The bipolar Internet

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.

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6 thoughts on “The bipolar Internet

  1. About the shoes, I expect technology (including the internet) to close the loop eventually. It’s pretty easy to envision a not-far-off future where one machine measures your foot and another one customizes a shoe for you at a cost premium that fits into the “worth it” category…

  2. John and David: Good points. Technology can make things more continuous as well as making them more discrete.

  3. If we wanted to take their notion of underlying technologies influencing “up the stack” further, then computer technologies would not produce a world full of binary choices. After all, the semiconductor technology that underpins nearly all computers is based upon quantum mechanics, which would imply, based on Lanier/Rushkoff, we would all be governed by Fermi-Dirac statistics.

    In other words, what physicists have had to deal with from all manner of philosophers, new age “thinkers”, pseudoscientists and other cranks has finally come to computing. For example, debates over “moral relativism” stem from taking special relativity’s “no preferred frame” way too far.

    Granted, I think Lanier’s invocation of binary is a very small part in the overall piece and wasn’t material to the point being made.

    Rushkoff, on the other hand, falls into the same tarpit that has ensnared so many postmodern philosophers: “Because underlying theory/technology is X, so is everything built atop it…” This line of argument is persuasive because it is intuitively satisfying, but often dead wrong.

    This TAL episode’s prologue covers the physicists’ lament. Another point of reference would be the Sokal Affair.

  4. tm: Along these lines, there’s Anderson’s More is Different. He points out the weakness of reductionism even physics, much less in sociology.

    To your point about semiconductors, someone summed it up “Digital hardware is made out of analog parts.”

  5. Yeah, saying it’s because the digital hardware is binary is silly.

    It’s more to do with choice. The more choices you have, the easier it’ll be to gravitate to those that simply echo back your view of the world.

    Take news, for example. In the old days, you’d buy a newspaper, and get (somewhat) diverse views in the editorial, columnists, etc. Now, if I don’t like a particular writer, I just don’t subscribe to his/her feed. I’m not forced to confront an opposing viewpoint.

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