The benefits and pitfalls of living on the internet
I was launched into the world in 1994, the year the world wide web was introduced to the general population. When I was 6 and the Google search bar was revealed to me, I took the opportunity to find out if my contempt for my brother was a common one by writing: “Chris is stupid”. Google replied with: “Do you mean: Crisis stupid?”. My anger for my brother was answered with a worry about our economy.
16 years later I find myself endlessly skipping from news sites to friendly conversations, to business contacts, to entertainment, occupied with things that are not actually there. The external memory of the internet has filled my brain with a Wikipedia-like structure, with hyperlinks directed into all types of digital spaces. So when for the third time in a year my MacBook charger broke, I wondered whether I was able to get through life at all if I were to disconnect myself from the web.
In October my mother and I went to a mountain village in the south of France. I had already stopped using the internet for about two weeks and started feeling like an outsider to the digital world. My mother was taking pictures of the flowers, houses, mountains and sun rays while arching her back and stretching her arms to see her screen sharply. Her phone ran out of battery, ten minutes later we were walking back to the car. That evening she sat on the couch looking at her screen, her back merged with the couch, her chin stuck to her chest. A stern look lay on her face until her phone buzzed with a message from Dubai; a video of my uncle’s belly dancing at a family dinner.
There are three elements that define absolutely everything that happens in your life: genetics, upbringing and environment. This essay will mostly focus on the last two factors in relation to the creator living in the age of the internet. How does the maker function differently now, than one did prior to the invention of the internet? What are the benefits and pitfalls of this way of sharing and gathering information?
Nothingness haunts being
We know ancient civilisations existed because they left us cave drawings. What we don’t know is whether their reasons for sharing were similar to ours. There are different hypotheses about why they used to make cave drawings. The first one being that it was just an ancient equivalent of doodling; making something in order to pass time. These kinds of activities have vanished from our lives because we always have something more rewarding to do to fill the painful emptiness created by boredom, be it on our phones, computers or tablets. Young children, who experience time slower than adults, are heavily affected by this, so the lure of passing time online is unavoidable. “iPad schools” are popping up at the same rate as coffee bars and yoghurt stores, and are part of the business card of our current economic system. The ideology behind these schools is that children should be prepared to function in a technological society, therefore teaching them to operate on digital devices at a young age gives them a heightened chance of succeeding later on in life.
However wonderful Minecraft, Pokémon GO, and other games might seem, they have fixed limitations. In Minecraft, everything is constructed out of large square blocks, which you can organise freely, but they still are square blocks. In Pokémon GO you have to go outside to run into Pokémon, which you can collect and evolve into better Pokémon, yet all physical experiences of being outside are deprived. A child doesn’t develop the motor-skills that get trained by creating physical objects, and remains unexposed to the experience of dirtying one’s hands by digging in the earth in search of worms or coming home crying because they got stung by a bee they wanted to catch. The link between the kid and their direct environment has been cut off by a virtual layer. The consequences of these developments will slowly unfold over time, but what is known for now is that there is clearly a distinction between the recent generations of children and the ones before that. It is also known that a shift in ways of communicating leads to a shift in society.
We can see that the generation that grew up in the 90s have different life and working style than the generations before, especially when it comes to instant gratification. I know how to make a series of 3 images in one night, but when I want to make a larger project, this is usually the point where just creativity isn’t enough. This means you will have to try different things, throw most of them away and change the course of your idea. This is the opposite of the way we are used to living where we can order or clothes, food and do easy research on the internet. We buy peeled and cut potatoes because we don’t want to go through the washing, peeling and cooking before you can bake them, missing out on finding out a type of fry you like the most. Failing has become even scarier.
When humanity shifted from verbal to written, Socrates worried that our reliance on writing would erode memory, and mislead people to think that they had knowledge, when they only had data. We have had a lot of similar shifts since then; pen made way for typewriters which influenced speed, computers made it possible to easily reorganise thoughts and other material, the internet made all information accessible at your finger tips, practically making it unnecessary to remember large quantities of information, and have the ability to work on different tasks simultaneously.
