Law in the Internet Society
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How Human Beings Have Become Victims to Their Own Legacies

-- By YiShanYin - 22 Oct 2021

A walk down history lane

The human race is outstandingly good at producing evolutionary changes to their own future and possibly any other living things that cross paths with them. These changes are so great that human history has gone through various different stages within just a matter of 100,000 years – we went from primitive foraging to domesticated agrarians to industrialized societies. The intuitive perspective is that the human race generally benefits from each revolution in the sense that our lives are improved, more resources are exploited, and the people are liberated from the basic, mundane efforts of securing food and nutrition.

However, revolutions do not always mean we have more control over our own productions. In fact, historian Yuval Noah Harari even contended that the agricultural revolution which took place around 12,000 years ago was “history’s biggest fraud” because the transformation from hunting and gathering to farming did not make lives easier for all humans; rather, it brought about more time-consuming labor and poorer diets for the average farmers. See Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens 79 (2015). What the human race thought would be an improvement was actually a luxury trap – once we had created the lifestyle of domesticated agriculture, there was no going back to digging up roots. We had no choice but to keep devoting most of our time and energy to farming, only to yield more crops that would end up in the pockets of the pampered elites. Id. We became the victims of our own invention.

How the Internet has changed the game for the human race

Fast forward to the present, where we conduct our work from home, scroll through snippets of a stranger’s life, and buy and sell assets with a touch on a screen, all thanks to the invention of the Internet to which all our electronic devices are connected. In my observation, the revolution the Internet brought about which took place at the end of the last century has propensities similar to Harari’s theory.

Prior to the birth of the Internet, information was distributed mainly through books, radio, and television. When modern Internet started to gain popularity in the 1990s, the idea that everything was easily accessible without the impediment of time or costs led to us thinking it would liberate us from the information asymmetry that used to be caused by concentrated socio-political powers. However, as surveillance capitalism began to flourish in the 21st century, mass data are now in the hands of big techs who provide “personalized” services and experiences that most of us embrace without realizing what it would cost us. Instead of actively seeking the information we need from this interconnected system, we are fed with tailored content and targeted ads which are the products of our tracked behaviors. While some may view the trade of privacy (especially of non-sensitive information) for “convenience” in daily life as a perfectly sensible decision, it is obvious that a higher value is sacrificed. As long as the information we gather from the Internet is a reflection of our own surveilled behavior, our minds would always be tinted and the freedom of thought compromised. What was supposed to liberate human minds, under the influence of surveillance capitalism, actually made us succumb to another form of dictatorship.

A striking example is the now thriving Internet platforms such as Facebook and Amazon. Its beauty is that literally anyone with any electronic device can be the consumer and supplier of any content, goods, or services with minimum costs. But in the meantime, every piece of information on both sides is being collected, analyzed and commercialized by corporations whose surveillance is most of the time unnoticed, consciously disregarded, or even willingly accepted. These data could even be passed on to other entities after users press the “I agree” button without knowing what is to be consented. The inherent desires of humans – either to be noticed, to be celebrated or to profit – make us vulnerable to the tradeoffs. While we thought we could control the narrative of our own presence on the Internet and achieve our goals, we would actually end up playing by the established rules in order to stay on the platforms.

Reliance on electronic devices is another epitome of self-enslavement. We human beings like to consider ourselves as intellectual creatures – the kind that know how to use tools, create symbols and comprehend abstract ideas. Computers and mobile phones were supposed to serve as a tool to make our lives easier. But delegating too much work of the human minds to these gadgets leads to overreliance, and overreliance empowers them to take control over us. We could be forgetting important appointments if they are not documented in the calendar systems on our laptops. Absent the capture by our smartphones, it is as if social events never occurred. Once this tool becomes something we cannot live without, we become the captives of our own creation.

Will it be possible to steer our future away from the obvious?

So this is the presence of the human race – overpowered by the result of our innovative progress. Would we be able to steer our future away from it? Perhaps when enough people among us are willing to defy the eagerness to blend in and play the game, then we might start to find an alternative to stop being the victims of our own legacies.

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r1 - 23 Oct 2021 - 03:48:59 - YiShanYin
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