This year there’s a new kid on the block in internet land. Solid. It’s a project devised at MIT by Sir Tim Berner-Lee – yes, THAT Sir Tim Berners-Lee – to enable web users to use the web safely and not have their data appropriated.
The web never developed the way Lee envisaged when he first developed it. Back then, it looked to be a wonderful mechanism for bringing people together and for sharing knowledge.
What’s actually happened is that the personal data it generates has been commoditised and – in effect – weaponised for commercial gain by the handful of giant companies that now dominate the landscape. And if that isn’t bad enough, the place is also riddled with hackers, fraudsters and malware, all of which forces innocent people to behave with caution in an environment that should be friendly. Just to cap it off, social media also seems to encourage behaviours that are less than pleasant. Anonymity plus the internet, it seems, turns ordinary people into monsters who feel they can unleash their suppressed anger and hate on strangers. It’s been called the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.
Maybe the biggest worry is the data collection. It’s bad enough to have it used to barrage you with advertisements that, somehow, match what you are interested in – most of it missing the target and clear evidence of 2 + 2 = 5 induction. The greater issue is the implication of that data (and the assumptions about you that follow) being used for more sinister purpose by third parties. It is also thin-end-of-wedge stuff. The total loss of privacy it represents is presented to us on the basis of ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’. The problem with that logic is that it’s predicated on the assumption that people who refuse to bow to the power of those demanding their information must, therefore, be hiding wrong-doing: ‘If you hide something, you must have something to fear.’ At worst, I can see a world where the innocent are wrongly criminalised, no defence. It’s happened before.
This is a complete false-premise, of course. Innocent and ordinary people are entitled to their privacy. And they are also – at least in the western justice system – entitled to be considered innocent even if accused of some wrong-doing, until proven otherwise. Of course human nature doesn’t work that way – it’s the precise opposite, as trial-by-media repeatedly shows us these days.
The more insidious side of the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ argument is that genuine wrong-doers obviously do want to hide their activities, and are helped by privacy mechanisms. This issue severely erodes any attempt to protect ordinary people’s data and privacy because yes, everybody does want the miscreants to be found. On the other hand, it’s a balancing act between that and respecting the rights of the innocent.
The other side of the way the web has developed is just as awkward. Social media, particularly, has been weaponised for a range of purposes which, one way or another, are intentionally malicious. It’s riddled with fraudsters. We have to be conscious every moment of security, lest persons unknown steal passwords, hack our accounts, defrauds us or – worse – pretend to be us, for malicious purpose.
In all these ways, the world wide web has exposed the dark side of humanity. And it is this side that dominates, not least because of the fact that its effects have to be considered every moment, every interaction, by those trying to do good.
To me the whole edifice – the world wide web in general, and social media in particular, has been a tool for exposing what humanity is really like. And the picture isn’t good. As a species we appear to be little more than viciously psychotic apes who pretend to care, but who in reality will stop at nothing to tear down, steal, break, defraud, destroy and otherwise bully strangers in order to get what we want. The milk of human kindness is fast becoming a thin gloss atop this dark morass . And, to me, the world wide web – and social media – has become a litmus test and lens for this nature.
There are, I think, reasons for this: it seems to be a survival mechanism from back in hunter-gatherer days when group size was about 150, and when the ability to destroy a rival group competing for the same resources was paramount to survival. The evidence is building that wars of extermination are not new. Certainly they were not an invention of the age of agriculture. There is growing evidence of stone-age wars, including the recent discovery of a wave of violence across neolithic Spain that left all prior resident males dead. Humanity not only never learns – but cannot, for these behaviours are hard-wired into us. All that the world wide web has done is facilitate their expression currently. But there’s nothing new about it.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019