The way most people use the internet in the recent years has become more and more limited, even though technological developments allow for more sophisticated content. Users spend 30%, around two hours, of their online time on social media. Communicating and sharing with friends through the Blue and white Facebook, the dark blue, green and white Tumblr and the monochrome Instagram. Then they continue to their news sites like Time: Red, black and white, or CNN: Black, red and white. This minimalist and user-friendly aesthetic has not only become conventional for social media and news websites but ranges from apps to healthcare websites. Websites such as MySpace and Hyves (in the Netherlands) where it was possible to customise your personal page have made way for Facebook, where your personality doesn’t show through the design, but through the content, you decide to share. This is a conflicting development, as when the possibilities of the internet were still extremely limited by the complexity of code, creators of websites tried their best to make their pages colourful, diverse, and personal.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Limitations and rules have good and bad sides. On one hand, a set of limitations can force someone into making creative decisions. In the early 90’s, when the UK was undergoing an exponential growth of raves and free parties, the British government announced that it was bringing in new laws to prevent free parties and festivals. Because the widespread use of drugs and the size of the gatherings, these parties didn’t bring in any revenue and were a danger to the public order. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was brought before Parliament in January 1994 and included increased police powers to stop and search people, and to take intimate body samples; provisions against squatters and travellers; and the criminalisation of many forms of protest with a new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’.
Demonstration against the 1994 public order bill.
Nonetheless, in order to write a law, one has to define the subject of it. What made a ‘rave’ different from any other gathering of people where music was being played, such as an opera festival? Hence the notorious definition of a rave as ‘a gathering on land in the open air’ with music that ‘includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. Albeit, the freedom to interpret these laws was given the organisers of the raves, leading to the development of a new genre called ‘breakcore’ or ‘breakbeat’, defined by the drum work, which is often based on the manipulation of the Amen break and other classic jungle and hip-hop breaks, at high BPM. The techniques applied to achieve this differs from musician to musician, some preferring to cut up and rearrange the breaks, while others merely distort and loop breaks or apply various effects such as delay and chorus to alter the break’s timbre, effectively not characterised by “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.
Limitations can also narrow down your perspective of the world. Google and Facebook use algorithms in order to provide people with content and ads most suiting to their needs and interests, this seems beneficial, as no time is wasted on irrelevant content. Yet, the chances of encountering subjects that trigger the development of new interests gets eradicated by feeds neatly tailored to your online body. These algorithms strongly affect the artist’s creative research. When a starting point is a theme, a google search will most often reply with a definition of that theme, often short, unspecific, and lacking of concrete examples or anecdotes. In this first phase of research, serendipity can benefit the artist much more than the over-specified and shallow answers of a search machine (which can not distinguish what you define as interesting). Once the artist has found his angle, Google and the alike will help them refine and go deeper into their subject. When the starting point of the artist is more concrete (i.e. they already have a subject), they should not let this confine their research, as this will only lead to superficial, or no results. So defining their themes and starting the process from there, will allow more creative impulses to arrive to the maker.
This doesn’t mean the artist has to aimlessly wander hoping they will bump into something that fits their theme (even though aimlessly wandering might help in the case of a total lack of inspiration). Research entails as much of a creative process as making something does! Luckily we are not isolated creatures, and diving into others’s experiences with the themes of interest might direct one to their subject. Depending on the age of the person who’s reading this, this might sound totally obvious and even a little dumb, but reading books (and not only the pages that talk specifically about your subject), watching movies, and listening to the radio will provide you with stories that can provide you a new way of looking at the environment you’re working in. I have noticed that within my generation, the one that grew up on the internet, the anxiety of not immediately finding what you’re looking for by performing research that doesn’t seem cost- and time-effective, has the tendency to inhibit the creative process.
