A Chat Room of One’s Own

Straits Times illustration by Miel

Straits Times illustration by Miel

[Straits Times]

The Internet has had a greater impact on access to information than any development in human history, with the possible exception of the invention of writing. We are more connected and better informed than ever before. So why does it often feel like what takes place on the Internet is so dumb?

Two thousand years ago, Socrates expressed similar doubts about the written word itself. If humanity relied on technology instead of our minds, he warned, we would become lazy. No one would have to remember anything because it could all be written down: “It is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.” Of course, we only have this story because Plato wrote it down. Indeed, it is now freely and instantly accessible from half-a-dozen Web sites to almost anyone in the world.

Nevertheless, the promise of the Internet never seems to have been fulfilled — a failure due in part to the nature of the medium itself and in part to our own nature.

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The structure of the Internet is, in many ways, its greatest strength. Decentralization, anonymity, and being user-driven enable access, protect freedom, and encourage creativity.

The Internet’s decentred architecture makes it robust and hard to shut down. Initially intended to withstand the devastation of a nuclear war, this now frustrates authoritarian rulers around the world. China currently employs tens of thousands to police the Great Firewall of China, part of a Sisyphean attempt to block access to sites like Facebook — or at least that’s what my Facebook friends in China tell me.

Secondly, the ability to remain anonymous can protect against reprisals for airing unpopular views. It can also enable the pursuit of a “virtual” life more interesting and fulfilling than one’s biological existence. A 1993 cartoon from the New Yorker summed it up, with one dog at a computer keyboard saying to another sitting on the floor: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Two decades later, the Internet played an important role in linking dissidents in the Arab Spring.

Thirdly, the user-driven nature of the Internet has lowered the threshold to publication. There are, for example, hundreds of millions of blogs. Today, anyone who wishes to share their opinions with the world is able to do so, essentially for free.

Yet these virtues of the Internet — decentralization, anonymity, being user-driven — are also its vices.

Decentralization undermines meaningful accountability, enabling Web sites to skirt legal restrictions and making it almost impossible to remove falsehoods from the ’net.

Anonymity encourages both responsible and irresponsible free expression. A trawl through chat rooms and Facebook pages reveals much thoughtful commentary and harmless banter, along with disturbing amounts of misogyny, bigotry, and bullying.

And being user‐driven leaves quality control to the audience rather than the authors. The barriers to publication in the pre-Internet era did not simply prevent aspiring writers from sharing their work: they protected the reading public from an avalanche of rubbish. (Disclosure: as a teenager in the pre-Internet era I wrote two awful novels, both of which were — mercifully — rejected by respected publishing houses and now exist only as single copies under lock and key.)

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The Internet as a medium thus offers promise and pitfalls. And, like any tool, the manner in which we use it can be a reflection of our own nature.

As an educator, I see the tremendous opportunities offered by the Internet. The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example, is creating the possibility of reaching far flung millions who might not otherwise go to university. Yet I also worry about students in actual universities who appear not to have developed the skill of reading closely and critically — or indeed to read for any sustained period of time at all.

Such critical reading skills become all the more important when so much information is available at the tap of a button or the swipe of a screen. Wikipedia, for example, is a tremendous resource — but should be treated as no more reliable than the opinion of half-a-dozen strangers you might come across on the MRT.

Politically, the Internet remains a work in progress. It played an important role during the Arab Spring, but many regimes also used it for propaganda purposes or to identify and harass individual dissidents. In addition, its impact is often overstated or misunderstood. Journalists breathlessly quote from English-language Twitter feeds with the hashtag “#freesyria”, for example, without asking why local activists would be writing in a language other than Arabic.

Outside of authoritarian regimes, one of the paradoxical implications of the Internet age is our tendency to gravitate towards like-minded individuals. As Cass Sunstein warned a decade ago in Republic.com, a healthy democracy requires that a population have some shared experiences and knowledge. The proliferation of information sources on the Internet, however, encourages fragmentation into ever smaller communities. This may be harmless, like the Ice Chewers Bulletin Board (www.icechewing.com), or more pernicious, as in the case of “self-radicalised” terrorists.

The rise of social media also creates an illusion of activism among a generation growing up in a transformed political environment. As Malcolm Gladwell has argued, if political activism is reduced to clicking “like” on a Facebook page or composing a snappy 140-character tweet, it will encourage political commitments that are very broad but also very shallow.

It’s analogous, one might say, to having a thousand “friends” on Facebook.

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When Virginia Woolf presented her feminist manifesto “A Room of One’s Own”, she argued that women needed literal and metaphorical space if they were to write fiction to rival men. Imagine if Shakespeare had had a sister, she mused, equally gifted in natural ability. Yet that girl would not have gone to school and would never have been independent, destined for marriage rather than a career.

The Internet today offers vast amounts of information to almost everyone on the planet, including the opportunity to participate in a truly global discourse. What we do with that information and that opportunity will define twenty-first century culture and politics.

The auguries, I fear, are not promising.

Last year, engineers from Google’s secretive X laboratory announced preliminary results from their efforts to create an artificial brain. Linking 16,000 computer processors, it built on the distributed architecture of the Internet and what we know of the human brain.

So what happens when you create a billion-connection neural network and give it unrestricted access to the Internet? Apparently, Google’s creation quickly “liked” what millions of people also appear to enjoy: watching cat videos.

The writer is the dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.

Published as “Riding the Internet Wave” in the Straits Times on April 20, 2013.