Dangers of internet culture to humans, and alternatives

I am increasingly not liking what the use of the internet does to our society, and to us. I actually find that maybe my techie friends are more likely to share these concerns than my friends at large, which some find ironic, but isn’t at all, it’s because we have more exposure to it, live more of our lives on the internet and have done so for longer.

Here’s a really good presentation on one aspect of this — the universal surveillance state of affairs brought on by always-on-the internet culture. (That’s actually just one of the areas of my concern, although a big one).

All of us are early adopters of another idea— that everyone should always be online. Those of us in this room have benefitted enormously from this idea. We’re at this conference because we’ve built our careers around it.

But enough time has passed that we’re starting to see the shape of the online world to come. It doesn’t look appealing at all. At times it looks downright scary.


And the author grows on to describe the dangers of the universal surveillance state of affairs, and how current political economy (my words) of the internet exacerbates the problem with centralization of internet services, and business models built on a new kind of advertising that depends on universal surveillance.

The presenter admits he doesn’t have the solution, but proposes three areas of solution exploration: regulation, de-centralization, and de-americanization.

I think we technologiests in libraries are in an interesting spot. On the one hand, we necessarily have a role of bringing more technology to libraries.  And in that role, we have faced resistance from some ‘traditionalists’  worried about what these technological solutions do to the culture of libraries, and to culture at large. I have never been entirely unsympathetic to these worries — but I have definitely become even more sympathetic as culture progresses.

Nevertheless, libraries have no choice but to meet the needs and desires of our users, and the needs and desires of our users are emphatically in the direction of using technology to make things more convenient to them. No matter how many scholars bemoan the move from print to digital, scholars as a mass are simply not using print as much and using digital more and more and demanding more convenience of digital. If we don’t make their lives better with technology, we won’t survive as institutions.

But I also think libraries are potentially well-placed to play a role in addressing the harms of the internet on culture, that the author of that presentation is talking about.

While he doesn’t identify it as a theme in solutions, the presenter (I wish they signed their work, so I had a name to cite!) identifies advertising as the economic foundation of the internet as fundamentally rotten. Libraries can play a role as non-advertising-focused civil society institutions providing internet services and infrastructure to citizens. I’ve been interested in this since I got involved in technology and libraries; I’m not sure how much I’ve been seeing it happening, though. Do you have encouraging places you see this happening? Do you have ideas for how it could happen (and how the funding/organizational instructure can support those ideas?).

Libraries, as well as university IT and other non-business-oriented IT infrastructure providers, can also take the lead in minimizing the collection/storage of personally identifiable information.  Are we?  There is — or at least was, in PATRIOT act resisting days — a lot of talk about libraries responsibility to avoid keeping incriminating (legally or otherwise) information on our users. But we’re treading water barely managing to providing the IT services we need to provide, how many of us have actually spent time auditing and minimizing personally identifiable information in our systems? How often do we have this as a design goal in designing new systems? What would it take to change this?

What other ways might libraries find to play a role in changing the cultural role of the internet and minimizing the universal surveillance state?

One of the worst aspects of surveillance is how it limits our ability to be creative with technology. It’s like a tax we all have to pay on innovation. We can’t have cool things, because they’re too potentially invasive.

Imagine if we didn’t have to worry about privacy, if we had strong guarantees that our inventions wouldn’t immediately be used against us. Robin gave us a glimpse into that world, and it’s a glimpse into what made computers so irresistible in the first place.

I have no idea how to fix it. I’m hoping you’ll tell me how to fix it. But we should do something to fix it. We can try a hundred different things. You people are designers; treat it as a design problem! How do we change this industry to make it wonderful again? How do we build an Internet we’re not ashamed of?

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