Inter­net pol­lu­tion

One of our great­est inven­tions has the poten­tial to be our great­est undo­ing.

Pollu­tion can be defined, in broad sense, as the intro­duc­tion of some­thing that is harm­ful to the envi­ron­ment it is intro­duced into. Recently, in a way I cannot explic­itly describe, I found myself read­ing an excel­lent essay by Jasper Mor­ri­son, titled Super normal’. Mr Mor­ri­son is a British designer known for var­i­ous things, from the wingnut chair in Lin­den­platz to Hanover’s TW2000 light rail­cars. In his essay, he talks of how design, which was sup­posed to be respon­si­ble for the man-made envi­ron­ment’, has been pol­lut­ing it instead. Describ­ing good design as not merely normal but super normal’, he goes on to explain that a lack of notice­abil­ity is the way to go today.

This anal­ogy can actu­ally be brought to the inter­net itself. What was started as a means of easier, faster com­mu­ni­ca­tion has now crept into every inch of our lives making com­mu­ni­ca­tion over­whelm­ing while slow­ing down nearly every­thing else and making pro­duc­tiv­ity an achieve­ment. Both com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity were ever only sup­posed to be a part of our lives. The inter­net should have resided in the back­ground, making life easier, not taking it over.

Why did this happen? Why are so many people on the tip­ping point of addic­tion? Were people as addicted to the tele­phone when it was invented, or per­haps the inland letter when postage was first intro­duced? This brings forth an inter­est­ing ques­tion: what has the inter­net done that other media of com­mu­ni­ca­tion before it did not? The sim­plest answer to this would be that the inter­net offers instant, open-ended inter­ac­tion; this is some­thing no other media does. And this seem­ingly fun­da­men­tal point is over­looked far too often. With a tele­vi­sion, inter­ac­tions were strictly one-way; with let­ters, inter­ac­tions took time; with tele­phones, inter­ac­tions was tar­geted. How­ever, with the inter­net, inter­ac­tions are two-way, instant and open-ended, and this is pre­cisely what lets it into every nook and cranny of our lives.

Human beings are social ani­mals and the inter­net feeds on our strongest desires. The desire to be social, a decade or so ago, could only be afforded if some­one was phys­i­cally with us. This gave a cer­tain weigh­tage to it. The inter­net, in becom­ing a plat­form for com­mu­ni­ca­tion failed to realise that by let­ting us com­mu­ni­cate any­time, any­where it was really exac­er­bat­ing our per­ceived social wants. We started to want to com­mu­ni­cate even if we did not need to. An excess is a pol­lu­tant. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a fun­da­men­tal human ten­dency, itself became a dis­trac­tion. The inter­net was like a pol­lu­tant.

Along­side this, as a plat­form that made almost all infor­ma­tion avail­able read­ily, it brought along other prob­lems. There was no vet­ting, unlike in a book or in a library. There were opin­ions, facts, and dis­in­for­ma­tion, all lib­er­ally avail­able at the cost of a few clicks. A pic­ture of a cat plas­tered on a street wall would be intrigu­ing at first and then it would simply get monot­o­nous and even­tu­ally irri­tat­ing. In the phys­i­cal world, cit­i­zens would move to have these pic­tures stripped.

Unfor­tu­nately, we do not view the vir­tual, online world the same way. Any number of cat pic­tures will do. And this is not an attack on cat pho­tographs; replace it with any point­less source of enter­tain­ment and the rea­son­ing holds. In attempt­ing to make infor­ma­tion freely avail­able, the inter­net has made infor­ma­tion a sort of get­away from our real lives; it is dan­ger­ously becom­ing a place to relax and tem­porar­ily push pri­or­i­ties to the back of your mind.

This was never the pur­pose of infor­ma­tion, yet this is what it has the poten­tial to be now. Infor­ma­tion that was once sup­posed to enrich our minds is becom­ing syn­ony­mous to enter­tain­ment. The inter­net is, it appears, undo­ing its own build­ing blocks, or, at the very least, mould­ing them into other, more con­ve­nient forms. There is infor­ma­tion pol­lu­tion all around us.

None of this is an attack on the inter­net as much as on our con­stant misuse of it. We use the inter­net as an escape rather than a tool. This is nei­ther generic nor uni­ver­sal, but it does explain well enough why such web­sites as Face­book, Insta­gram, Snapchat and others are becom­ing pop­u­lar. In the 1690s or even in the 1960s, the effort that went into shar­ing a descrip­tion or a pic­ture of what one ate for break­fast was so great that it was simply not worth it. It was, per­haps, laugh­able.

Today, we share it just because we have the inter­net and because we can. So what? In the ambi­ence of the inter­net, the danger in this line of think­ing is not read­ily appar­ent. Apply this anal­ogy, there­fore, to some­thing else: I shoot because I have a gun and I can; I drive a car because I have one and I can. It makes no sense what­so­ever. Whether it is a gun or a car, our use of either fol­lows a spe­cific need.

Between the 17th cen­tury and the 21st, no new need has cropped up that requires shar­ing pic­tures of our deli­cious food before we con­sume it. Once again, like cat pic­tures, I use this as a stand-in for most pieces of infor­ma­tion shared on the web and it holds true. And with this pat­tern spread across var­i­ous types of infor­ma­tion and geo­gra­phies and lan­guages and cul­tures, it is not hard to see how much unnec­es­sary, mean­ing­less infor­ma­tion we are spew­ing out every second. There is an exact number: 40GB every second. There is a web­site ded­i­cated to give you a pic­ture of just how much infor­ma­tion is added to the web­site every second. It covers only the top few heav­ily used web­sites, mostly social net­works, and the num­bers itself are over­whelm­ing. The actual data is unimag­in­able. And this is only from less than half the world, because the rest still have no proper inter­net access.

If every­one comes online and if we never stop to think, eval­u­ate and weigh our con­tri­bu­tions to the inter­net like we would to, say, a book that would get pub­lished or a live tele­vi­sion show every­one would watch, then search­ing for useful, valu­able infor­ma­tion will be like look­ing for nee­dles in a haystack. A dynamic haystack grow­ing in size an com­plex­ity every second too. The inter­net really is a won­der­ful place, but by treat­ing it as a dump yard for data, we are slowly making it use­less. As we pol­lute it, it pol­lutes us. The inter­net is like a mirror of human­ity (at least for that per­cent­age of human­ity that uses it) and we are what we make it.

Lastly, this is not a stab at the inter­net as an unbi­ased plat­form for free speech and expres­sion. (Although, going by recent news of data being tweaked on user time­lines on social net­works, some parts of the inter­net quite well be biased.) The inter­net is and always will remain the strongest plat­form pro­mot­ing free expres­sion, but free does not mean care­less or irre­spon­si­ble. We should express freely but respon­si­bly. And doing this might qui­eten the inter­net down a little but not under­mine its stand­ing as our strongest plat­form for expres­sion. As Mr Mor­ri­son says of design, its his­toric goal of con­ceiv­ing things easier to make and better to live with, has been side-tracked”, so also have our deep­est inten­tions that drove the found­ing of the inter­net been put aside to make place for our desire to share and be val­i­dated for it. The case here is to use it respon­si­bly and to not toss in data much like we would not toss garbage into our homes. This will, if any­thing, strengthen the inter­net and make it infi­nitely more useful to us like it was always intended to be.

A fresh restart

Dra­matic changes on this web­site, and the soft­ware pow­er­ing it, to cel­e­brate ten years since it came into exis­tence.

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