In a recent Atlantic article, Jaron Lanier discusses the bipolar nature of the Internet.
The Internet … was influenced in equal degrees by 1960s romanticism and cold war paranoia. It aligned the two poles of the bit to these two archetypal dramas.
Lanier argues that the Internet is polarizing. Just as bits are either on or off, the Internet encourages all-or-nothing options. With regard to privacy in particular, Lanier says that you can be totally anonymous or totally open, but it’s difficult to be anywhere in between.
Douglas Rushkoff makes a similar argument in Chapter 3 of his book Program or Be Programmed. Rushkoff argues that because computers ultimately work with 0’s and 1’s, the Internet inevitably forces people into yes-no decisions.
Lanier and Rushkoff have valid points, but I have a couple reservations.
First, I don’t see why the emergent properties of the Internet should be binary just because the underlying technology is binary. For example, I don’t imagine the Internet would be much different if computers were built on electronic components with three possible states rather than two. But I would concede that binary technology makes a good metaphor for discussing the binary choices one must often make on the Internet.
Second, I’d say that modern life forces us into discrete decisions, but this is much older than the Internet. Mass production requires limited options. If a cobbler is going to make a pair of shoes for me, he can measure my feet. But if I’m going to buy a pair of shoes from a store, I have to pick a size. Also, bureaucracies require information to fit into forms, though that was true of paper forms before the advent of electronic forms. Perhaps the Internet accentuates the need to make discrete decisions, though I’m not convinced.