Opinion piece by Dr Morten Bay
In a normal week, the internet can make you want to pull the plug from your router and burn the damn thing in a sacrificial ritual to honor of Mother Nature and her analogue promise of unequivocal truth, authenticity and life-affirming illumination.
Except, you can’t quit the internet because you are the internet — quite literally.
The internet, with its constant presence, social media envy and endless fakery, is not some parasite that showed up in the 1990s, enslaved you by bodysnatching your brain and turned you into an eternally screen-clicking bundle of tendonitis and ADHD. (If it had, that would be technological determinism.) Rather, the internet came about as a result of our very human urge to communicate and socialize, and is a reflection of naturally-occurring phenomena.
In 1961, Paul Baran of the RAND Corp. was first to present a realizable blueprint for a digital communication network that essentially worked the same way that the internet does today. He got his ideas from conversations with early computing pioneer Warren McCulloch who, in the 1940s, suggested modeling computers on the human brain, constructing them as neural networks in order to create artificial intelligence by mimicking the concept of how neurons interact, connect and build pathways.
Baran’s conversations with McCulloch led him to the idea that digital communication networks could also be structured like the human brain, a concept which now enables most of our digital interactions with each other.
A few years later, in 1967, Larry Roberts, the chief scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was trying to plan a new computer network, the ARPANET, which eventually became the foundation for the internet.
Roberts (who sadly passed away on December 26) had sorted everything out except for how to make the network stable and fast enough for regular people to use it without frustrations. He found a solution in Baran’s earlier RAND work and, in broad terms, that’s how Baran’s 1961 concepts became the underlying principles of nearly all digital communication technologies we use today — including the internet.
In other words, the idea for the basic functionality of modern digital communication was inspired by the human brain.
Shortly after the turn of this century, that development came full circle: As the internet grew into the biggest communication infrastructure in history, network scientists and sociologists made new discoveries about how we interact with each other, drawing new types of network maps.
As the web and, later, mobile computing and social media took off, these network maps exhibited new characteristics — but more importantly, scientists began discovering those same network characteristics in biological contexts. Up through the aughts, scientists found network structures that they recognized from the internet everywhere from the cells in our bodies to parasitic organisms living in the salt marshes outside Santa Barbara, California.
In 2012, based on studies of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania, Harvard researchers presented compelling evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors organized their societies in social networks that looked a lot like the naturally-occurring networks in nature, rather than the tall hierarchies of Western civilization. Our ancestors’ apparent disregard for the inefficiency of hierarchy-for-hierarchy’s-sake and the urge for constant interconnectivity later became synonymous with millennials who had grown up with the internet (an attitude which annoyed Boomers and early Gen Xers).
Networks are natural to humans — powerful, efficient mechanisms for growth and dissemination of information — so we built the internet. But we create networks even if what is disseminated or grown is malignant, which is key.
The internet went from a research-focused network to a commercial one during the Reagan-Bush era, and so it was almost unavoidable that the hyper-individualistic and image-conscious human behavior associated with the last 40 years would also manifest itself on the internet. When the marketing of yourself becomes essential to your survival, how can you not be focused on presenting yourself on social media as though your life is fantastic and glorious?
And when the ease of connection between humans makes it easier to purchase the services of those who are willing (or economically encouraged) to participate in a labor market of autonomous workers, Uber, Taskrabbit and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk happen. You get the gig economy where products and services are cheaper for consumers and business, but not because the proverbial middle man has been cut. Rather, those nice discounts are obtained by cutting collective bargaining or other rights and protections enjoyed by employees elsewhere.
Mark Zuckerberg often says that his original mission with Facebook was to connect everyone and spread understanding and information, break down hierarchies and give everyone a voice through decentralization. Unfortunately, he chose to operate his hierarchy-breaking-down agent though the auspices an old-fashioned hierarchical corporate giant. (If he really wanted to realize his vision, he would turn Facebook into a co-op.)
Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram are all the same. There is a tension between the original, distributed vision of the internet with its promises of emancipation and the fact that the current state of Western capitalism rewards centralization. The gig economy, for example, may seem like a laissez-faire economist’s dream of a completely free labor market, but control is actually placed in central hubs occupied by tech giants. You can’t be an Uber or Lyft driver without the app, and you can’t negotiate your fee directly with the customers.
The internet is just a network like any of the other ones that surround us in nature or exist in our bodies; quitting it would be like trying to leave the Earth by jumping.
But the internet is also currently controlled by corporations who (rightfully) want to make a buck and its many services and features are used by people who act in accordance with the sociopolitical cultures surrounding them.
You don’t want to quit the internet. You want to quit the offline cultures that make the internet what it is today.
Dr Morten Bay is a research fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where he also teaches. He studies emergent media technologies and has written numerous award-winning books and articles on the subject
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.