Law in the Internet Society
-- ZebulunJohnson - 02 Dec 2017

The American Millennial’s Relationship with Technology

Where we are:

We have an emotional investment in technology. We meet, communicate with, and love each other through our machines. Every day, we carry a beautiful box that contains a portion of our communications, personality, and knowledge. We should pause for a moment and admire what this means about us: it demonstrates our desire to connect often, engage frequently, and know more. In itself, this is laudable. Humans are social creatures, and through our rapid adoption of technology we sought to create a social environment free of geographical concerns.

We succeeded. On a whim, we can now speak with anyone without regards to distance, and we can know any fact without the need to remember. We have so adopted this ability to computer anywhere at any time, that we have transformed our smartphones into extensions of ourselves. Yet, we have begun to feel uneasy, because we are finally realizing that they are also extensions of other interests. Despite this, we feel helpless; we can no more give up our smartphones than we could our cars: they’ve augmented our capacity to impact the world, and they are now part of us.

How We Got Here

We were given a gift of infinite possibility and taught to discover and share. Only a few of us took the time to learn to create, because sharing was also a form of creating. Sharing was also consuming, and we took delight in sharing our finds with one another as we spread awe, merriment, and shock. We found joy in spreading joy, and beyond entertainment, by connecting with one another we sought to create equality and justice. We shared, and we connected with people of different backgrounds and races. We shared, and we became aware that we’re not so different. We shared, and we started to believe in our own power.

As time passed, and winners began emerging from the chaos of Web 1.0, we collectively agreed on some standards: we would expand our personal community through Facebook, satisfy our curiosity through Google, lecture each other through Twitter, and so on. We trusted these corporations to protect our interests and to promote our values. We celebrated them when they did just that.

For a while, it seemed that they did what they promised: they brought us together and helped make us powerful. When we were warned of the dangers of trusting ourselves to these corporations, we either ignored the warnings or believed that the corporations would protect us. We brought these habits away from our stationary workstations, and into our hands. For a moment, it seemed as though the vision of connectivity and understanding would come to pass. Content aggregators continued to grow, and we each flocked that which best reflected out own beliefs. We spent our free time in these content aggregators, whether it was 4Chan, Reddit, Facebook, or Tumblr. We fragmented ourselves and became accustomed to receiving all our information from only one or two sources. We were still connecting, yes, but sharing and browsing became a mindlessly entertaining activity.

Then Snowden happened. The real terror of Snowden wasn’t the spying; it was the revelation that concentrated power believed it could and should control the promise of unity and equality. We learned that we had been sold false promises and that rather than protecting us, the corporations had used us. Though we knew that we had been violated, we weren’t certain how. So, without being able to agree upon a wound, we continued as though nothing had happened.

And then Donald Trump showed us one way in which we had been violated. He showed us that our media and content aggregators can serve reinforce the fragments of differing opinions to an impenetrable degree. Targeted media trapped people within the confines of certain viewpoints, and targeted media is manipulated by money and power. Suddenly, the internet was a tool of control. Donald Trump showed us that the connective power of the internet is only one possibility of the internet, and not an inevitable conclusion. We discovered that the power of the internet is concentrated in the hands of a few, and that they do little to protect us.

Where we go

We feel betrayed that this tool promised for equality has been used for control, yet we feel powerless to give it up, because doing so would be giving up our society and our identity as a member of that society. The internet provides us with an emotional network, both online and off, and while the thought of corporate datamining and governmental surveillance fills us with dread, the thought of leaving this network fills us with even more anxiety. Thus, resigned, we stay.

Any attempt to address the concentration of power must offer an emotional alternative to the current network community. We are our technology. Unfortunately, free software does not meet this need. In fact, free software offers the only thing worse than no community: a community of outcasts. The only people we see use free software are shifty hackers, socially handicapped nerds, and prickly professors. Richard Stallman could more easily be mistaken for a homeless man than the leader of a movement. Free software has a stigma, and we’ve proven time and time again that we prefer our current emotionally connective network over the decrease in meaningful connections free software offers.

Free software needs rebranding. It should be for the rebellious, not the rejected. It needs to showcase its power and utility, which are often touted but rarely displayed. More importantly however, we need to understand why the health of free software is the health of the net. It needs to show us that it protects user rights and liberties in the same way that the ACLU protects the rights and liberties of citizens off the net. If we can be shown that free software works as a watchdog for our protection, then we will support laws and regulations which allow for its flourishing.

"We" is a little overinclusive, I think. Not just because I've never had a smartphone and have, with pleasure---and for the first time since I was seventeen---given up my car. Also because I suspect the emotions that you are expressing are not shared quite as widely as the smartphone habit, or the sharing habit either. Some of what you are talking about is special to smartphones, but mostly it's the Net you're celebrating. Whether that's used over a spy satellite in your pocket for others' benefit, or using a computer that doesn't play unfair with you leaves many of those optimistic emotions in place, better realized by better computing.

Of course there's plenty to say about software, and whether it furthers or interferes with freedom, but you could also begin from just the hardware. How the "form factor" of the spy gadget in your pocket affects which freedoms you feel you have, and why. How the expectations about what computing is and how it works are affected by something that recognizes your face but stunts your hands; something which encourages you to pay attention by poking you sporadically, instead of waiting for you to be ready to put your attention into the Net; something that organizes your time for the benefit of the platform companies, rather than organizing your time to maximize your productivity or your learning. Even if the object contained only free software bits, I would still immensely prefer a cheap-ass Chromebook or an old ThinkPad connected by wire to the wall than a sleek, pocket-size wireless spy satellite with sensors I don't need pointed at me. I recognize that it can feel impossible to do without such a computer, but I've been using and hacking on computers for more than forty years and not only don't I need one---despite having much more demanding standards for computing than most people I know---I wouldn't use one if you paid me to do so.

You know how to write this way now, and your essay hardly needs improvement. But if you're going to make it better, my advice is to do so by stepping back. Make your technology criticism (that is, an effort to show what technology means rather than what it claims) more holistic, not only about software per se, but also about hardware, centralized configuration of service platforms, and so on. The first part of my "Freedom in the Cloud" tries to do that from the beginning of the Internet through the state in 2010. Much more succinctly and more trenchantly you could pick up the task and carry it through now.



Webs Webs

r2 - 05 Dec 2017 - 20:27:22 - EbenMoglen
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