Of cyber shit and roses

The Guardian‘s technology editor Charles Arthur – who, let’s be honest, is going to get it in the neck whatever he writes, such is the vituperative nature of online debate surrounding consumer electronics – has today given us a thoughtful discussion of the electronic walled gardens of mobile device app stores and social networks such as FaceBook and Google+.

I say thoughtful, as the writer and those he quotes go beyond the shallow arguments and false dichotomy of personal privacy versus the convenience of walled garden web services and cloud computing. The problem is that neither Arthur nor his quoted cyber experts look at the root causes of the problems outlined. What we should be discussing is the market psychology which feeds the growth of social media, and the commodification of web users’ online identities and intellectual property, in addition to that of commercial content providers.

The mistake of many, and here I include journalists and pundits commanded by editors to provoke argument below stairs for the purposes of improving readership statistics, search engine profiles and advertising revenue, is to look at the issue in simple binary terms. The reality, on the other hand, is considerably more complex than the addled brains of gadget junkies, with their swollen thumbs and typing fingers, and pent-up frustrations.

When it comes to root causes, the best summary I have come across is that contained in Adam Curtis’ documentary film All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. The problem has to do with how power relationships operate within ostensibly horizontal networks. Some saw it coming, and for their sins they were largely ignored.

The neo-hippy cybernetic idealists of the nascent World Wide Web foolishly believed that their virtual reality would liberate humanity. Some of them went on to create Silicon Valley, became the second generation disciples of Ayn Rand and her ludicrous philosophy of ‘objectivism’, and the rest is history and urban myth.

For a short while the internet was a relatively free if in large part pornography-driven environment in which rules were made up on the fly, with virtually no governmental oversight. But with mass take-up of network hardware and web services, and a free software movement the fracturing and forking of which made European Trotskyism seem like a glorious unified whole, it didn’t take long for other corporate interests, both commercial and state, to take over.

The new masters of the universe, in the form of social media founders, are not long out of short trousers, and few of them are particularly creative as individuals. For the most part they had a relatively risk-free idea nurtured during college years, and exploited this with the help of venture capital that was otherwise sitting idle. Most of these post-pubescent entrepreneurs fell by the wayside, while a lucky few hit it obscenely rich.

But is the world wide web in danger of turning into a global cyber prison, as its more paranoid detractors declaim? It could do, in principle at least, but it all depends on the actions and whims of consumers, as well as those who control the networks. Only idiots and gobby futurologists on the make would dare predict the outcome of a cyber-evolution in which the half-life of a hardware or software technology concept is measured in months.

Personally, I tend to pessimism, but then I’m just a grumpy old misanthrope with zero faith in the ability of the dumb majority to see beyond the ends of their noses. Or at least the glowing screens of smart phones held in front of the face while blithely striding into the path of an oncoming bus or urban-cycling freelance journalist.