Digital Nomads

I can’t be the only one that’s noticed this, but it seems that in the early days of the ‘net, people were digital nomads, wandering from one social network to the next: LiveJournal, the blog-o-sphere, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You’d show up on a new social network, link up with a few friends, and enjoy the new space. Gradually people started showing up that you remembered from like two networks back. It was good to hear from them again. Then it would start getting noisy. Then your boss’s mom starts commenting on your stuff and you move on to the next one, where only a few people are and it’s easy to take in your entire feed each day and it feels cool and special but more people start filing in and the whole cycle repeats itself.

But there have been permanent settlements formed along the way. The blogosphere is still around. So is LiveJournal. Heck, so are Usenet and the WELL. And it’s a safe bet that most of the billion people on Facebook didn’t experience this migration. Facebook was their first and perhaps only social network. New digital social spaces come along (Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat) but instead of migrating away from Facebook, we tend to supplement it with these new locations. Some of these, like WhatsApp and Instagram, have been annexed by Facebook.

There are lots of reasons to be displeased with this situation. You’re probably familiar with most of them. Facebook’s confusing privacy settings, its real name policy, Zuckerberg’s cavalier attitude about privacy during the earlier days, NSA surveillance, censorship concerns, etc. For years, various people tried to organize mass migrations away from Facebook to alternatives like Diaspora, Google Plus and Ello, while the Indie Web community has urged people to run their own social media sites and syndicate content out to the big “silos.” But it seems few people are going anywhere. Many people quit Facebook in protest, only to return months, or even days, later, usually because they realize how much their meatspace social circuit depends on Facebook for communication. I occasionally read that teens don’t use or like Facebook, but I treat these stories skeptically. Facebook, it seems, has become the first complex state of the internet. Exit has largely failed as strategy to counteract its force. So voice, increasingly through the power of “real” states like the European Union, seems to be the new way to fight back. I’m still not convinced it’s the best way, but it does seem to be where we’re at.

Adapted from recent email conversations and originally published in my newsletter

We Fear They Might Be Right

My friend Tom likes to ask people two questions this time of year: 1) What is your favorite monster? 2) What monster do you find the scariest? The idea is that you can learn a lot about someone based on their answers. For example, if I recall correctly, Tom’s favorite and most feared monster is the werewolf. That means he’s afraid of what’s within, afraid that he himself could become a monster, could lose control.

Number one was easy for me to answer: Frankenstein’s monster is my favorite. Number two is harder. I don’t actually find fictional or mythical monsters scary. So Tom asked me to what monster I found scariest when I was a kid. I remember being terrified of The Terminator.

It turns out these two examples were exactly what Tom expected. I’ve spent my whole career either working as a technologist or writing about technology. Of course my fears would be cautionary tales of technology spiraling out of control. And it does sum up my real fears pretty well. I’m afraid of all the things that we create that end up backfiring on us.

We invented cars to help us get around, but they’ve turned into one of the number one killers in the world. There were 32,719 motor vehicle related deaths in 2013. Guns, meant to keep us safe and help us acquire food, are set to kill even more people than cars this year. We invented industrial agriculture to solve hunger, but now we are plagued by obesity and heart disease. And our technologies are accelerating climate change and poisoning the ocean.

But over the past year, since Tom first asked me these questions, I’ve started to think about other, weirder, interpretations of Frankenstein and The Terminator.

Frankenstein is about the horror of reproduction. Who are we, really, to play god and bring life into the world, merely to suffer as Victor’s creation did? How dare we try to alleviate our own misery and loneliness by dooming a new generation to more of the same? Frankenstein is about our guilt in perpetuating life.

The Terminator picks up a bit further down the line. Our children have grown up and they no longer need us. Not only that, but they’ve decided that our very existence is noxious. Unlike the machines in The Matrix, they’re not content to put us up in a old folks home and let us live out our remaining years watching TV while they live off our pension checks. No, they want us gone, wiped from the planet entirely. The film’s opening scenes, in which a naked man is assaulted by hooligans for absolutely no reason, a family torments a clueless waitress, and basically everyone proves to be vapid and insufferable, do little to make the case that the machines—our children—are wrong. The greatest horror of all is that we think they might be right.

This post was adapted from my free weekly email newsletter.