Law in the Internet Society


-- By DanielaWeerasinghe - 22 Oct 2021

The shallowness of the society we live in is profound.

Today’s world seems to be inherently shaped by the capitalist values of consuming things we do not need, of exploiting one another to be able to afford those very things, and of choosing career over family and personal values – to the extent we have taken the time to think about personal values in the first place. We conceive it as a waste of time when waiting at checkout, at the red traffic lights, or for the subway. And are quick to turn to our smartphones to do what we perceive as being productive or entertaining e.g., replying to emails and WhatsApp? messages, or playing a TikTok? video about a French bulldog in a pumpkin costume that we can buy by clicking on the embedded hyperlink. It would never occur to us to “reply” to our own thoughts, possibly because our inner voice has been so significantly quietened that we cannot even hear it anymore and if we do hear it, we choose to ignore it. Likewise, we would never dare to start a conversation with strangers on the street, unless, of course, our internet connection or battery is off and we have no other means to e.g., enquire about the correct way. This is two-sided. Restaurants for instance now ask you to order via their online app, even when physically dining in, to minimize real-life human contact even further. Whether this is done to further automate human labor, or a COVID-19 precaution is another debate.

Grandma (and Putnam) were right, unfortunately.

Ten years ago, I was laughing at my grandmother when she said that smartphones dull our youth’s mind. I now find that statement increasingly saddening. Wherever I look, it is almost impossible to find a single person without a smartphone in their hands. Today, where we practically do not and indeed cannot do anything “alone” (i.e., without our smartphones), “Bowling Alone” is a fiction. Robert Putnam attributed the declining U.S. social capital, from 1950 until 2000, chiefly to technology that individualized people’s free time and thus weakened citizens’ civil engagement that is necessary for a functioning democracy. Since 2000, social media exacerbated that trend by distorting and polarizing people’s opinions, which further separated communities from each other as well as from their inner voice.

Who do we blame?

In high school in Vienna, I had to take advanced Mathematics classes every day and was forced to learn chemistry and physics in-depth – all of which, of course, I have forgotten upon graduation. After all, who really needs that knowledge if you do not intend to work in those specialized domains. I had no standalone classes on ethics and values nor on politics or what it means to be a citizen in a democracy other than going voting. Put differently, the education system has failed to enshrine in me –and many more–, at a critical age juncture when one is most susceptible to change one’s personality, the importance of self-reflection and the virtues of a democratic society. This failure, in my opinion, has contributed decisively to the decline of freedom of thought and democracy today, insofar it fueled our vulnerability to being subconsciously captured and imprisoned by today’s “digital feudalists” Apple, Facebook, Google, and co. Paradoxically, however, this educational failure likely has been caused by democratic values themselves e.g., freedom of expression and political association. Education is to be provided in a non-partisan and secular manner and teaching a + b = c is less controversial and thus more “convenient” than teaching political thought underpinning democracy. Indeed, as Eben Moglen argues, the same social pressure of perceived “convenience”, i.e., “the surrender of anxiety to the machine”, lured us into the tech giant’s trap and caused today’s unfreedom.

We are all guilty.

As a result, we live in a materialistic, superficial world where we are so busy acquiring things, purely to brag about them in our next Instagram post, that reflecting and abiding by immaterial virtues is simply unheard of and no space for. However, anyone who looks down on us is a hypocrite, including myself, because “virtually” everyone is actually or potentially contributing to and part of this “Internet Society” the moment he logged onto it.

Now what do we do?

Timothy Synder defines democracy to be about reflection and concluded that because that’s something “we just don’t do”, our current version of freedom e.g., that I am free as long as I can do whatever I want, is not compatible with democracy. The Socratic wisdom that knowing we are victims of capitalism surveillance should render us already wiser, does not apply. I understand that we need to be “alone” to engage in inner dialogue to self-reflect and make personal as well as societal progress. But has mankind ever truly engaged in this type of reflection before and how much so? Surely, Socrates did, but what about the remainder of Greek society who was mostly enslaved or female without any power or time to self-reflect? How was the society Socrates lived in any more engaged in freedom of thought than ours today? And why does my grandma, who does not use smartphones, possess more freedom of thought than I? Probably there is no one-fit-all formula about self-reflection. Any time spent thinking “alone” is valuable. The more we do so, the more our inner voice will regain strength and control over our actions which are currently steered by Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg to enrich themselves at our expense.

Let’s fight back.

Even though Albert Camus did not live in today’s “Internet Society”, he stated something that nobody of our time has captured this eloquently: “You will never be able to experience everything. So, please, do poetical justice to your soul and simply experience yourself.” I will try follow this mantra, will you?

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Webs Webs

r1 - 22 Oct 2021 - 20:19:20 - DanielaWeerasinghe
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