In an essay published in 1994 by Carmen Hermosillo, she argues that online communities have led to a commodification of the soul, resulting in a complex transfer of power and autonomy away from the individual to the organizations controlling the medium of discourse.1
when i went into cyberspace i went into it thinking that it was a place like any other place and that it would be a human interaction like any other human interaction. i was wrong when i thought that. it was a terrible mistake.
The online experience does not facilitate human interaction. It is a collection of services, provided to us by large corporations, guided and censored along varying degrees. These services are paid for primarily through advertisements and user tracking. There remain brief, dying facets of the web that are funded primarily by altruism.
Browsing the internet feels like being strapped down on rail tracks with your head affixed to the horizon. Imagine seeing the faint outlines of serene mountains off in the distance- then an impenetrable frosted glass wall drops from the sky demanding payment, authentication, and acceptance into a maze of policy and terms. You nod and jerk your head, partly to surrender to the whims of this barrier, mostly as a frantic knee-jerk reaction to dismiss it. Congratulations, the barrier disappears! You are rewarded with the privilege of viewing the mountain scenery. It turns out to be an elaborate billboard cutout, enticing you to visit a newly opened amusement park. Various other advertisements slowly emerge into your field of view, as if originating from behind your head. The ability to observe the artificial cutout is obscured. Blinking does nothing. As you are pushed along the tracks, these advertisements flicker, changing ever so slightly to accommodate the current environment, responding to your focus, tracking your line of sight. An uneasy realization sets in.
Another aspect is the feedback, or short bursts of extreme attention and traffic. Cyberspace is mostly routine. You check your email, then check your feeds, perhaps contribute something to the void. Generally, nothing remarkable occurs. Occasionally, you spark a burst of attention and the flames of many users warm- or burn you. All contextual information about each individual observing you is missing. All parties are reduced to static caricatures, decomposable and free to take out of context by any third-party to package and represent any idea. You share static snapshots of yourself with other users, who in turn respond with their own static snapshot of themselves. At best, the presented representation of yourself is curated and cohesive, at worst it is apathetic and careless.
These analogies are of course insufficient. The choices presented online to any individual are as boundless as they are limited. After an eternity of mindless consumption, even the most mentally jarring and eye catching stimuli will be bland and tasteless. Creative endeavors of the user need to fit into the narrative of the platform used, otherwise it is purged or ghosted. Further pursuits, breaking the meta, going beyond the existing methods, require orders of magnitude more effort and risk censorship and attack on a more physical level.
I describe myself as relatively privacy conscious, self-aware of the hypocrisy I indulge in. Despite setting my default Firefox search preferences to DuckDuckGo, my daily use email accounts are managed through Google’s free Gmail and paid productivity suite offerings. Google Photos, with its seamless integration into my Android phone, contain copies of all of the pictures and videos I capture through the device. My original Facebook account, touting my real name and used as a forum for genuine self expression has long been disabled and deleted. A current account exists using a neural network generated face and a meaningless name with glyphs and umlauts.
I consume lots of media through various forms. Videos, algorithmically tuned to maximize my watch time, are presented to me in an endless feed. I do low effort reading of Hacker News, Reddit, and other niche community news aggregation and voting websites. My high effort engagement is reserved for software developer oriented tools, such as GitHub and StackOverflow. I attempt to express myself through systems that I have control over, such as this static site, and through the software that I build myself. I have a collection of open source projects of varying degrees of quality floating in the technological ether, chronologically marking my incremental progress and journey of my software engineering skill set.
I have distributed backups of practical things that have great utility to me; things like my password vaults, important source code. I do not backup my photos. I run Debian with a great gratitude to its free philosophy. I rely on non-free hardware.
Although I am not an average user of the internet, I would describe myself as unremarkable and subject to the same mass surveillance as any other individual. I have accomplished nothing extraordinary in this world. When I die, my ripple in the memories of this electronic universe shall be forgotten and archived. To the eternal observer, I send only my gratitude and my love, wishing to convey a deep respect of time and our shared space.
“Introducing Humdog: Pandora’s Vox Redux”, Alphaville Herald, http://alphavilleherald.com/2004/05/introducing_hum.html ↩︎