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The Carletonian

When freedom is too much

<ny years ago the Internet was conceived as a grand communication network. Academia, military and government could, for the first time in human history, collaborate with people hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Needless to say, this was unprecedented. Optimism prevailed in discussions of the new technology. It was, simply put, a democratic institution. It allowed anyone with access to it to reach humanity’s vast sum of knowledge. People could improve themselves, just by being online. And it worked the other way, too. People could contribute to human learning by sharing their own thoughts with the rest of the Internet community. It was a noble idea. Some might have called it perfect. Free, fast and unlimited information. There was no possibility for misuse. Right?

In retrospect, the problems with this reasoning are obvious. Decades later, we laugh to think that Al Gore once spoke of the Internet as an “information superhighway.” Once, that was the prevailing belief. But no longer. This shift is largely a product of the system’s natural development. As innovators discover the possibilities of any new medium, that medium will change forms to match its new uses. And the Internet’s possibilities? They’re nearly endless. Thus it makes sense that the current Internet, the one we’re familiar with, would no longer be a democratic, educational collective. It has too many other options available.

Unfortunately, many of those options are trivial, mindless or even destructive. In the past few years we’ve seen the rise of many Internet features that we could never call democratic. The continued rise of clickbait, fake news, trolling, hate speech, and, yes, even memes reflects our new Internet—one focused not on democratic ideals of knowledge, truth and collaboration, but lies, hate and time wasting. We now go online to see what we already believe… or else to kill those pesky hours before bedtime.

Yes, it is true that we still use the Internet for productive activities. Research, mail, and real news have all become far more efficient since we went digital. But the reality is that most of our Internet use is far from this. Let me make myself clear: I have nothing against memes. In fact, I believe they’re one of our most democratic forms of entertainment. Anyone can create them, anyone can share them, anyone can see them. What I have an issue with is not their existence. However, memes reflect a larger, paradoxical trend on the Internet. You might call it over-democratization.

As the Internet has increased in utility over the years, and as more people have gained access to it, its purpose has shifted away from the democratic ideals of knowledge and participation that it was created to represent. Memes epitomize this trend. They are the ultimate in hot-button media, easy to create and consume, and lasting only a few seconds. This is a democratic idea, to be sure, but it is also a marked departure from the depth of understanding the Internet was meant to instill.

There are more insidious consequences of this change. When anyone can speak their mind, the people with more extreme views will tend to share theirs more. This group polarization has struck the Internet especially hard in recent years. It is difficult—nay, impossible—to go online for long without seeing heated arguments between irreconcilable opponents. No one is convincing anyone of anything.

And thus the central problem of the “democratic” Internet. We are exposed both to views we agree with, which harden our perspectives, and views we already despise, which only lead to conflict. In the end, we end up bickering among ourselves instead of discussing the merits of issues like normal, civil people would face-to-face. The anonymity doesn’t help. It’s well documented that people treat each other more poorly when they don’t have to interact with each other in person. I have no doubt that the resulting hostility and polarization have contributed to the partisanship we now see in our country. Given that democracy requires collaboration and (dare I say it?) compromise, we cannot overlook the role of the Internet in bringing about this partisanship. The preponderance of hate and lies online are the result of democracy, but they are far from being the cause of democracy. If we truly cared about the state of our government, perhaps we would reconsider how our use of this series of tubes affects our society, now and in the future.

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