Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Why I'm getting less political on the net

Reading through the Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee in 2003, and struck by just the sheer shallowness of political engagement the net has brought about. (My own engagement included.)

Consuming content every waking hour has left us with no time to explore an issue, let alone think about it properly, and/or deliberate about it in order to come to an in-depth, considered decision. The whole political process has been industrialised into a series of clicks, and the metrics we store in social media databases, such as number of re-amplifications, has somehow turned into votes. We bypassed political thought in an age of symbols, just as action is most needed. Consider why Trump sticks to Twitter - it instantly allows for 'broadcast' publicity, with absolutely zero deeper engagement as a follow-on. It's nothing close to a conversation, even though, on the surface, he appears to be 'accessible' by gasp actually posting his own tweets.

Once you get your head round just how shallow politics is at the 'net' level (ie Internet-first politics), you want to scream first, and then just get out and not look back. It's a dead-end direction - so long as convenient symbols are allowed to dictate powers and influence, at a societal level, then richer conversation will always get pushed out. We're so used to it now - a rapid adaptation based on tech companies doing huge work to understand our addictions - that even small shifts back in the other direction feel momentous. Moving to Mastodon, for example, and escaping a restrictive character limit, is still just a sticking plaster on a intractable problem. Identity-led services that encourage rapid context-switching, a network-effect approach that capitalist tech thrives on, are fundamentally 'shallow'. Everything you do is temporary to the point of instant forgetfulness. That's not 'wisdom', that's just... instant disposability.

Every time someone sets up a new Facebook group to address some political aim, I scream a little bit more. I don't want too discuss things that I care about in a privately-owned forum designed to addict you to as much content as possible. On the flip side, I know I now have to make an effort to escape the new default model of engagement. Once you have a smartphone, or a social media account, that's it - you're locked into a way of participating with the world. The network effect makes not doing that so much harder. But we have to try.

On the plus side, it's useful to remember that power is not totally captured by the networked symbols paradigm. As David Boyle points out, the correlation between use of symbols and network technologies is a fairly liberal thing - the outcasts can employ symbols powerfully, but they are still only one side of a battle for power, and the system as a whole has plenty of oh her methods of wielding power. Cypherpunks write code. Activists get on with effecting change.

So I'm tempted to ignore the political side of social media even more than I do. I use Twitter to ask questions and stay in touch with people. I read news to get a sense of events, not to form opinions. I try not to be swayed emotionally or politically by either, because it's too easy and too shallow.

This leaves me free to return to an alternative set of questions. What do I care about enough to engage with, what methods are effectively at doing so, and who else is working in the same overlaps of content and process?

No comments: