It might not seem like it, but right now the Internet is still in its infancy—it's only what? 30 years old? No other innovation in modern history has had the same impact or adoption rate (there are people using the Internet who still don't have toilets), but 30 years is nothing when you consider that the Internet will far outlast you and me.
The Internet has forever changed our world and will continue to do so long after you and I are dead. But right now, we don't treat the Internet like the baby that it is. To us, the Internet is a place of fact. Of incontestable truths. That's a problem.
Consider for a moment the prevalence of fake news online. It's been proven that a majority of people, from all ages, struggle to recognize fake news. That's because we treat the Internet as if it holds all the facts—as if it's objective, and with impunity.
We aren't mindful, as we log in, that the Internet is very much the world of the fake.
Fake news, fake friends, fake followers, Russian bots, sponsored posts disguised as personal thoughts, advertisers disguised as friends. You think you’re good at spotting the fakes, but you're not good enough. And as you’re getting better at spotting the fake, the fake is getting better at fooling you.
This is not a new idea. Read “The Lucrative Business of Fake Social Media Accounts." Or read “Weeding Out Fake News."
The Wilfried Martens Centre states that "80% of middle school pupils who took part in tests could not see the difference between a genuine news story and sponsored content, even if the latter was visibly labeled as ‘sponsored.’”
The Centre goes on to say, "Many students, despite their presumed online fluency, were unaware of the basic indications of verified information.” The solution they propose is to bolster ‘e-literacy.’ They assert, “Education and improving the e-literacy of citizens are probably the best ways to limit the influence of lies.”
We’re good, but not good enough at determining the real from the fake as we passively, mindlessly scroll. And that’s a problem when it's our assumption that the Internet is omniscient.
All-seeing, all-knowing, all-wise. That's our view of the Internet. You say, no, I don't believe that! But I ask, where's the first place you turn to, when you have a question? And what do you do? You take the first answer that Google gives you. You skim the Wikipedia article.
Jaron Lanier, father of VR and author of Digital Maoism, said:
"The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise…
This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous."
Now that we've established that the Internet is most commonly viewed as omniscient, despite having become the world of the fake, let's talk about its future. Where is the Web heading? What's the logical conclusion of our view that the Internet is an unimpeachable place of fact?
Let me paint a picture of how we'll use the Internet in the future. The future of the Internet is what Google is already doing—compiling data and making it more easily accessible. Picture this:
You and I pass one another on the street. I look at you through an augmented reality lens, which connects to your own devices, and instantly I see your latest posts, pictures, likes, and follows.
In my heads-up display, I see that you're a physical therapist, you're from Fountain City but you work in Turkey Creek. I see that you just ate at some new vegan restaurant where you tweeted that the kale salad was stale.
Then this wearable lens tells me you've got a yoga class at 3, that your heart rate is 68, that you've been dodging calls from your mother. It tells me you're subscribed to Us Weekly but you've only read the articles about the Royal Wedding. It tells me you had a birthday last week, that you celebrated in Chattanooga with the girls.
If you think this view of the future is creepy or impossible or unlikely, that things surely won't come to that, you're mistaken. We're already there. We already have this technology.
Have you seen how the Google Pixel works? You hold it up to a band's poster and it shows you their latest album, you hold it up to a sign in Spanish and the device translates into English, right there on-screen. It translates things for you, based on data that it has compiled from millions of sources online.
So in the future, when phones are no more and we see everything we need to see right there at a glance, right in front of us, this wearable device will literally be translating the world to me.
So what's to stop the device from translating you to me? Your whole online identity is being compiled as we speak. What's stopping a device from reading you to me, giving me all I need to know about you?
And displaying your identity like a name badge as I pass you on the street, that tech already exists, that's just Samsung's near-field communication. This won't happen overnight, it'll be like the frog in the boiling pot—you know, we'll slowly become more and more comfortable with this technology day-by-day.
We'll think it's just another way to connect with one another. And because we assume that the Internet is an all-knowing place of fact, we'll be as comfortable giving it our private information as we are today.
I read that one futurist predicts that after these avatars are created—this compiled data that forms our identity and serves as a badge we wear—we'll be able to make an algorithm that will go to work on our behalf online. Think about that for a sec. Your intelligence, artificial.
