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Race against the Machine

16 January 2012, 16:00

As far as history-altering events go, the Internet is pretty much on par with an alien race visiting earth and bestowing their technology upon us. We were a fairly simple society who typically had enough time each day to take care of our required tasks and still spend a few hours in front of the TV in the evening. Information about the world came to us sporadically and always adhered to schedules and regimens. If you wanted breaking news, you had to wait for the news report on TV or radio or pick up a newspaper the next morning on the way to work. Our only sources of information outside of what we could find via television and magazines were those old encyclopaedias most informed families had in their houses, access to a library or a university scholarship if you were driven enough to really understand a particular subject. All of which seems pretty archaic now but we were happy with it back then, we knew no other way of life.

Less than ten years ago we were still freaking out over the novelty of cellphones with colour screens, acronyms were still reserved for professional terminology and crossword puzzles and the Internet was still a fairly undeveloped child as far as creating interpersonal relationships were concerned. Then the rise of superstars like Google changed the way we found information and suddenly we all had the option of learning more about medicine without needing to obtain PhDs, about making cocktails without being barmen, about building pipe bombs without going to terrorist meetings. IM applications like Skype, Yahoo and MSN Messenger dragged obscure IRC users out from the underbelly of the lonely internet geeks club and into the embrace of mainstream society. Suddenly talking to people online went from being creepy and weird to being the new cool. Meanwhile Napster, however unintentionally, instilled a strong activism in everyday people to fight for the right to access information freely. In the past, if you wanted information or entertainment, you would have to pay for it. Which was fine, until the day we were offered the impression of being unshackled from those restrictions. Suddenly we could roam the world and access any point on the planet from our living rooms, bedrooms and offices. The internet gave every average person a feeling of entitlement, that feeling that they now had the right to know more and have more, share more...and that payment should become as obsolete as the CDs and books we used to buy from stores. Generation X was withering while the new generation of information junkies rose from the shadows of isolation like a ravenous army of soldier ants after a long winter underground. Everything was about to change.

As much as the internet had matured to that stage where it made sense to start making it a more personal experience, people just weren’t quite ready for what was about to happen to their perception of privacy. Youtube and MySpace lay out an exciting new path of possibility for every person with internet access. Suddenly you could build a profile and share your ideas, photos and experiences with the world. Humanity was hooked. Then Facebook surfaced from the most unexpected source and the developed world went into a frenzy. The notion that ‘if you didn’t have a Facebook profile, you didn’t exist’, soon became a very real perception to people around the world. Everyone was putting themselves out there willingly, in a way that before would have been nothing short of overexposure and too much information. It would have been like walking around and showing random strangers your holiday photos and expecting them to happily comment on it. But in the virtual world the rules are very different. Here sharing your most private things was not only accepted, it was encouraged and even expected after a while. We were sucked into this new way of life so rapidly that the global phenomenon of an online life consumed our real lives and because it was such a new thing, there were no ground rules, no set agreed upon ethical conduct that decided where the lines should be drawn. The legal system had to rapidly adapt to facilitate laws to somewhat control online conduct and to this day we haven’t come close to establishing an internationally agreed upon way of behaving in an acceptable manner online. It was pretty much a matter of anything goes. The business world soon realized that the internet was no longer just a means for sending e-mail, it was becoming one very powerful tool of communication. And so social media marketing suddenly sprung up and the world went from being cursed by calls from telemarketers to being bombarded with spam e-mails and online advertising wherever they set a virtual foot. The world suddenly became a far more competitive place to live in, especially if you were a business entity. Battle lines were drawn and the fight went from who had the best newspaper advert to who had the most compelling and interesting website. Marketing went from being a push mechanism where people were force fed information through being bombarded, to a pull mechanism where people were invited to join a community and interact.

Blogs started sprouting up in the meantime and it went from being something people used to share recipes and write their opinions on politics or their love of kittens and knitting, to becoming a viable way of making a living for those smart enough to know how to utilize it. There was a huge argument among members of the media about blogs and whether a blogger should be considered a ‘real’ writer or not. Journalists would not be caught dead blogging as it was considered the inferior way of communicating. It was the poor man’s cheap imitation Ray Bans while they were the die-hard label devotees who would not dare so much as look at anything but the real deal. It was the greatest insult, knowing that they had studied for years and yet everywhere people were surfacing with no formal education and stealing their spotlight. But soon the walls starting crumbling, especially after a prominent New York Times journalist decided to hell with it and started to blog. He received endless amounts of flak from his peers and plenty of praise from the blogging community and before long, journalists and writers came to realize that blogging was not sacrilege after all.

The final straw of information restriction broke when Twitter was unleashed upon the world. While it took a while to catch on here in South Africa, it rapidly grew globally and became the one way of getting instant information about what was going on in the world. The power of Twitter was that, in the same way that blogging made any person a writer, Twitter could make any person a news reporter at the center of the action. Suddenly news broke not thanks to a journalist who got to the scene of an event an hour after it happened, but thanks to the people who were there and saw the whole thing first hand. Smartphones became the tools of evidence and suddenly everyone had the immense power in their hands to immediately let the world know what was going on, from anywhere. Of course, the downside of Twitter was that the rapid spread of information could easily stir up some very false stories. Several celebrities were declared dead, some with the misfortune of repeatedly suffering this fate, thanks to some online pyromaniacs who thought it’d be fun to set fire to a suggestion and watch the whole world go up in flames. In spite of the occasional negative effects of Twitter, it was still a powerful force to be reckoned with and world leaders had to sit up and take notice when they realized this new tool could create a tidal wave of rebellion in countries where such things were strictly forbidden. The world had become a global village in a way that made that term seem entirely ludicrous before now...and it was only shrinking more by the day.

So where does this leave us? In a matter of a few short years our very existence has been redefined by the technology that we’ve now merged with. And yet, we still don’t really know exactly how to make use of it optimally. People still over-expose themselves and live to regret it. Everyone is now a writer, a photographer, a marketer, an online expert. Everyone wants to have the full seven course meal that the online world has to offer and don’t want to miss out on anything. The oldest generation is left being robbed by phishing scams because they were never informed of the dangers of corrupt sharks that swim the virtual waters of our world, while the youngest generation has never known a life before the internet and smartphones and ends up thinking it’s normal to throw their thoughts and lives out there without any hesitation. The internet has become the free buffet table that everyone wants to gorge off of. Thanks to that we’re sitting with a global web that’s gasping under the weight of so much information that it’s become near impossible to find quality in all of that quantity. We have a massively over-saturated market where we can finally see just how much incredible talent there is out in the world, but at the same also recoil a bit at the clear reflection of what matters to humanity as a whole. It’s gone from being a giant hall filled with categorized think tanks where each one had a specific and unpolluted purpose, to now resembling the aftermath of an alcohol-drenched frat party where everyone just threw their personal belongings down and left it to pile up. I pity the cleaning service that has to try and organize this mess but ideally the internet should be a smooth and organized machine. One where you can find the information you seek and have it be valid and not speculation. One where the mad race between web services had finally hit a stable plateau and you know a website will be around in a year’s time and not be replaced by another new kid on the block with flashier clothes but ultimately the same moves and flaws. While we wait for things to balance out and for our phones to work without crashing and our social media websites to stop changing the formula and leaving millions of people having to figure out how to use it all over again, we need to learn to take a step back and find balance in how we prioritize our online lives against our real ones. Technology has brought us an amazing new means of living and learning, but we might well be forgetting how to actually live and interact face to face because of it. Once – and hopefully it does happen - we learn to make the internet and technology a tool to better life and not a replacement for life, we’ll begin to balance out our development and regain some perspective again.

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