We need an ongoing digital fix

In the midst of the digital backlash, it's important to remember that tech itself is neutral - it's what we do with it that counts.

Renowned Apple blogger John Gruber made an interesting comment a week ago:

In recent years I’ve begun to feel conflicted about the internet. On the one hand, it’s been wonderful in so many ways. I’ve personally built my entire career on the fact that the internet enables me to publish as a one-person operation. But on the other hand, before the internet, kooks were forced to exist on the fringe. There’ve always been flat-earther-types denying science and John Birch Society political fringers, but they had no means to amplify their message or bond into large movements.

The last 12 years of my career have been entirely built around digital. There’s no doubt that I love it, I have loved it, and I will continue to love it.

But, as often happens with long-term relationships, we’re going through a bad patch.

Like many people towards the cutting edge of digital, I’ve actually found myself retreating a little from the digital world in recent weeks. I’ve been picking up paper books and magazines, and even when I do digital, it’s tended to be essentially offline tasks, like working on photographs and video.

It’s not because I’ve stopped believing in the benefits of the internet. No, it’s not that. Instead, the blocker is realising how far we’ve fallen from what I want to see from digital. I’m so very tired of headline like “We need to talk about…” which all too often translates to “I am about to hector you about…” I’m tired of going onto Facebook and Instagram, and fighting with the uncaring algorithm just to get some contact with people I consider to be friends.

Just think about that: the internet has turned talking with our friend into a competition. That’s insane. And the fact that we’ve let it do it is just as bad.

The truth is that digital, and the internet, is neither good nor bad. Like most tools that humanity creates, it is neutral. It is what we choose to do with it that matters.

  • Easing communication with our friends: good
  • Turning our friendships into competition: bad
  • Mining those friendships for commercial data: super bad

The central Digital fix we need

The digital world was built by idealists and optimists. It was developed by utopians and visionaries. We’ve built on a legacy of digital hippies.

And because they always saw the best in people, not the worst, and because the early days of the internet connected them to people like themselves, they didn’t prepare themselves for the trouble that would follow: the manipulation, trolling and fraud.

The central digital fix we need is a focus on the reality of humanity. People will always abuse others. People will always take advantage of others. People will always lie.

The internet itself was built with a physical resilience. It can generally route around major breakages in the underlying infrastructure to still communicate messages. The social fabric we’ve built on top of that lacks that resilience.

We need a digital world that plans for, and protects against, the worst excesses of human behaviour, so it can then facilitate the best in humanity.

To use that useful old cliche – we must hope for the best while planning for the worst.

The socially resilient internet

It could be that some services are unfixable. I’ve watched increasing numbers of friends and contacts slowly withdraw from Twitter, because the value they find there is in stark decline. It could be that the service is, at this point, unfixable. Its very nature, the structural decisions made as it was designed and built make it impossible to use well at any scale.

I often think to myself that I would get more value from it by trimming those I follow – but would it really work?

In much the same way, Facebook may now be too dependent on data scraping and algorithmic manipulation to be truly redeemable. And that’s fine. 12 years ago I was doing a tonne of work around MySpace and Second Life. Things move on, and new products can rise. The first decade of the internet showed us the best of what it could be. It’s arguable that the second decade has shown us much of the worst of what it could be. As we work on a third decade of general public use of it, we need to make sure we learn from both the eras we’ve had so far, to build something much more sustainable for the future.

That’s the true digital fix we need.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash