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Grumpy Internet Man

February 23, 2016

I’ve been reading a lot about how people pre-hypertext (or just at the dawn of hypertext) thought computing was going to progress with the new technologies that shortly thereafter would allow for the birth of the internet.  There was a tremendous amount of promise at that time with visions of information being connected and navigated by everyone through hypertext (what you now know so well as a “link”).  There was much speculation that hypertext would include rich metadata that would allow a reader to know where their link was going to lead, and to record their travels so that their inquiries and discoveries could be shared.

I’m trying to find out what happened to all of these dreams.  My memory of all of this (and I was definitely right there) was that there was huge promise, and then an explosion that wiped out all planning and possibilities for conscious design.  My memory is that one day we were talking about the academic possibilities of all of this, and the next day we saw William Shatner singing on a website and all bets were off.  My (inaccurate) recall of all of this is a blur of spectacle that went from one really cool computer trick to another and the “amazing” caused the careful and considered design of the web to just get lost.  No more rich metadata, replaced by a flood of cat pictures and pictures of what people are eating for dinner (and, ugh, the “selfie”).

It seems as though a great deal of energy since has been focused on the ridiculous. Rather than developing a useful linking technology, we get links to an “amazing story” (“you’ll be shocked by #17”), a picture of a goofy kid dancing becoming a cultural phenomenon, and social media.  Social media had a ton of promise and for a while being able to talk to anyone and everyone online was working pretty well.  There was a period with Netnews when I would actually suggest to someone that forums were full of smart people, and that “crowd-sourcing” could really provide answers from experts.  Now, when I go to Google (crowd-sourcing) and try to find out why my iPod shuts off randomly, I get an endless series of people who are amazed at the possibility of re-booting the device, accompanied by an approximately equal number of people insulting their intelligence.  I can not think of any better description of the current state of the internet than “cluster-f%ck”.   Yes, I can now read about the discover of gravity waves, but the comments of people who actually know something will be drowned out by people who actually don’t even know what science is (let alone have the slightest ability to determine if the article in question might hold valuable information).  It’s like if you were at NASA trying to get Apollo 13 back home, and to solve the complex problems of gravity, propulsion, and trajectory your staff found a really great mix of top scientists and drunk soccer fans. While that would be very, uh, “democratic” (to use that word incorrectly, like just about everyone else), Apollo 13 would have missed the Earth by a long way as everyone at Mission Control called each other assholes.  It’s depressing, to be honest.

So, as I read these articles from the early days, I think about how the thinkers of the time could never have foreseen the mess to come.  Rather than links filled with useful metadata, we have links that open ten windows all with a scam included, and a final window that you can’t close offering you the ability to phone a call-center in India and have your computer hijacked.  On social media, I manage to hang around long enough to have someone who is clearly pissed off about something call me names like I’m on the school yard in grade 3.  No thanks.  The only social media left for me is Twitter, simply because I can put out cool stuff, read other people’s cool stuff, but not really have what Facebook-sociopaths would call a “conversation”.  These conversations consist of a lot of people who hold the same opinions getting into a simulated room and telling each other how right they are and scaring off anyone who might offer a different opinion, even if they’re completely right. Why people “like” this scenario is beyond me, but clearly, millions of them can’t get enough.

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