Law in the Internet Society

An introspective account of the internet: Realising there’s another person in the room

-- By JulieLi - 1 Feb 2020


If you stepped back in time to September 2020 and asked me to provide an analogy for my conception of the internet, I would have said that it’s like a remote control. At that time the internet to me was a tool, a conduit that could be controlled in the palm of my two hands and told to lead me to the content that I wished to consume. I soon realised, after taking a step back during the course of these last few months that this conception was wrong. By conceiving of the internet as an inanimate object, I had implicitly discounted the risks and dangers it posed to my wellbeing. Thus began my journey of re-evaluating my relationship with the internet and coming to the realisation that really, being with the internet is like being with another person.

The inanimate/animate divide

Inanimate objects are generally perceived to pose a low level of risk. As David Ropeik would say, our ability to control inanimate objects deactivates their inherent danger, while our recognition of their ability to chronically affect our wellbeing is discounted in the present moment. This lack of fear for inanimate objects is evinced by modern insurance products, a large part of which eschew insuring the individual for harm caused by objects and instead providing contingent protection from the actions of others. Animate objects on the other hand, are perceived to be infinite sources of risk and therefore account for most human fears. I, for example, fear spiders, men walking behind me at night, ghosts of all descriptions – the list goes on and on. This leaves the in-between, the pseudo-animate objects that are both inanimate and imbued with the thoughts and feelings of the animate. This category includes most of the content I consume on the internet, which to me inspires neither fear nor indifference, but instead a sense of wariness, a self-reminder to apply critical thought to the communicable meaning.

Where should the internet be placed in the animate/inanimate divide? At first instance the internet appeared to me as an inanimate object. It seemed indifferentiable from a television set, being merely the gateway to infinite content. Alas this conception was too simple. In reality the internet is a nervous system consisting of billions of individual nervous systems. Through years of strip-mining the human consciousness, the internet has been producing information about how individual nervous systems behave and has made available to the highest bidder such a vast amount of consumer information that it has the potential to influence the behaviour from which it was made. Indeed, the internet as we know it has the power to control what we see, engender us with certain perspectives, to take advantage of the human eye and steer us in a particular direction, and so much more.

A personal example

An example from my own life is one of my guiltier pleasures – vlog content. Evolved from the wildly popular early 2000’s blog, the vlog is a confessional, intimate and incredibly detailed record of the vlogger’s everyday life commonly broadcasted via Youtube. In the abstract, the prospect of watching someone go about their everyday business could not seem more boring - and yet, the vlog is a staple of Youtube and my daily consumption. The vlogger, being a splice of public and private, satisfies viewers’ voyeuristic desires as well as viewers’ innate yearning for human connection. Indeed, to follow a vlogger is to go through a process of metamorphosis whereby the viewer transforms from momentary voyeur to consistent voyeur to developing a one way, but very real, human connection with the vlogger. Thus the vlog transforms what would ordinarily be considered to be boring into comforting everyday content that feels, when consumed, like catching up with a friend.

What the vlogger and consumer do not realise is that they are both producers in a much larger equation. By engaging in the work of being watched, the vlogger produces intricate, highly detailed information about their daily life. Simultaneously, the vlogger transforms the viewer from consumer to producer, as the viewer’s passive act of watching becomes the production of consumer information. One need only briefly peruse a vlog to realise this is true. Through never-ending embedded and host web advertisements, the vlogger becomes a conduit for collecting data on viewers, engagement, purchasing, relatability and much more, delivering the information to be stored, used or sold at a later time. Though perhaps not intentionally, the vlogger feeds the internet’s nervous system and thus perpetuates its ability to be the source of more content that might influence the human mind.

My reflection

With a great deal of introspection, I have realised that for the purposes of my own evolutionary responses, I can no longer consider the internet to be an inanimate object. By being able to control what I see, consume, what others see of me – it has developed a nervous system of its own that transforms it from mere instrument into a living network that poses a fundamentally unquantifiable risk. Understanding that instinctive self-defence is ancient and hardly adaptive, I must re-categorise the internet as animate, thus activating my inbuilt defensive response.

How is this to be done? My plan is simple. In the spirit of Patricia Piccinini and her anthropomorphic objects, I have stuck a set of eyes to the top of my laptop screen. This functions as a constant reminder of the animation that belies the internet and the dangers of habitual passivity. So far I have only positive results to report. After two weeks of being literally stared at by my own computer I have found myself to be engaging in less screen time and more measures to protect my privacy. Surprisingly, I still feel the distinctive twist of my stomach when I am drawn to the presence of the eyes. Let us hope this continues, or I’ll have to start adding hair.

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r3 - 02 Feb 2021 - 04:50:16 - JulieLi
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