Artificial intelligence is a computer making predictions based on already compiled data. AI can predict all sorts of things, and it's deadly accurate too. We're launching missiles with AI right now—the Pentagon calls them death drones. That's cute, huh?
So once all this information about you is collected and compiled, what's to stop an AI algorithm from acting on your behalf online? Or acting like you?
We use algorithms like this everyday. Things like, "If Casey Neistat posts a new video, put it in my 'Next up' feed." Or, "If Coldplay releases a new album, add it to my Library and send me a notification." Or, "If an unknown number calls, send it to voicemail with Do Not Disturb." Or, "If GNC sends a promotional email, send to Spam."
How's that any different from, "If legislation is suggested to shrink one of our National Parks, vote with the dissenting party"—right? Our online avatar could be voting for us, purchasing and selling cryptocurrencies for us, like it subscribes and unsubscribes for us now. It's only pattern recognition, that's all.
So once we've compiled your likes and dislikes and location data and job information and salary and the thoughts you've posted online so far, and who your friends are on all platforms, who you follow, what you've commented, how you speak, and your age, your health and fitness info, your banking—what's stopped us from creating a representation of your identity online?
Let's pivot. If everything on the Internet is to be taken as fact, and the Internet knows all the facts, I think we'll find there's going to be one accepted narrative for everything. There will be Fact—what the Internet says—and all else will be Fringe. This is already taking place on Twitter.
They'll crucify you on Twitter if they find out that you're skeptical of the accepted narrative. They'll label you racist, homophobic, transphobic, they'll spew insults.
Look at the reaction Jordan Peterson received when he argued that a bill to compel speech, to force him to use a trans person's preferred pronouns, was violating his freedom of speech. They called him transphobic. Trolls seek to destroy him online.
Look at the reaction to Sam Harris, an atheist, when he said that we should be careful not to equate Islam with Christianity—when he argued that the two are different. His speaking engagements are protested now, his accounts are trolled, and when they call him a racist, no one on the far Left seems to realize that Islam isn't a race.
Look at how the far Left eats the moderate Left. You can't be moderate anymore without facing judgment. You're going against the accepted narrative when you compromise on some things.
Look at the protests on college campuses, any time a biology professor suggests that there are distinct male and female sexes. Look at how they attacked Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, professors who had to hire a security detail, had to quit their jobs, had to move addresses. All for merely teaching biology.
We're no longer debating, we're fighting. We're no longer civil. We're living in a 'join us or die' world already. It'll only get worse, right?
Let's connect all the dots. First, we act as if the Internet knows it all. Second, we neglect that the future of the Internet is artificial intelligence—that's your intelligence, replicated online. Third, there will be an increasing pressure to conform to the collective narrative. To accept Fact, as found online.
Here's what's going to come of that. Knowing that your every move online is being tracked, your every thought compiled to form a more perfect algorithmic identity, you'll begin to suppress your true opinions and conform to the collective. It'll be an act of self-preservation—they'll have your head if you question Fact.
The world will become increasingly divided as we take our online identities public with the aid of augmented reality wearable tech.
You'll look at me and see that I've been watching Ben Shapiro, and you'll instantly pronounce me a fascist right-wing capitalist pig. I'll see that you're in favor of universal basic income and instantly deem you a commie, hippy, bleeding-heart 'libtard.' We'll pass each other on the street, teeth clinched.
Having access to all knowledge online, we'll elevate Fact above wisdom. If, in an instant, you can know anything at all and you just assume that because it's on the Internet it's absolute fact, what need will you have for wisdom?
You'll no longer go with your gut, you'll go with the group. You'll no longer shoot from the hip, improv, no—you'll consult the hive-mind.
You'll retreat. You'll begin to walk in packs of similarly-aligned people. You'll choose a partner based on points of compatibility between your avatars. You'll assume you know everything about everyone, and you will know most everything in an instant, about everyone, so you'll no longer feel you need to talk and get to know someone.
Especially if they don't share your views.
