ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Mirrorball —

I’m probably going to regret posting this, but I deal mostly in regret and nostalgia daily, so it’ll all be just fine.

The Thing is now everywhere online. It’s absorbing everyone, every place people begin to talk about any aspect of people. I can’t think of a social interaction space of any part where it’s currently not in full rage. But I am not interested in The Thing. I’m interested in a specific vector of The Thing, which is (as far as I know) not quite explored, and appears to be a syndrome of the chicken-coop world the “online-ing of everything” is causing.

I am not using any specific words because that is how The Thing gets in and it is less about The Thing than what The Thing happens to be finding in the weakness in human beings.

Back in my heady days of Wikipedia Critic At Large, I was also fascinated with how Wikipedia was a dark mirror that held up to us the very fundamental issues of our souls. How an attempt to create a politics and drama-free zone for information retrieval simply became a vacuum that was absorbed by the warring factions of Inclusionism and Deletionism, a place where agendas over stories that were at utter odds with each other were expected to live in the same space, and where the wonkified and self-absorbed of petty tyrants could run free as long as they spoke just the right language and used the right phrases to describe their extension of power. This was all activity that had been in effect for all of civilization, with some industrialization of that effort in the 20th Century – it was just out in the open and being provided an intense laboratory environment in Wikipedia.

To describe everything Wikipedia has shown us in terms of information manipulation, techniques for controlling the message, and the power of persistence over truth or knowledge… that’d be a book. A book I’m just not going to write, thanks very much.

But outside of a few angry forums and a couple excellent articles, Wikipedia’s situation was confined largely to Wikipedia itself – if you step in there and walk the hallways of the talk pages or read the mailing lists run by the Wikipedia organization, it’s all there and affecting people in that space but not, say, every weblog, every Facebook, every comments section, every moment of online life.

Not so with The Thing.

If I appear to be talking about this all in a very strange manner, it’s because The Thing is so virulent, so intensely catastrophic in terms of interaction with it, that the chances of it blowing up in your face are beyond extreme. But let’s try anyway.

When you point at the moon, a person will look at the moon, and a dog will look at the pointing finger. Please be a person in this.

Here is my theory.

  • Generally, as a person, you do not like to see the oppressed oppressed.
  • Generally, as a person, you have a limit at which you feel you must speak.
  • Online life lowers this limit below the floor, meaning all things need you.
  • Online life also conflates issues and people, equating them in language.
  • Issues tend to actually be groups of issues appearing, from the distance of outside circumstance, to be the same big issue.

And then this happens.

  • If you witness a group of issues, some relevant and some irrelevant, you will feel a need to respond to the relevant issues.
  • If you witness someone responding to the relevant issues of the group, you will think they are responding to the group of issues.

The exploit, taken from this, is then clear: Group up a bunch of issues (Apples, Oranges, Watermelons, Rat Poison) and then people who show concern about the Rat Poison will seem to be showing concern on Apples and Oranges. And people who are supporting Apples and Oranges could easily be mistaken for supporters of Rat Poison.

Once that spark hits the kindling, it’s over. Human foible, language, and attention to detail that can only come from the online world, combined with the reaction time of milliseconds, a single click, ensure the fire can burn forever, consuming all in its path.

Like I said, I thought of Wikipedia as Humanity’s Dark Mirror. I think this new Thing is a mirrorball, a globe of facets that are bound to reflect what you are looking for in your direction, and aim a distorted, skewed image of a hundred other things that will catch your eye as well, and beg you to do something about them.

Once in, you’re in. Maybe I’ll be in now. I hope not – I’m really busy as it is.

Here’s where, having framed the situation as best I could, I propose a solution.

I have no solution.

I am stumped.

I loved my little world on the telephone as a teenager – I saw possibilities and dreams far beyond my youthful sadness and isolation. I wished a world where every moment, I could reach out to other people, talk into the day and the night. I wished that I would never again know the silence of my own heartbeat and fears of a life ending without having known all that could be known. I wanted connection and interconnection, worldwide.

I appear to have gotten that.

I am afraid.

Categorised as: computer history | jason his own self

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