Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The worst of the Web, and how it brings out the worst in us

Reading Mike Dover's latest book, Dante's Infinite Monkeys: Technology Meets the 7 Deadly Sins, one could be forgiven for giving up the Internet once and for all. It is basically a book about all the bad things that the Internet makes possible and aids and abets, and it is unabashedly gloomy and negative (on the premise that there are already enough books about how wonderful the Internet is, a premise that is probably the single optimistic one in the whole book).
Dover catalogues the myriad iniquities of the Web using the conceit of the Seven Deadly Sins - Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Sloth, Pride and Gluttony - but it is just a conceit, and a more or less arbitrary and artificial way of dividing the book into chapters. I was aware of many of the nefarious schemes and ruses he enumerates, but seeing them all laid out together paints a particularly bleak picture of the whole system.
  • Greed: The sheer scope and scale of all the greed-fuelled scams, hoaxes and rackets going is quite incredible, and I have never even heard of half of them: Nigerian and Bahamian email scams, keylogging attacks, link-baiting scams, social media scams using fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, phishing, ransomware, cyber-shoplifting, Microsoft service telemarketing scams, stock manipulation, false financial rumours, spoof and ultra-high-frequency stock trading, patent trolls, user data exploitation, illegal online poker and fantasy sports betting, etc, etc. So many different ways to fleece us poor suckers, day in, day out. And this chapter does even touch on the seemingly endless ambitions of various Internet entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, etc.
  • Wrath: Cyberbullying, trolling, swatting, public shaming, online plans for weapons, drone spying - it's all out there, and the anonymous and pervasive nature of the Web can make a simple angry reaction into a potential life-threatening campaign of vitriol that takes on a life of its own (and so-called "keyboard courage" has the effect of making everything even worse).
  • Envy: Thanks to the Internet, we can now keep tabs on the daily lives, salaries, property values and many other aspects of the lives of our friends, enemies and celebrities. Facebook in particular is, as Dover says, an "envy engine", and can lead to clinical depression and worse, especially given that usually we only see one side (the good side) of others, while we are all too aware of our own shortcomings.
  • Lust: Internet porn is a $97 billion industry worldwide and growing, even if only an estimated 10% of users actually pay money for online pornorgraphy. Interestingly, it has been instrumental in the development of Web technology like streaming video, live chat, online payments, malware, spam, domain name hijackers, pop-ups and pop-under, "teledildonics", etc. It has also been blamed for spikes in conditions like erectile dysfunction, relationship anxiety, sex addiction and risky sexual behaviour, and implicated in the spread of taboos like pedophilia, bestiality, rape, etc, and in even the death of romance. Online porn also serves as a major gateway for extortion and identity theft.
  • Sloth: Is the Internet making us lazy? Developments like "txtspk", over-reliance on Google and Wikipedia searches, form autofill, speed-dial, GPS and Google Maps, tweet bombing, Siri, armchair "slacktivism", medical self-diagnosis, spell-check, wholesale plagiarism, decreased participation in outdoor sports, etc, certainly suggest so.
  • Pride: In an environment where anyone can become a celebrity overnight, pride can be seen at work in the ubiquitous selfie (and their enabling outlets like Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc), over-sharing in general, "humblebragging", YouTube sensations with limited talents, self-publishing ebooks, etc.
  • Gluttony: The interface between the Internet and food has led to endless photos of restaurant dishes on Instagram (as well as photos of people eating said dishes, photos of people taking photos of said dishes, etc), as well as phenomena like feeder fetish porn (where people document their unhealthy and extreme eating in order to put on as much weight as possible - apparently some people find this sexy), fat acceptance and activism sites, pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites, etc.
All this is without even going into the murky depths of the Deep Web or Dark Web! And, in a world lurching towards 3-D printing, replication, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, where will it all end? Scary stuff.

No comments: