Petty Dictators of the Internet. A Rant.

This is not a rant about Donald Trump[1]. It’s also not a rant about the internet in general. Those who read my blog more regularly will know that I actually, factually revere the internet in all its momentous sparkling grandeur – as well as in its ability to make us face ourselves as human beings with all our shortcomings[2]. Instead, this is a more specific rant about how that very same digital space has the means to turn us all into petty dictators – unless we continuously pay close attention to how we act and interact online.

How so? Firstly, the web invites us into a space quite unlike the spaces we used to be used to as human beings[3]. On the one hand, it’s not tangible, haptic, concrete, or “real” in the ordinary daily sense of the world. Nothing that appears online can be held in our hands, bump against our heads, literally pierce our hearts. The web doesn’t directly interact with our bodies. In that sense, it is clearly different from the old-worldly space around us which consists of flintstones, flowers, or wine glasses to hold, bridges to cross (or bump our heads against), and daggers to pierce our every limb. On the other hand, the web is also not purely intangible, mental, conceptual, or “unreal” in the ordinary daily sense of the world. Yes, there’s fiction on the web as well as scientific treatises, statistics, or dictionaries – however, for those, the web is but another repository of what used to be printed on paper, a reflection of our intellects’ and creativities’ continuous production. However, in particular since the inception, increase and pervasive dissemination of social media, the web has also become a lot more than – and different from – the old-worldly space of our minds, formerly collected in libraries, museums, or galleries.

The space of the web, in particular whenever and wherever it manifests as interactions between people (from online commentaries and fora to all flavours of social media), is a space that, first and foremost, is woven from speech. Speech in all its variations from letters typed on screens, to signs and symbols, populating an every-expanding universe of emojis, bitmojis, and whatever-mojis to come, to spoken words, unexplainable noises, and spherical chimes. So for the first time in human history, we live in a space made only of speech. And with speech comes emotion: Love triggered by the sight of a star or the harmonies of a melancholic song; hatred aroused by the appearance of a clown or the cacophony of a shrill accusation; misunderstandings propelled into fist fights and full-blown nuclear wars by the sights of dying children and the roaring of guns. In our past spaces, speech (and the accompanying emotions) were always tied either to physical appearances – the people we could touch, the books and letters we held in our hands – or to mental frameworks – the flow of a novel, the structure of an argument. Online, these ties have withered away[4]. Online, speech and emotions are free-floating, anchor-less, often disoriented, many times misguided, sometimes so outrageously wrong that no writer could’ve imagined more absurd rabbits, kings and queens of cards, or colour-changing roses.

Secondly, with the space of the web being speech and emotion, and us being utterly inexperienced in navigating such a space without physical handrails or mental guidelines, we stumble around in wonder, bewilderment, confusion, and oftentimes outright horror at what we see around us. Our reactions, predictably so, are often reactions of flight or flight – and rarely the compassionate attention of calm observation or focused investigation. And, what is worse (and, yes, I’m slowly approaching the main point of this post), many times even our online (re-) actions superficially resembling observation or investigation are actually fake attention – utterly selfish motions poorly disguised as taking an interest in someone or something. I’ll be more specific in a moment.

Online (just as offline, by the way), there are two basic reflex reactions we have when we encounter something (or someone) we perceive to be “other” (as opposed to what we usually consider “self”): Attraction – accompanied by the wish to know more, understand better, explore deeper -, and repulsion – accompanied by the wish to untangle, move away, forget, and get rid of once and for all. Both are enhanced and magnified by the body- and mindless nature of the web: Attraction and repulsion are much more readily triggered by our encounters with speech and raw emotions than when those encounters are either grounded in some physical contact or framed by some mental construct. Unfortunately, the technical features of many places on the web make it deceivingly easy to enact these reactions in the least desirable, most dictatorial (you see, I’m getting there) ways imaginable. Let’s look at them one by one:

