14th November, 2016
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.
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