
It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you belong to the “correct tribe”. Freethinkers and other intelligentsia groups are particularly vulnerable to arrogant posturing. When interacting online, we should be introspective and reflective of what we are really doing, and the effect we have on the people and communities around us. Should we really be writing a thousand-word essay to a Facebook post we disagree with? Is it written in a way that encourages productive dialogue, or does it simply feed our ego by demonstrating our intellectual and philosophical “superiority”? As Carl Sagan famously said: “[The pale blue dot] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another…” We are after all, all we have.
We can know all there is to know about the system, but if we ignore the human element, it is all for naught. We would simply be part of that abuse/division/echo-chamber loop, and end up giving Big Tech more fuel for their attention engine.
We can do a lot alone, but history and lived experience tell us that we can do so much more together. We all have different abilities, tolerances, and passions that cover each other’s weaknesses and blind spots. With the limited bandwidth we have, we should let others help us, help us all.
The internet can be a good place. We’ve already seen it. All that’s left is to find and support (even join! Hint hint!) those groups and efforts that enhance the good: those that educate, promote critical thinking, and teach online literacy, and those that correct the bad: like fact-checkers and hate watchdog groups.
Here is a list of groups and platforms that you might want to support:
- Filipino Freethinkers: filipinofreethinkers.org
- Philippine disinformation reporting platform: totooba.info
- Philippine citizen reporting platform: barangayhub.ph
- Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Contributing_to_Wikipedia
The internet is here to stay. We can whine and pout about how it has been corrupted by Big Tech and capitalism, how we live in a post-truth world, and just how much garbage there is. We can just log off, live off the grid (or at least get as close as we can to such a state). But the rest of the populace will still be online, influencing everyone’s lives, regardless of how far off the grid they made it.
For most, running away is not an option, and so we must fight. We must fight for the future of this space of ones and zeroes, of shares and likes, of connections and divisions, of information—and take it back.
It’s daunting and scary, and there are giants. Can we even win?
Who knows? But let’s not lose by default.