It wasn’t the Cambridge Analytica scandal that shook my faith in the internet. Today, I am officially renouncing my affiliation to Facebook and Instagram, but it’s not because of that.
I admit I was shocked when I came across the case of a guy who was posing on the web not as Justin Bieber – surely reasonable (I once posed as David Beckham, for example) – but merely as a Justin Bieber lookalike, even though of course he looked about as different to Justin Bieber as it is possible to look while still having a nose and two eyes.
And yet still getting away with bewitching naive souls who espoused his misleading self-representation. It could have been that, but it wasn’t.
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Nor, now I come to think of it, did my quasi-spiritual crisis have anything to do with Viagogo-style exploits, hoovering up every ticket in town and selling them with some astronomical mark-up.
It was nothing to do with that American website that just charged me $200+ (£150+) for some virtual service I didn’t ask for, didn’t need, and didn’t want. Situation normal – or, as my father’s military generation would say, Snafu.
I was certainly deeply moved and upset by the story of a dignified senior citizen who phoned up Martin Lewis, the money-saving expert, on the radio, to explain, in detail, exactly how he had been ripped off by some ruthless online con artists to the tune of his entire life savings – with a notion of trying to warn off other potential "investors”. And when it comes to the virtual romance that ends in tears, my heart goes out, it really does.
Martin Lewis is suing Facebook for defamation after it published dozens of fake adverts featuring his face and name (Alamy)
A friend of a friend just the other day had a brief online encounter with a dusty, sunburned, son-of-a-gun Afghanistan veteran who, after a week or two of flirting, started the predictable requests for cash, just a small amount to begin with… I could almost have fallen for him myself. Ruggedly handsome and all. Just didn’t exist. Except in the minds of his inventors, somewhere in Russia or Singapore or… who knows?
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Perhaps the romantic scam is the exemplary instance of the paradox of the internet: on the one hand, we have the promise of knowledge (in this case carnal "and more”), on the other we find ourselves in a deep well of ignorance.
So much information, so little substance. No "objective correlative”, as TS Eliot once said of Hamlet’s emotive musings. The internet. Falling in love online – I know it can work – is like jumping into a black hole and hoping for the best. I guess that applies to falling in love anyway, but I would propose a general rule here: the internet makes everything that is bad worse.
But it was not that – none of the above – that caused me to lose my faith in the wonderful world wide web. It couldn’t be any one of those great catastrophes, scams and scandals. For the simple reason that I never had any faith in the first place. I couldn’t be disillusioned because I was never illusioned to begin with.
And if this sounds like being wise after the event, apologies, but the fact is I wrote an article for The Independent so long ago you can’t even find it on the internet (at least I don’t think so) objecting to the use of the verb (then relatively new) "to surf” applied to something that transparently didn’t involve any actual water or surfboard or the risk of drowning.
Talking of water, clearly I have never sounded more like good old King Canute (or Knut) planting his throne in front of the advancing tide and commanding it to back off. I get that.
Unlike the actual Big Bang, I was pretty much there for the genesis of the virtual universe. Those first timid conversations of computer talking to computer. "Hello”, "How are you?”, "Hey, do you want a ticket to the Rolling Stones gig, only double the face value?” and soon.
The exponential rise can readily be quantified. But the qualitative side is harder to gauge. My brief history of our perception of and attitudes towards the internet could be summarised as: utopia followed by dystopia. But it has to be admitted that the internet is now about the last religion left to get sceptical about.
The early – primordial – techno-optimism was a minor extrapolation of Marshall McLuhan’s "global village” theory. McLuhan argued – but with a kind of non-evangelical fervour – that the post-Gutenberg galaxy of television and radio had succeeded in hooking everyone up into a transcendent community, joined together invisibly over the airwaves.
A paradox of knowledge and ignorance: young people are addicted to the internet (Alamy)
How much more cohesive then, it was assumed (in that far-off naive inflationary phase), must the internet be? Real people that I knew personally were sounding off (in print or in the pub) about how the internet, in a word, was God. It would save us. Redeem poor suffering humanity.
Enable us at last to put all our conflicts and raw nationalism behind us. We would be, at last, after aeons of alienation and misunderstanding, connected, and thereby glorying in the communion of the web for ever and ever, Amen.
Here was the technological proof, if one were needed, that we had indeed attained the "end of history” promised – you could say "promoted” – by Francis Fukuyama. It wasn’t just the Berlin Wall that had come down: walls were a thing of the past and we would henceforth learn to love one another in the kingdom of non-kingdoms.
Perhaps there was a Marxian tone to some of this hype too, a sense that all the ideals of the Communist Manifesto had finally come to pass, only without the totalitarian crackdown and the gulag. An anarchist egalitarian paradise in which everyone equipped with a computer would be empowered. Farewell hierarchy. Hello harmony.
