2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

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Computer Scientist; Musician; Author, You Are Not A Gadget; Who Owns The Future?
THE FLAWS OF THE LATEST POP VERSION OF THE INTERNET HAVE MADE ME MORE OF A BIOLOGICAL REALIST, AND IN PARTICULAR HAVE MADE ME MORE SENSITIVE TO NEOTENY

The Internet as it evolved up to about the turn of the century was a great relief and comfort to me, and influenced my thinking positively in a multitude of ways. There were the long-anticipated quotidian delights of speedy information access and transfer, but also the far more important optimism born from seeing so many people decide to create Web pages and become expressive, proving that the late 20th century's passive society on the couch in front of the TV was only a passing bad dream.

In the last decade, the Internet has taken on unpleasant qualities, and has become gripped by reality-denying ideology.

The current mainstream, dominant culture of the Internet is the descendant of what used to be the radical culture of the early Internet. The ideas are unfortunately motivated to a significant degree by a denial of the biological nature of personhood. The new true believers attempt to conceive of themselves as becoming ever more like abstract immortal information machines, instead of messy, mortal, embodied creatures. This is nothing but yet another approach to an ancient folly; the psychological denial of ageing and dying. To be a biological realist today is to hold a minority opinion during an age of profound, overbearing, technologically-enriched groupthink.

When I was in my twenties, my friends and I we were motivated by the eternal frustration of young people that they are not immediately all made rulers of the world. It used to seem supremely annoying to my musician friends, for instance, that the biggest stars, like Michael Jackson, would get millions of dollars in advance for an album, while an obscure, minor artist like me would only get $100K advance to make one (and this was in early 1990's dollars.)

So what to do? Kill the whole damned system! Make music free to share, and demand that everyone build reputation on a genuine all-to-all network instead of a broadcast network, so that it would be fair. Then we'd all go out and perform to make money, and the best musician would win.

The lecture circuit was particularly good to me as a live performer. My lecture career was probably one of the first of its kind that was driven mostly by my online presence. (In the old days, my crappy Web site got enough traffic to merit coverage as an important Web site by the mainstream media like the New York Times.) It seemed as though money was available on tap.

Seemed like a sweet way to run a culture back then, but in the bigger picture, it's been a disaster. Only a tiny, token number of musicians, if any, do as well within the new online utopia as even I used to do in the old world, and I wasn't particularly successful. Every musician I have been able to communicate with about their true situation, including a lot of extremely famous ones, has suffered after the vandalism of my generation, and the reason isn't abstract but because of biology.

What we denied was that we were human and mortal, that we might someday have wanted children, even though it seemed inconceivable at the time. In the human species, neoteny, the extremely slow fading of our juvenile characteristics, has made child rearing into an extreme, draining long-term commitment.

That is the reality. We were all pissed at our own parents for not coming through in some way or other, but evolution has extended the demands of human parenting to the point that it is impossible for parents to come through well enough, ever. Every child must be disappointed to some degree because of neoteny, but economic and social systems can be designed to minimize the frustration. Unfortunately the Internet, as it has come to be, maximizes it.

The way that neoteny relates to the degradation of the Internet is that as a parent, you really can't go running around to play gigs live all the time. The only way for a creative person to live with what we can call dignity is to have some system of intellectual property to provide sustenance while you're out of your mind with fatigue after a rough night with a sick kid.

Or, spouses might be called upon to give up their own aspirations for a career, but there was this other movement called Feminism happening at the same time that made that arrangement less common.

Or, there might be a greater degree of socialism to buffer biological challenges, but there was an intense libertarian tilt coincident with the rise of the Internet in the USA. All the options have been ruled out, and the result is a disjunction between true adulthood and the creative life.

The Internet, in its current fashionable role as an aggregator of people through social networking software, only values humans in real time and in a specific physical place, that is usually away from their children. The human expressions that used to occupy the golden pyramidion of Maslow's pyramid, are treated as worthless in themselves.

But dignity is the opposite of real time. Dignity means, in part, that you don't have to wonder if you'll successfully sing for your supper for every meal. Dignity ought to be something one can earn. I have focused on parenting here, since it is what I am experiencing now, but the principle becomes even more important as people become ill, and then even more as people age. So, for these reasons and many others, the current fashionable design of the Internet, dominated by so-called social networking designs, has an anti-human quality. But very few people I know share my current perspective.

Dignity might also mean being able to resist the near-consensus of your peer group.