Law in the Internet Society


-- By DanielaWeerasinghe - 03 Jan 2022

Today’s “machine-directed” society.

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 thought 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/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 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 was 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 worrisome. Wherever I look, it is almost impossible to find anyone without a smartphone. Today, where we practically do not and indeed cannot do anything “alone” (i.e., without our smartphones), “Bowling Alone” is a fiction and self-avoidance the norm. 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 their inner voice. David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd” characterized U.S. middle class in the 1940s as being “other-directed” i.e., in need of assurance that one is emotionally in tune with others; willing to accommodate others for their endorsement. Naturally, this autonomy-compromising personality was the preferred type of personality by large organizations – which, in my opinion, have since then exploited society’s deficiencies in “leadership, individual self-knowledge, and human potential” at an unprecedented scale. I fear we have become a “machine-directed” society, seeking to conform to “one’s needs” that were subconsciously engineered by the big tech companies. Whether today’s society is superficial, lonely or robotic/fake would then be a question of degree.

Who do we blame?

Professor Eben Moglen is the first to make me “see” the uncanny consequences of being succumbed to Apple and Facebook’s “religious” cult for my capability to think freely and autonomously. I realize that teaching others to be “virtuous” is not the solution, because that would be a continuation of moving from one “religion” to another. I nonetheless submit that 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 what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society. This failure 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 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

Consequently, we live in a materialistic, superficial world where we are busy acquiring things to brag about 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/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 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?

The bad news: there is no one-fit-all formula about self-reflection. The good news: any time spent thinking “alone” will be priceless. The more we do so, the more our inner voice will regain control over our thoughts and actions, replacing the “machine-directed” persona we never agreed to be.

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Webs Webs

r3 - 03 Jan 2022 - 15:40:09 - DanielaWeerasinghe
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