I'm deeply conflicted about the Internet

posted by Jeff | Monday, May 13, 2024, 7:45 PM | comments: 0

Let me just get this out of the way: The Internet has made it possible for me to have a pretty good life, financially at least. When I left the broadcast world (well, local cable, but whatever), I stepped into software development, where it was clear that I could make far more money. I'm not going to get into the pros can cons about how that turned out, or continues to turn out, but there's no questioning that it has given me countless advantages. Even in the recession years, my side hustle on the Internet paid my mortgage. While I've never hit a tech equity unicorn, I have encountered enough mediocre equity opportunities that I've been able to at least partially compensate for my non-saving up through my mid-30's. I have a comfortable home, reliable transportation, and I get to travel. Had I been born even ten years earlier, I'm not sure that any of this would have happened.

Despite all of the pessimism in the world, objectively, by the numbers, the Internet has made the world better in so many different ways. Software as a service, home automation, different ways to get entertainment... I'm thankful for all of it, and I wouldn't want to go back to a time before all of that. But with all of the good, there are some serious negatives, some of which scare the crap out of me as a parent. I can't really make a list of things, but there are definitely some themes.

Maybe the weirdest thing, and I'm not sure if it's negative, but probably, is that we culturally seem incapable of being in a resting in a state of non-stimulation. People seem to have become incapable of existing even for a few moments in a state of boredom. It's not even generational. People of all ages can no longer be still in the world without taking out their phone, probably to doom scroll. They lack the "coping skill" to just be bored. I would argue that it makes it that much harder to have time for reflection, creativity or useful daydreaming. By extension, it's true even when people are interacting. No one can deal with not knowing where they know that actor from, and they must look it up. And look, as someone made deeply uncomfortable by conversation with strangers, even I find it sad that we don't even try to connect with people, even if it's over dumb stuff like the weather.

Community has degraded online because of the platforms, and that bums me out. There used to be a million independently operated niche communities, most of which were carefully moderated and looked after, because someone had to pay for it. Then Facebook did groups, Reddit came along, Discord is whatever it is. There's no incentive to make these communities awesome, because they're all built on a model of pushing engagement. As long as there's room to show ads and push you to look at more stuff, and therefore more ads, the communities don't have to be great, just good enough to keep you plugged in.

By extension, the social media of the aughts is dead. Facebook doesn't show me what my friends are doing, because they've either bailed or can't compete with a hundred group and page suggestions for which I have no fucks to give. That makes me sad. I find myself going to the apps (which should have stayed sites) in a post-only mode. I'm not even doing it for likes, it's just a diary for me to look back at.

Maybe the biggest bummer though is that quality of information, composition and even art is lower than it ever was, which feels like the antithesis for what the Internet promised to be. The reason, not coincidentally, is because of the platforms. The web was supposed to create an even playing field, where good stuff could rise above crap, and there were no gatekeepers or tastemakers. It looked like it was going that way, too, for awhile. Then the platforms started to dominate. Even as a sharing mechanism, you'll notice more and more stuff that people with common interests may share is still on the platforms. Most of it is ephemeral, unimportant time wasting stuff. The algorithms are now the gatekeepers, and they really suck at it.

As I said, it's not all bad. I'd argue that some of the best TV and films ever made have come in recent years, not bound to the old network and studio model that made it impossible to get stuff made. Streaming has been very friendly to "prestige" long-form art. Online commerce is admittedly not great for local businesses and jobs, but it not only got us through a pandemic, but creates efficiency in the distribution of goods. And if you are still deeply curious about the world around you, and understand the difference between nonsense and credible information, you can learn a great deal about science and history in ways that weren't possible pre-Internet.

Still, I don't like that we can't get in the car without my kid looking down at a screen, instead of out the window.


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