Pack up your baggage so you can bring it with you
For those of us who used to need to actively navigate our own web experience, the internet is nearly unrecognisable. I was just post-BBS and pre–file sharing – I was the cool kid on the block for having access to a CD burner. In my life the internet was like a new growth, something that moved and grew so slowly that day-by-day it was the same, but month-by-month we found new things to do.
The internet was an opportunity to build something that didn’t need to be held to the same standards as the physical world. We didn’t need to be able to touch it – we could build something entirely out of abstractions. And while you were always bound to the hardware (something that mobile phones have truly revolutionised), and the conventions of language (to a point anyway, we were post-picture and pre-video), it could have given us a space where we didn’t have to be the same people. In fact, back then most of us decided to be different people. Before Chatroulette there was the ICQ random friend finder, where you pretty much selected your chat partner (obviously no video) by language. In a world where printers and scanners were still separate, it was unusual for people to have photos to share with each other, and even they were usually gross, artifact-filled jpgs, so we just relied on words.
As the internet became more accessible, more affordable and more integrated with every day processes, the audience grew. In one way, this was great. Suddenly I could talk to people I knew at school on instant messenger (provided we used the same platforms – I hopped straight from ICQ to MSN Messenger, and I’ve followed it to Skype, but there was a time where I would run MSN, Yahoo chat and AIM at the same time). It felt like the internet was making itself easier to understand so that more of us could get on board.
But when computer literacy because the expectation, things started to change a little. The advent of Google in 1998 started to streamline traffic to certain sites, and big sites became bigger at the expense of the smaller specialty sites. People started to gather around hubs rather than seeking out their interests – people were online but they didn’t know why. They didn’t want anything that the internet had to offer, but they considered themselves at the forefront of innovation. When Facebook hit the stage in 2004, the scene was set – everyone and their grandmother was getting online.
The last thirteen years have been a whirlwind of innovation. Instead of an internet defined by people shared interests, we’re plagued with responsive interfaces, researchers spending countless hours and resources on tactile displays, keyboard feedback on a flat surface, anything so that we can feel something when we type on a phone. Because most people find it strange and foreign to interact with something that doesn’t respond the way they expect it to. We get confirmation emails, dialogue boxes telling us that our actions have been received by the system, that we don’t need to worry about it from now on. It’s like the entire process giving us a nod and a smile before they turn away to file our paperwork.
Instead of being handed a newspaper, people can now waste all day on the news – not the national news, or even global news, just a constant stream of information from people close to them, or even people not close to them. There are years’ worth of makeup tutorials on YouTube, someone could feasible spend their entire lives watching them, for free, without ever interacting with another human being (or sanitising their brushes). People are reading social media instead of the news, flashy graphics are abusing our bandwidth and slowing down our websites, but because they’re pretty and remind us that we can interact with them, designers keep on rolling them out.
Instead of creating new experiences we’re obsessed with recreating every part of our physical experience that we can digitally. Remember the hype about Google Glass? It died because people don’t want a phone that they can wear on their face, they still can’t interact with it in the way that they deal with a phone (as you’re not even touching it), and it’s impacting their physical experience (not just because people were being beaten up for wearing them). Why? Because people want to curate their digital experience, not have it defined by their physical experience. Why do you think Oculus has secured so much funding? Because creating a new, consequence-free reality (even if it’s digital) is more enticing than just augmenting the reality that we have. We want new, not better.
We had the opportunity for the internet to be a weird concoction of people’s passions, and instead it just wound up becoming a huge attempt to recreate and reshape a reality we already had full control of. There’s a picture in every Psychology 101 textbook that shows a model of a human being with the body parts in proportion to the nerve endings they contain, and to me this is what the internet now represents – a map of the human id, featuring endless rabbit holes for the most basic of human urges that were always serviced in the physical world, at the expense of the truly passionate and the truly curious finding each other.