A few weeks ago my housemate and I got into a discussion concerning our choices in Internet Browsers. Now, I admit I don't know too much about them, they all seem fairly similar to me, but his mocking of my use of the traditional Internet Explorer gave me cause to ask exactly why he felt that whichever one he used (which I cannot remember at this time) was far superior. The points he came up with stirred within me a certain mistrust and – yes, I’ll admit - fear at his internet using habits, but at the time I could not correctly articulate my concerns.
His claims that it was easier and quicker to use what he did, through the use of single-click buttons that linked him directly to the sites he used and search engines and generators that provided him with access to websites that contained information, pictures, games, music, etc... that were relevant to his previously documented interests filled me with a sense of apprehension that at the time I could only voice with a series of semi-incoherent snorts and choking sounds, to me the idea of these things was something out of a George Orwell novel, something that I have always read about and hated with an inner burning light, the very kind of thing that I spend my life fighting to eliminate.
Then this morning - some four weeks later - the latest issue of New Scientist drops onto my doormat (much to my annoyance with the postman, who NEVER looks after such mail with the kind of care that it requires! But that's a rant for another day...) and one of the title articles immediately catches my attention. I read the intro paragraph and follow ahead to the main four-page spread that has been put aside from it and suddenly all my fears, all the dread and horror that filled me during that dark discussion all those weeks ago, not only rearrange themselves into a fully-discernable picture, but have been expressed by OTHER people in mass-print.
What most scares me about these things that my housemate was claiming to be great innovations of the internet - and basic ones, at that, for he was calling for FURTHER advancements to simplify his experience even more - is the sense of fragmentation and isolation that this supposedly open and worldwide service is slowly herding us into.
By this I mean: that by using such services as those that will generate for you a list of sites that have properties similar to a set collection of topics and subjects you find most entertaining, you are giving up your own personal right to exploration, you are giving over the freedom you have to wander the ever-expanding halls of the internet, going from room-to-room as you please, seeing what you want to see - whether it is relevant, irrelevant or totally random - in favour of a similarly set list of results that the site/application/program deems appropriate for you to see. In short, you are telling this thing to find you something to look at, and it is decided FOR you what you will see, basing this results on ITS OWN inbuilt prejudices and ideals (and yes, these things DO have those, because the people who created them would have had to set parameters for it - I will discuss this soon) and filtering out the things it does not want you to see.
These things can and are being used to decide what you can and cannot see, and this is on the INTERNET, which is SUPPOSED to be free and open for you. Yeah, you may come across things you don't want to see, everything from slightly off-topic images and writings to things that are downright disturbing and horrific, but that is the beauty and the necessity of the internet, these are the things the internet was made for, for giving us access to this stuff, and suddenly we are now turning over these aspects of it in favour of our own self-appointed censors masquerading as simplifying programs and systems.
Everyone has heard of how countries like North Korea and China have been regulating the internet, disabling and limiting their publics' access to certain sites like Facebook and YouTube in order to control and subdue them, stopping free speech and access and the ability for people to create groups that can express their own ideas and opinions that may or may not be in opposition to their governments, but these things are enforced, wrong as they are, and we sit around and comment and complain and say how we think it's wrong and that they shouldn't do it and yadda-yadda, but WE'RE just as bad, maybe even WORSE when we knowingly employ these technologies that do exactly the same things.
These programs, like Stumble Upon and these Browsers with their buttons and suggestions, are created by people, as all things like this must be, using a set of rules that make it work, algorithms that tell it what it should look for when a certain word is entered.
For example, we'll say that the algorithm tells the program that when a user types in "science" that program will scan the internet for any sites that contain that word, but that would be, in itself, an overly enormous task, so limitations must be set in place in order for it to not simply choose every site with the word "science" in it, so the programmer might put in an order within the algorithm that might filter out any mentions of "science" outside of an educational base, say in blogs, or song lyrics and scripts etc... So that the program only shows the results that are scientific journals and articles and so on. But what if the programmer was to set a filter that told the program to also not show articles written by a certain scientist? Say that programmer set a parameter that disallowed the user to see any results containing references to Mitchell Feigenbaum? Or Albert Libchaber? Or even Stephen Hawking? Then the programmer would be controlling what we see through the program, showing THEIR ideas or beliefs in those areas and attempting to indoctrinate our understanding of these subjects with theirs. This is where freedom and the internet begin to split into widely different paths and suddenly we've gone from UK or US internet to that of North Korea or China, and we've done it not only with our consent but as our own, personal decisions.
Now, I'm not blaming laziness, and I in no way condemn the choices and opinions of those who choose to use these programs and systems, but what I want is for you to all be aware that while it may seem like what you're using is making your life easier, you're also allowing your influences to be controlled, making your vision of the world smaller: you're choosing to close off access to the rooms that could allow you see a brighter or a darker view of the world, to blinker yourself from the things that the people who make these things don't want you to see, and I'm not saying that this is EXACTLY what they are doing, because chances are they have not yet figured out how lucrative it would be, but it won't be long before they do, and WHEN they do we're going to be finding a lot of people who think they were well-informed because they are reading things that these programs and systems are throwing at that are, in fact, only learning the side of things that the people in charge of them want them to see, and I'm sorry but if that world emerges then the fight is lost and our personal freedom is gone, our rights to free knowledge are being wilfully given away because we don't want to sift through detritus of the worldwide community before finding the way to ultimate truth, and the internet is fast becoming our final haven for freedom and mass communication.
I know no one WANTS to have to do that, there are many days when I myself have to look for something and have to go through what seems like thousands of porn ads, people selling stuff that is similar but unrelated or just plain nonsense before I find what I'm looking for, but I've also found that this purer method is not all that bad, who knows, you may come across things during those searches that just might better your own life, different views, opinions, ways of thinking that are similar but fresher to those that have already been the foundation of your own understanding of life, I know I have, and I hope you take something from this too.
The tent is always open, and you are welcome to join me