Dark Cloud: The Future Of (Anti-)Social Networking

The last two books that I read came together in a curious way. You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier is a non-fiction book that presents a counterpoint to the technologist's worshipful view of the Internet; Directive 51 by John Barnes is a work of fiction set in a near future in which much of the technological progress of humanity is endangered.

(You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto and Directive 51)

I enjoyed both books, and I don't want to spoil Barnes' novel for you by providing too many details. Let me say this much: in the story, internet users are drawn to participate in a planned event called "Daybreak", which seems to attack the technological underpinnings for the modern human world. (He has a frankly original approach to the idea, so be prepared to think deeply.) Rather than tell you exactly what he does in the novel, I'd like to explore some ideas from Lanier's book that will, I hope, enhance your reading of Barnes' novel and maybe induce you to read both of them.

In You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, Lanier is highly skeptical (even contemptuous) of the whole idea of the Singularity, which is the notion that someday computers might become superintelligent and even self-aware.

And yet, there is something to worry about, which is the fact that the great crowd-produced works of the Internet, like Wikipedia, encourage people to drop their individuality and pretend that a half-million contributors can write in exactly the same neutral voice. He writes:

...I worry about the potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe if people pretend they are not conscious or do not have free will - or that the cloud of online people is a person; if they pretend that there is nothing special about the perspective of the individual - then perhaps we have the power to make it so. We might be able to collectively achieve antimagic.

Humans are free. We can commit suicide for the benefit of a Singularity...

Always celebrating the achievements of individuals, Lanier adds that "the web 2.0 designs actively demand that people define themselves downward."

Lanier is also concerned about how the anonymity provided by the Internet brings out the worst in people. (How many of us [normally rational beings all, I'm sure!] have typed a comment into a web page that we would never have made in person?)

What would happen if the self-organizing social applications of the Internet cloud were to feed back to particular groups our worst qualities as human beings? Lanier actually titles one of his chapters "The Noosphere Is just another name for everyone's inner troll."

I don't want to push on the Internet "cloud" metaphor too hard, but what happens when the human animal (including his inner troll) finds himself in a dark cyclonic social network from which he is unable to escape? And what happens when it touches down?

Be sure to check out You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier and Directive 51 by John Barnes.

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