And if someone goes against the collective, you'll ignore their opinion—it's too dangerous to become associated with them in any way. You'll surrender to groupthink. Groupthink will tell you how to speak, as well. Some words are 'problematic.' You can't sit 'Indian-style' anymore—we use the term 'cross-legged.' Think about that.
You're thinking I'm a crazy person right now, a conspiracy theorist. You're thinking I've been reading too much Orwell. I'm only showing you the logical end of the path we're currently on.
So what do we do? What's the answer to such a dark and dismal prediction? How do we stop the world from becoming the world of Orwell's 1984? I have a few ideas about that, to wrap this essay up:
First, we have to get better at protecting ourselves online. We have to get better at detecting fake news. We have to learn to stop sharing so much. We have to adopt a default skeptical view of new products and services that request our private information. We have to read the Terms & Conditions. This isn't being paranoid, it's being smart.
Second, we've got to remember that the Internet is young. It's not all-knowing, it's not a place of unimpeachable fact. It's not God. Stop treating the Internet like some supernatural oracle. It has flaws. We need to talk about them.
Third, we've got to disconnect. Disconnect often. Turn it all off—I promise you won't miss a thing. Go outside, take a moment to clear your head, take a few deep breaths.
Fourth, we've got to educate ourselves on the future of technology and learn to recognize patterns. Lanier, the guy I quoted above, he's the father of VR, he says that “bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packaged as technology.”
Fifth, we have to fight back against legislators who eat from the palm of Big Data. Comcast, Verizon, AT&T… look at this list of legislators who received hundreds of thousands of dollars to vote to allow Comcast to sell your private information. If we let these companies control the future of the Internet, the future of the Internet will be destructive to the individual.
Sixth, whenever you're pressured to give in to any one acceptable narrative, of human history or of anthropology or of psychology or of epistemology or whatever, don't just cave. Go out and do some research, learn to see many sides, learn to argue your convictions, learn to stand up for yourself. Don't feed the trolls.
Update (July 9, one day after this post went live):
This post has sparked some great conversation about social media and about the future of computing. I wanted to issue an update and say three things.
In this post I argued that our information will be compiled and an "avatar" will be created to work on our behalf online. I don't see this as a scary thing. Actually, I think people will crave disconnect so badly that artificial intelligence will allow us to use less of our own brain-power and attention online.
Think about it. You create an avatar that knows what you like and dislike, what you order each week (toilet paper, grass-fed rib eye steaks, lime La Croix) and that avatar goes and shops for you online. Now you don't have to do your shopping. You create an avatar that pays your bills, that answers your commercial emails…
And then maybe once each morning you receive a Daily Report of each of the things that your persona, like a highly personal personal assistant, has done for you online. That frees you to do your work in peace (I hate having to answer an email that distracts me from something far more important I'm working on), you'll be free to create, etc.
Second thing is this, someone pointed out that the Internet is becoming more and more decentralized (but I didn't think that was the right word for it) as it's becoming a sort of "Internet of things." In other words, your smart car, smart home, smart whatever else.
Right now, we have a cell phone or a laptop that is, to us, a portal to the Internet. But in the future, everything will be connected. So maybe you don't carry your phone anymore? Maybe you answer messages on the dinner table. Maybe you leave your home, but remain connected as your car displays everything you'd use your phone for.
This sounds great in theory but all-connected-everything kind of freaks me out. I also wonder how you'll have a private conversation in the car, or on your smart coffee table. I also know how easy it is to hack smart locks and smart thermometers and smart TVs.
In conversation, I took issue with the word 'decentralized.' Decentralized implies that the servers will be, well, not centrally located. It used to mean that you hosted your website from your home, and someone else hosts his from his home, and someone else from their own. iCloud is an example of the opposite—it is one central location for all of your data.
Personally, I don't see big data businesses like Google and Amazon ever backing anything that would cut into their bottom-line (Google and Amazon host nearly everything, including Apple's iCloud). And right now, in order for connections to be made, there must be servers. So it's like, how's that thermometer going to connect to your car?
Third thing I wanted to say: Don't despair. The Internet is a tool. We don't need the Internet. We need each other. The Internet is a tool for giving us each other. We've always relied on our neighbors and we'll continue to do so. In my view, the Internet just gives us more neighbors.