Social media is about engagement, and in order to create engagement, you first have to direct people’s attention towards your message. The algorithms applied to your timeline do not only calculate what content is most relevant to an individual, but they also apply an enormous strain on the structure of society. On Facebook, text posts ranging from 0 to 80 characters generate the highest engagement rates. To let your message reach a large audience you have no other choice than being short, concrete, and sensational, nuance isn’t any of these. This perhaps isn’t necessarily relevant to the artist, but it sure is to every individual on this planet, and especially to those in the journalistic field. Facebook users are provided with politically loaded articles and stories from unconfirmed sources that fit snugly to their convictions, constructing an environment in which people get continuous affirmation of their ideals, making them seem common and acceptable.
How to engage with no one
The evolution in coding was not only improved by creating more powerful computers, it is also due to that coders combined existing elements to create something new, improving it on the way. Especially artists in the Post-internet movement often appropriate technological, cultural or aesthetics from the internet in order to comment on it. These art pieces mostly rely on overstimulation to trigger people to think about how they live (like photographers do in typographical work). This is recognisable to the mind that is used to these stimulants, instead of confronting people with how it can be different than how they are living at that moment, either in a fictional situation or in a real one that they are not usually exposed to. I think the first one is less of a creative but more relatable solution, while the latter relies on connection making (this is common in conceptual work) in the maker and the viewer. Like with debating, people can have arguments relying on facts, while others have arguments which place a foreign situation into a more relatable one, but it is easier for the defender to dismiss it because can say they do not see the connection between the metaphor and the situation. Just as easily as you can dismiss this metaphor.
If we do not actively expose ourselves to slower media, which are less likely to generate instant pleasure. We do not activate thought patterns which can change a person, for example with art pieces that trigger empathy and awareness. We’d rather punch them in the face with a boxing glove, or a give them a bouquet of flowers than to make them think about why this is happening. This especially is the case in advertising, memes, news articles, tweets, and post-internet art, depending on a singular *click* moment in which the viewer is made aware of something.
We want to look the way we want others to see us
Users were fairly anonymous in the first decade of the internet era. On forums, one would create usernames as 666Dark_Lord_666 or Drag0n_Sw0rd1337 as an alternate identity. People would join forums that interested them, whether it was a hobby, a political group or an engineering forum, one could say what they really thought while conversing about the differences among them.
But as Google first found out, was that data online was sellable and that by digging up someone’s search history you can make people buy something.
Most of the people on Facebook aren’t miraculously themselves just by showing their face and giving their names, but they do profile themselves as the person they want to be seen as. Instead of having micro cultures, large cultures such as Facebook and Instagram makes people communicate with either people they know or people they look up to. The diversity of websites (as I’ve mentioned before) has declined so much that people don’t interact with strangers as much as they did.
We weren’t always obsessed with the way we were seen by other people. Until we had invented a proper medium that could distribute information to a large group, we were limited to sending single information to single people, which, depending on the content, was summarized verbally to others. The letterpress came and photography came, instead of one choosing who give a letter, letting them choose to read your book. And instead of showing your friend a picture of a supermodel, the photograph in the advertisement shows you what is beautiful.
One of the big shifts in advertisement has now occurred where people who share their lives with others, get paid to promote products of certain brands. Especially on youtube, you can see an extreme shift since the launch of it.Which initially was just people doing funny things on camera or making video diaries on their 1-megapixel webcam. It has become “who has the nicest car” again. Even typical nerds getting sponsored by big brands like Monster energy drink and Nike.
In the end, I managed to stop using the internet for two months, and when I came back I was appalled by social media. I couldn’t stand opening Facebook and encounter the hundreds of notifications I’d missed, the endless stream of news, people shoving their ideologies into other people’s faces (and if someone doesn’t agree they immediately attack), happy people, sad people and cats.
I thought the world had changed with me, so coming back to a place where people were doing and saying the exact same things they said before I went off. In my experience the world wasn’t as scary as the constant stream of news made us think, and that you can perfectly survive without Google, Facebook and Whats App when you go outside. Because what if I get lost for a moment? I probably will not die in the city of the Hague, but might get to see a part of town I wish I had discovered years before, meet the person that will tell you a legendary story, find the best supermarket, and maybe even see a cute dog.
Will I fully stop using the internet?: No, probably not. Will I be able to limit my use to degrees that aren’t harmful to my mood, cognitive process, creativity, and my world-view? I sure hope so.