How the world wide web reveals true human nature

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.

A slide rule doesn’t broadcast what it’s doing to the internet (although, if you look closely at this photo, you might see what I set mine to calculate – let me know in the comments!)

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.

Charles Darwin before discovering human nature (detail from watercolour by G. Richmond, public domain, via Wikipedia).

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.

Charles Darwin AFTER discovering human nature. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

8 thoughts on “How the world wide web reveals true human nature

  1. Fantastic article. I think a lot of people have no idea of this. Those that do may lack awareness of magnitudes, myself included. There is something powerful in the idea of finding a self you are unashamed of, but there is a terrifying ability to manipulate people’s understanding of their fundamental reality. I imagine religious people specifically, as being at risk.

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  2. Yes. 😦

    The www + anonymity = the dark side of human nature. But I believe that society as a whole is also to blame. Religions used to provide a moral compass of sorts, and a non-legal set of consequences for wrong-doing – i.e. being shunned, stigmatized etc. This ‘brake’ on human nature didn’t change human nature, but it did stop the expression of some of the worst aspects of our ‘dark side’.

    As an atheist, I can’t regret the waning of religious power, but I do regret that ethics did not fill the vacuum. Instead, it was filled with commercialism that basically glorified our greed. When the www came along, it simply allowed our existing lack of ethics to be pushed to its ultimate end.

    There will be a backlash, and the pendulum will swing back in the opposite direction, but I fear it won’t be any better than what we have now. Different, but no better.

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    1. I think you’re right. And then the pendulumn swing will reverse again, as these things do – it seems so difficult for human society to obtain a balance. The web is, of course, simply a mirror for our nature; and a lens. For the moment, it’s not a pretty picture. Dammit… My take is that the ‘milk of human kindness’ is a limited commodity: I hypothesis – following others – but can’t prove that human kindness is biologically limited to extended kin groups. Specifically, the scale of society typical in the hunter-gatherer communities that featured through the bulk of our evolution. We can extend it beyond those in large and complex societies, but often only artificially; and for the most part, the other side of behaviour flourishes. The one that put ‘our’ local group against ‘their’ one in a struggle for limited resources. The archaeological record paints a disturbing picture of violence and warfare even in hunter-gatherer society. It wasn’t an invention of settled archaeology.

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      1. Agreed. That’s the same picture I’m getting, and it does align pretty well with what we’re seeing on the www. Makes you wonder whether the Cold War would have stayed cold had the internet been around back then. On bad days I think we’re living in pre 1939, feeling the threads come together but unable to see the big picture.
        As for balance, I suspect it will take a few more millenia for evolution to work out that innate aggression. Assuming we last that long. -sigh-

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  3. Wow, now that is pessimistic. The problem with pessimism is that it creates the very thing it fears. An optimistic view of human nature would pick out the positives of human behaviour over the millennia, would see the positive side of social media, would think that we can learn to make social media better, just have we have learned by experience to live with (and arguably benefit from) various new technologies. Sadly, it seems we must go through much negative before we master these things – the precautionary principle is not dominant in the human psyche!
    Thanks for such a stimulating post!

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    1. Yes, it’s indeed a pessimistic view I’ve presented here – but as you say, the reality of humanity is that we seem to have to plunge into the depths of darkness before finding other ways. One always hopes that the spirit of goodness will win through, but as world societies gain scale without finding that element of balance, it’s a concern. Just now, as we enter the end-game phase of the particular western socio-economic cycle that began in the early 1980s, I despair sometimes. What worries me is that it’s becoming clear, empirically, that the dark side of humanity is stronger and more rewarding than the good. At the level of individual psychology, for instance, the kick people get out of revenge (among other behaviours designed to hurt) has been shown to be greater and more compelling than that of doing good. A society where this applies must, I think, always veer towards the dark. Unfortunately.

      I do wonder if it isn’t an evolutionary survival mechanism past its use-by date, as I think we’ve discussed before. I don’t know the answers with any certainty here; it’s a case for analysis and reasoned consideration, I think. But it’s an intriguing theory.

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    1. It always intrigues me how people emerge to lead who somehow reflect the mood of influential groups within their societies. To an extent, it’s democracy in action… but still, it’s a worry sometimes.

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