The internet is a network of nodes, from this laptop, to that cash register, to their phones. Even the refrigerator, for some reason, is an unsecured node.
Many, if not most of those nodes have a human guiding them, either in real time or in script. I am currently typing this in an application installed on my laptop, but I could be typing it in a web browser or an email. On Google Drive, updates to this revision could be shown to my collaborators in real time. Behind my application on my screen, there is a web browser with the familiar blue bar of Facebook, and a happy red number. For every increment of that number, that’s another connection, another conversation. Another reminder that I have meaning to somebody else. I was not a happy kid.
What the people at each node want is attention; traffic. They want to feel valued. People don’t go on the internet to be left alone, they go there to swim in an ocean of personalities. Some of those personalities can be overtly synthetic, as in games, but mostly the personalities are actually other people. The game, the textbox, the version controller insulates us from all the visual cues of those personalities. It insulates us from the physical reality of other people. If they are imposing, or shouting, or aggressively shaking your hand, all that is irrelevant on the internet. Their achievements are their texts, their logic and their motions in game. Spending all day making a castle in Minecraft or Second Life is a different cat than spending all day making a wall in that castle in real life. Anyone can do the former, with time and dedication, but the latter takes physical skill, strength, and stamina.
In many interfaces on the internet, timeliness is meaningless. Or at least, has less meaning. I was once buttonholed at a party by a politician and raconteur loaded with stories. At first fascinating, he became tedious after the 45th paragraph. My questions shifted from open to closed, from probing to leaving. I tend to speak too briefly with this in mind, sure my words are an imposition on the guests. The spoken word is all about attention. Who has the attention has the power. On the internet, in text or on projects, power is more verbal. But a conversation can happen over minutes or days. There is no dishonor in being silent for a day. The time afforded in these asynchronous conversations is ripe for research. There’s no reason to reply in a thread in anger or ignorance. We have the google, we shall not want.
Attention Seeking and the Spectacular Internet
Conversations on the internet are also largely in pubic view and legible. Every day we hold billions of online debates on public channels. The topics of these conversations are often raised at cocktail parties after a few gimlets. In person, at a party, we have to quit caring that we don’t know anyone there to starting running off our mouths about our most cherished and nursed beliefs. On the internet we get right to it, because as much as we don’t know them, they don’t know us either.
The other feature of internet interactions is that the relationships are entirely voluntary and publicly private. We can indulge our darkest fantasies or share our most shameful secrets, surrounded physically by those we keep the secrets from. The thrill of discovering fellow travelers when we were raised to be publicly ashamed of our wants or our beliefs is intoxicating. Internet chat excels at making these connections.
The combination of attention-seeking, thinking-before-we-respond, and privacy makes the Internet particularly appealing to introverts and outcasts. I grew up with a rich interior world, much because the exterior world of school and home found me so lacking. It would be oversimplified to say that that the internet saved me, as I had already made my way through a Master’s degree and several jobs before I got my LiveJournal account at age 32.5. For younger introverts and outcasts, for whom the internet was always there, with LiveJournal as meaningful to them as Nixon was to me, this openness and freedom would be taken for granted. Even though the internet model of communication is now ubiquitous, the three traits I outlined at the top still make it most thrilling for introverts, outcasts, and loners. On the internet, all these people can taste popularity for the first time in their lives.
This is why the internet grows violent nationalism and theocratic extremism.
Nothing gets attention like the most forbidden thoughts out there. These are even more thrilling when you aren’t immediately shunned the way you would be IRL. The internet allows us to control our associations. If we want, we can fall into a cocoon of people who agree with us completely, or compete to be more and more versions of ourselves. While this sounds like self improvement, “more and more” could be racial grievance, national hatreds, or theocratic bigotry.
Why are so many terrorists Engineers?
The largest single predictor for Jihadist terrorism is engineering. Both want the world to work in a certain way, and have little patience for deviation from norms. The largest single predictor for “alt-right” white nationalism is alienation from the liberal zeitgeist of tolerance and equal protection under the law. Both are unified by their fascination with the unthinkable. The attention-seeking model of the internet makes their views either intimately thrilling or deliciously shocking, depending on if they are among fellow travelers or not.
For millions of years our standing in society has been determined by what we did for our peers. Up until modern times, our peers were a limited and fixed set of people. Every day was a new game, and yesterday’s winners got all the best pieces today. This was excruciating for the losers, but what could they do? Everywhere else was even worse than this. Best to survive, and keep losing until you started winning, or died.
Agriculture, modernization and urbanization loosened these tribal bonds. There were more people needed to do everything, so no one could know everyone. If you were a loser in one family or trade, you could try your hand at another. Unspeakable vices, proclivities or thoughts could find refuge among some. The difficulty of finding these groups, and their censure in everyday life, made their refuge all the sweeter. The internet has made this search for fellow travelers almost instantaneous. The internet’s reward of the most uncommon and spectacular events and thoughts means that the most unspeakable thoughts will become more common. Other illegal thoughts, such as drug use or murder, will find harbor in groups that are harder to find, but may come looking for converts. Converts are good for business, after all, and the internet makes the search costless.
This is not to say that the internet is a bad thing, but that it has its costs. The automobile, among other things, allowed zoning and segregation. The railway abetted the extermination of Native American nations. Ocean-going vessels spread disease around the world in every direction, killing millions. And so on back through history. On the balance, I am better off eating Korean seaweed and typing this on a oceangoing laptop than any of us would be as mastodon-chewing Neanderthals, Denisovans, or Humans.