Now we know better. We know that everything online is a lie. Especially the spiel about how it’s good for you. It isn’t. If there had been one thing that was capable of shredding any lingering optimism it was surely the headlines, coming out of the Far East, to do with BUDDHISTS ON THE RAMPAGE.
Hold on, wasn’t this supposed to be the only religion (which is not really a religion, but still) that was actually peaceful? Rather than consisting mainly of murderous fanatics. Yes, it was, but then they got hold of Facebook, and paranoia took hold and they decided that duffing up and killing off Muslims would be the better way to go.
The internet is not the Promised Land of empowered and non-violent individuals, it is the ultimate realm of the crowd.
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You can call it the mob, if you prefer, particularly with the innuendo of organised crime, but I am paying homage here to that classic work of sociological analysis, Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power.
Canetti was inspired by the vision of the French Revolution, not just the storming of the Bastille but above all by the period known as the "Terror” dominated by the presence of the guillotine, in which the potential violence of the crowd was fully unleashed (and reproduced and enhanced in the Germany of National Socialism).
But there is a longer view – in an evolutionary perspective – of the crowd beyond that cataclysmic moment.
What is the purpose of the crowd? Its purpose, in its origin, was to hunt. Hunting on your own is hard. Hunting in a pack is easy and way more fun. The crowd is a pack. What do they want? They want blood. It doesn’t really matter whose.
The crowd, by way of justifying its existence, comes up with a hunting religion in which blood sacrifice is all (consider, for example, the case of Jesus, whose whole raison d’être is to die). The crowd demands a scapegoat.
I have mentioned Buddhists organising themselves via Facebook into murderous mobs, and the phenomenon of romance online. It will come as no surprise to learn that there is an inevitable link, via the crowd, between sex and violence.
I could give online chapter and verse – just look at the news pages – but I prefer to recall the chant of the Jivaros, as per Canetti, which somehow says it all:
Hej, hej, hej!
May the tsantsa grant copulation!
May it be true, hej!
We will do it, hej!
May it be good, hej!
The tsantsa is of course the head of an enemy, captured, and then shrunken to the size of a tennis ball. The crowd – the pack, the mob, the online "community” – invariably shifts from lament to triumph. Horror at the sight of death turns into satisfaction that it is someone else who is dead.
We seek to slay the idolaters wherever we find them. At the same time what the crowd seeks above all (this was Canetti’s message) is increase. It wants to increase itself. No matter what. The tendency of all crowds is to "become more and more”.
Hence the rise and rise of so many virtual crowd-pleasers. Small wonder, by the same token, if conspiracy theories are so popular when, by definition, we inhabit a conspiratorial environment.
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The internet, alas, has not seen an end to history. Rather it has simply speeded history up and put more of it on YouTube. There are more crowds than ever, all of them baying for blood. And some of them getting it. Heads really are rolling. At the same time we, the crowd, idolise and mythify the powerful individual (the "leader”).
You can hardly blame poor "Tay”, the Microsoft "chatbot”, brought up on a diet of racist tweets, for going from zero to raving white supremacist and outspoken fan of Hitler and Trump in less than a day (for which the young AI was summarily deleted).
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I know that I seem to be caught in a contradiction and that I am biting the hand that feeds me. After all, the essay you have before you is online right now and therefore must be (if I am right) almost certainly wrong. And probably fraudulent. At least I haven’t asked you for money as well. Yet.
We have become addicted to over-communication. This is the age of texting and sexting. As a female crime-writing friend (one of the real ones) pointed out, her Facebook page is mainly an opportunity for fans (the male ones, presumably) to send her "dick pics”.
I suppose it’s impossible to un-invent the internet. Go back to wandering lonely as a cloud and all that. And not simultaneously streaming a picture of yourself doing it. Have actual emotions rather than emoticons.
Fans who bought tickets for Ed Sheeran’s stadium tour through Viagogo fell victim to a scam (Alamy)
The internet is now a non-stop crime scene and the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. But perhaps it is possible, if not to withdraw entirely and go and live on a desert island, like Crusoe or the guys in Lost, at least to be a bit more selective. Disciplined. Exclusive. Not wholly given over to automatic servitude.
So I’m jumping ship. Goodbye Facebook – and Instagram – friends. It’s nothing personal. It never was. As Jean Baudrillard once neatly pointed out, "When everything is social, suddenly nothing is.” I’ll stick with Twitter and email though. I’ve got to survive somehow.
People can still contact me, if they really want to. But at least I won’t have to see what a great time they’re always having. Maybe I’ll go back to real surfing. The kind with waves. At least you have to leave your phone on the beach.
Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’ and teaches at the University of Cambridge. This article is the result of the ‘Independent Thinking’ collaboration between the University of Cambridge and The Independent
source : independent.co.uk