  • Attraction: Attraction online gives birth to the wish to know more, so we surf away finding out as much as possible about whatever it is that caught our attention and fired up our imagination. This is harmless when it comes to finding out how to crotchet a pink hat, make a vegetable lasagne, bricolage a paper pikachu, or bake bread. It is obviously a lot less harmless when it comes to investigating how airplane cockpit doors work, when and where trucks are stationed or handled, or how bombs are built. And – on a personal level – it serves our very lowest instincts when it comes to man-marking any individual on the web who spurred our fancies (for good or for bad). Of course, there’s the innocent version: That friend on social media we know reads all our posts but never reacts; that former colleague who follows our blog but never comments; that distant aunt or uncle who browses through all our pictures but never posts anything themselves. However, there’s a very fine line between this friendly, harmless day-to-day viewing of sunsets and sparkly wines on our timelines to the intrusive, obsessive scrutiny of the totality of someone else’s online profiles. And – I dare to assert – we’ve all been there: Each and every one of us has gone off on the spiralling path of painstakingly investigating every virtual trace of another human being, from rubber ducks posted on Instagram to ancient newspaper articles hidden away in mouldy online archives, from quickly edited (or deleted) tweets to interviews and feature films accessible on YouTube or Vimeo. In other words: We’re all spies on each others’ lives.
  • Repulsion: Repulsion online brings forth the wish to untangle, so we use whatever tools we have at our hands to steer ourselves away from what irritates us. Again, this is harmless when it translates into blocking ads on tropical resorts, yoga training sessions, kids’ trampolines, or painters’ turpentine. It is a lot less harmless when it translates into ignoring information about facts and figures on vaccination, effects of climate change, or homeopathic medicine; tuning out of critical feedback, controversial discourses, or differing (political) views; not being open all the time to being wrong all the time. And – on a personal level – it serves our most detrimental delusions when it comes to excluding all unwanted appearances from the world we create around us. Again, there’s an innocent version: We‘ve all unfriended the random guy (or girl) met years ago while on holiday in Bali; we’ve all not answered an enthusiastic friend’s endless messages about some world-saving cause we couldn’t care less about; we’ve all trashed that invitation to attend a party we knew would leave us with only headaches and heartaches. But again: There’s a very fine line between this loose, unobtrusive way of not picking up on every online morsel thrown our way and a massive, heavy-handed rejection of everything and everyone not accommodating our ways of feeling cozy and comfortable. We’ve all been there, too: Blocked that troll, ignored that cry for help, ducked that engagement. In other words: We’re all manipulating each others’ lives.

Big time spies and small time manipulators – that’s what we all are drawn to be in our online lives, petty dictators, busy controlling our worlds and those we perceive as inhabitants of those worlds allowed to stay there by our grace, ourselves indulging in the illusion of being omniscient and almighty, hypocritical leaders of carefully curated followerships, created in our own image, to serve our whimsies and wishes – and woe those who dare speak up or step out of line: The button to shut them down once and for good (or for bad?) is but one mouse-click away.

I said this was going to be a rant, and a rant it is – a rant against our tendency to fall for the worst of what we can be in those colourful, noisy, multi-faceted online spaces. We, as human beings, have dealt with dictators in the so-called real world – stabbing them to death, sending them off to far-away islands, dethroning and beheading them before they could do more harm, pulling the rug from under their feet before they could trample on too many lives, continuously defending human warmth, understanding, and mutual respect against coldness, disregard, and contempt. We, as human beings, have also dealt with dictators in our mental universes – developing ingenuous tools like scientific discourses or parliamentary debates that allow us to weigh different perspectives, jointly come to new and better views, and ultimately further the propagation of truth.

So our task now (to give the rant a positive spin) will be: To deal with dictators in our emotional worlds as they appear in our online spaces – with the worst dictators being ourselves, always ready to harass, haunt, and persecute those accidentally drawing out attention, always ready to lash out at those who randomly evoke our fears and furies. We can do better, we must do better, and we will do better.

And how so? I’m convinced that one of the simplest – and at the same time most powerful – tools to checkmate the dictators we threaten to turn into is already at our hands – namely: Conversation. If the web is an ocean of speech infused with emotion, the ship to sail it is conversation infused with compassion. Communication online, in order to remain human and humane, has to be (or become) two-way conversation (with others as well as within ourselves). This means: Moving away from the broadcasting paradigm instilled by radio and television (with listeners, audiences, and viewing rates) where content is meant to inform, entertain, or motivate (as in marketing), moving away from assuming that it makes a difference whether someone is listened to by one or by many, moving away from casting the one who listens as a “fan”, as a “follower”, or as a “friend” – instead, moving towards a paradigm of dialogue (with equal partners) where content is meant to hold, question, and ultimately enhance each other’s view of the world, moving towards an audience of one being as valued and cherished as an army of adepts, moving towards cherishing each single listener as a unique mirror to light up our worlds, online as well as offline.

Whenever there’s a conversation, the journey might as well be endless and without goal.

[1] Regarding Donald Trump: A few weeks ago, I wrote about my assessment of a single sentence in his inauguration speech. That article still pretty much sums up my concerns with his presidency [retrieved Apr 12, 2017].BACK TO TEXT

[2] Examples of this admiration can be found in my blog posts about the beauty of the web the digital nature of phenomena, becoming a person on social media , the importance of silence or absence in our online relationships, or the internet’s intricate impact on our societies  [all retrieved Apr 12, 2017].BACK TO TEXT

[3] For a both beautiful and intellectually brilliant reflection on the web in general as well as on her personal story with living with it, I recommend Victoria Heffernan’s “Magic & Loss. The Internet as Art” (2016). I might accidentally borrow some of her ideas in the following paragraphs.BACK TO TEXT

[4] As an aside: This process began with the arrival of radio and television as media which undermined the connection with the physical world. The main difference to the web is that radio and television used to be owned by a few “experts” running the shows, so they defined and held a framework within which the audience could orient themselves, slump back in their chairs, and digest whatever was presented. The space of radio and television, in that sense, had a mental structure that defined what could (and could not) happen inside. The web is lacking this mental structure, because – at least so far – nobody defines how its contents come about. This might change with the increasing defining power of large internet companies. But that’s material for another post, some other time.BACK TO TEXT

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