In a country as complex as the US, with a giant government and an advanced economy, what would occur if every person was able to instantly share their opinion? Would a new era of informed and reasoned discussion begin? Bold, truth seeking steps forward on the path to a more perfect nation? Progress? Or, the opposite? Would people regress, hidden behind their words? People loudly demanding that someone else – do something else? Now the entire online world resembles a sandbox full of children throwing toys.
The broader question might be, how exactly did we get here? The internet brings a level of hyper-connectivity humans have never experienced before. It’s always on, always at hand, instant, easy (and ‘free’). The past hurdles to sharing one’s opinion publicly – are gone. No long form letter writing is required. Anyone can add any comment, no matter how inane, instantaneously. And other amused people can spread it very far and wide.
The few platforms that the world uses, are owned by a couple companies. They control the sandbox, and they love the fighting. Just like all media – sensational content builds the biggest audience. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. It’s really no surprise the internet seeks out the lowest common denominator.
The worst part of the internet manifests itself when intricate ideas are debated. Here solutions to complex societal situations are reduced to sound bites. The distillation of dialogue to memes and hashtags belies the truth: factual and informed debate mostly isn’t occurring online.
One could be mad that this represents a missed opportunity to expand dialogue around the world, but that actually misses the point. The companies that own all these online platforms love this – they have no incentive to change a thing. The companies that own the platforms profit by selling front row seats to the show.
It would be one thing if the internet was seen only as a silly sideshow – built for entertainment and laughs – and ignored by serious people. The problem is, the influence of the internet, for some reason – spills into the real world every minute of every day.
In society, almost all serious discussion is now distilled down to some ‘us vs. them’ mindset. Additionally, it’s populated with really simple “solutions”. These easy slogans and chants signal to others an imagined virtuous march toward progress.
“Raise the minimum wage!”
“Lower my taxes!”
“Bomb those guys”
“There should be a law…!”
By reducing complex issues to simple dogmatic assertions – a person feels they “won” online. And what reinforces that insanity? A zealous media that “reports” on these ridiculous fights and simplifications.
Beyond simplistic arguments online and a media complicit in reporting on them… there is another layer of how the internet ruins real life.
Beyond the “us vs them” – people now blithely demand “something” be done!
Observe any topical issue, and the inevitable instant pile on demanding “Something must be done, NOW! Someone do SOMETHING!” No one seems to care ‘what’ actually is ‘done’ – just that their voice has been added to the preported outrage expressed by the others…
The problem comes when, politicians pay attention to these online calls for action. And, like pavlov’s dog, the internet mob signals to the politician it’s time to act! The tail wags the dog, in a way, and a concertina effect occurs.
We have basically created, via the internet pile ons – an out of control feedback loop.
Internet outrage occurs over every minor event, because it’s so easy to pile on. Because it’s so easy to add your own views in seconds – you feel the need to pile on too….
Politicians notice the commotion, and want to appear responsive, so, they cobble together quick policies, statements and rules and etc. There is no time for research, compromise, to build a coalition, or consider issues deeply. Everything happens at lightning speed online, especially stupid things.
Today, an online group can demand something on a Monday, and the like a dog begging for a treat, a politician is happy to craft some knee-jerk laws, declarations, executive orders before dinnertime. Their goal isn’t well-considered changes, but signaling to the public that they are “doing something” indeed. This isn’t democracy, this is reactionary insanity.
While an interconnected world provides a huge opportunity for transparency and progress – we instead get a sideshow. The platforms, like media, want the biggest audience to sell advertising to. Politicians, like people, can signal their virtues by showing action, even if it’s horrible. Instead of a better informed, more educated population able to discuss important issues of modern society – we reduce ourselves to people yelling at each other online. All the while companies make piles of money by selling seats to the show.
The internet could be the ultimate place to connect, engage, exchange information and discuss the future. People could debate persuasively what repairs to make on our car. We could discuss the roads to take once it’s repaired. How to get there safely and comfortably.
Instead, our car is on fire, off the road, flying through the air. A seemingly passionate crowd has gathered, angrily accusing the other side of poor driving and saying a different driver could do a lot better.
And all the while, politicians and media companies chuckle, profiting everyday from the finger pointing. Until we realize the internet doesn’t need to be a circus sideshow, we’re going to keep missing the opportunity to actually consider how to fix this car.