The Dark Side of the Web
In October 2014 Wired magazine reported on the dirty work every social media company must somehow handle: moderating the deluge of exploitative, degrading content posted in unimaginable quantities around the world and around the clock by boors (and increasingly by bots).
This is not simply material that might offend those of gentle or puritanical sensibilities, but truly unthinkable representations of real and fictional violence, abuse of women and men, children and animals, and countless other horrors conjured up by the human mind. Someone has to prevent the average user from encountering these horrors or else all of our news feeds would be regularly infiltrated by retch-inducing images and text.
But this means that a human being has to review every degrading image. And that someone is usually a resident of a distant country, employed by an outsourcing firm—at the time of Wired’s article, largely in the Philippines, thanks to its cheap labor supply and reasonably close ties to Western culture. Philippine young adults do this work because there is no better work to do, and they do it until they are utterly undone by it.
This is the reality of the globalized Internet world, in which the depredations of a few, the pornographers and exploiters who seek power without vulnerability (Exploiting), are foisted on those with no alternative (Suffering) in order to allow the privileged to live in ignorant comfort (Withdrawing). It’s a world in which poverty of spirit is bought at near-poverty wages. The flourishing of a few powerful companies—and we who use their services—is a mirage made possible only if you avert your eyes from the vulnerability they outsource to others.
An Information Explosion
To say that our access to information has exploded doesn’t really capture the cataclysmic change. On April 23, 2005, the very first video was uploaded to YouTube. Now “more video is uploaded to YouTube in one month than the 3 major US networks created in 60 years.” An iPhone has more computing power than all of NASA had in the 1960s. And to underline, bold, and italicize the point of just how much information is out there, you can download the entirety of the actual code of the Apollo Guidance Computer for free on GitHub.
Our Brains on the Internet
Sometime in 2007, a serpent of doubt slithered into my info paradise. I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me than my old stand-alone PC ever had. It wasn’t just that I was spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependent on the sites and services of the Net.
The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became…
As [Marshall] McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Our Leisure Time Rising on the Internet
Leisure has changed significantly since the dawn of the internet age. A 2008 international survey of 27,500 adults between the ages of 18 and fifty-five found that people spend 30% of their leisure time online. Of all the countries studied, the Chinese spent the largest amount of time online with 44% of their non-working hours spent online.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Information from TNS Global, “Digital World, Digital Life,” December 2008.
The Smiling Selfie in Auschwitz
Did you see the “Smiling Selfie in Auschwitz”? An American teenager touring Auschwitz stirred up a firestorm of criticism when she posted a picture of herself smiling amid a concentration camp (and even included a blushing smiley face emoticon). Her Twitter handle, “Princess [email protected],” played into so many stereotypes of the millennial generation as entitled, spoiled, and insensitive. The iPhone earbud dangling in her photo only enhanced the notion that she was drifting cluelessly through a Nazi death camp to a private soundtrack, trampling the memory of those snuffed out in such a horrific genocide.
To many, her selfie communicated ahistorical insensitivity, her smile seemingly mocking the six million lives lost under the Nazis’ horrific genocide. Breanna was lambasted across social media (and traditional media outlets). As her infamy grew, the Alabama teen tweeted, “I’m famous, ya’ll.” The outrage was swift and unsparing. My family was in Europe when this online debate exploded. We were teaching at a summer program in London.
Thanks to my book iGods, I was invited by CNN to comment on the controversy for their Belief Blog. It was obvious that the student’s reaction (and even her efforts to explain her reasons for smiling) were not easily defended. She talked about connecting with her deceased father through the experience.
They had studied the Holocaust together just before he passed away. While most wondered, “What kind of monster could walk through gas chambers and come away smiling?” I saw a teen, perhaps still in personal grief, connecting with her father across time. Rather than attack, I chose to offer a defense of this teenager who was being grilled across the Twitterverse.
Video is Everywhere
Video is now everywhere. Whatever happens in front of any other Wi-Fi-connected digital camera in the world can be mediated to us and to our vision. Amateur video is pouring into public platforms every second of the day.
More than twenty-four thousand minutes of new user video is uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day. This means that the tonnage of new video content uploaded to YouTube in the next fifty-eight hours would require an unbroken lifespan of eighty years to watch.