The Glory Days of the Web

You know how, as people grow older, they become more and more conservative? Ugh, I can’t believe I’m that guy, before even turning 30. This might be due to more than just bitterness and being overworked. I think a lot of it has to do with nostalgia.

Even after long years of consideration, debate, and self-doubt, I’ve realised that I simply and honestly prefer lots of things how I remember them to the way they are now. Sure, progress is a staple of humanity and it’s unstoppable. But could we not have progressed more in some other directions? Ideas: toilet paper hasn’t changed in centuries. Matches are still essentially the same, and so are calculators.

Case in point: the Internet. Virtual bohemia of the zany geeks and academics, oblivious teenagers as well as some creeps, easily identifiable through their belaboured chatspeak. These characters are the neanderthals of the Web. The Habbos, the Runescapers, the Neopets, the AIMers. Simpler goals, simpler people. Chat up a girl you’ll never see or meet, win an argument about science fiction vs fantasy, compare Harry Potter fan art.

Now every inch of the web is monetised, and more than ever, big businesses get a head start on the broadband firing line towards everyone’s device, and rally the unsuspecting masses into its paws… to monopolise the market ever more with ever more money to bestow on the dollar-sign-eyed ISPs, themselves a tiny oligopoly.

Cold, calculating consumerism has no place in the land of the kilobytes. Leave us with our weird, flashing penis enhancement ads, our million dollar rewards for being the 10,000th visitor. By all means run a business, but the super privileges of massive corporations and politicians should never extend to the most powerful means of propaganda yet known to man.

Now, of course such a treasure trove of marketing could never have gone unexploited, but let a girl dream.

In the interest of commercial efficiency, every consumer’s (now basically synonymous with user) experience is now individually adapted to them: with targeted ads, synchronised data across multiple platforms, and the obligation to provide one’s real details.

Shit’s gotten personal.

People are dying from the calamities of online exposure, too delicate and comfortable to realise that their instinctual sense of life and death has shifted over time from ravenous paleolithic beasts, to vengeful kings in the Middle Ages, to hundreds of futile wars throughout history, to famines, to a lack of mobile phones with which to organise meet-ups, and finally to the harsh words of hundreds of strangers online directed at them or something they feel strongly about.

Life is still stressful and difficult but is it not also riddled with distractions that may be hindering us from developing mature social skills as quickly as we may have in the past? How narcotic is your incessant checking for notifications, how phony the online dating and the articles telling you how to live your life?

When a whole row of fashionable millenials wait to be served at the bar and the bartender has to snap one of them out of their touchscreen trance to get the pints pouring, and you see them mumble an order and return their gaze back to the screen to avoid any potential for unnecessary human contact, there is something unquestionably amiss.

A whole generation raised without banter!… Here, in the glorious UK, home of sarcasm and self-deprecating small talk, a national treasure, the very foundation of British humour… and a whole generation transferring any dormant talent to the globalised mess of the Internet where cultural idiosyncrasies are neutralised, the physical body a mere shell for the great genius 140-character quips wafting about in their tiny brains.

Have you seen the new till machines in France? There is technically a human server, but he or she does not handle the money – there is a machine at the front of the counter for that. Humans being reduced to bussing and background noise. Great – no need to fill the awkward silence with a smile or a joke when you’re sticking your cash into a slot. Oh, and certainly no need for any staff to practice mental arithmetic or learn to deal with money themselves.

The amenities of everyday life have come a long way from the gaslamps of the pre-washing machine 30’s. We have been pampered and coddled by the excessive comforts of modernity. Cooking is just an unappealing option to the millions of apathetic young people who have takeaway at the touch of a button. Desperate attention seekers who might once have been shunned by physical society (and then, you know, learned, adapted and improved their social skills) now have the luxury of expressing their every inner tinkle of neural activity on a whim for instant gratification, all on a platform which is being twisted and tortured into squeezing money out of every one of its denizens. Consumerism is now #2 (porn still holding first place) priority of the Internet… it used to be community.

Far be it from me to doubt the efficacy of capitalism or to downplay the importance of Internet marketing. Only no one should have a head start online. It started out as the magical land of equal opportunity – by God, it was the holy haven of equality for lepers and aristocracy alike. A man made universe created for noble, academic purposes. It did not affect the workings of the physical realm, but created a whole bizarro world of pseudonyms and made-up identities. It was, to put it cheesily, our World Wide Wonderland.

Why, oh why couldn’t they leave us to our righteous ranting, to our public forums (which only turned really nasty when social media really caught on – until then, if one was subject to bullying on a forum they really liked under the username ptshopboiz460, could simply change over to an account called davegrohl3000 and no one needed ever know) where role playing and flame warring abounded but remained confined to each person’s free time and not their entire day. It was, oddly enough, much more about tightly knit communities than the suspiciously echoey, authoritarian cesspools that are Facebook and Twitter today.

The Internet forums of old moderated themselves. Long standing members and creators kept their pages as they saw fit, and the companies who owned the servers were but passive hosts providing a platform for these online ecosystems, havens for answers to the randomest questions in life. Now most of us have willingly turned our backs on that freedom and submitted ourselves to the watchful eye of Twitter mods and Facebook’s “automatic systems for rooting out extreme content”.

You wouldn’t want the government or your landlord to decide whom you may allow into your house (aside from your neighbourhood murderer or burglar). They shouldn’t be able to influence the content you decide to allow into your brain. So why are the companies behind these so-called free speech platforms allowed to arbitrarily ban content?

Most people who react strongly on social media are part of a vocal minority, not a valid group of mediators. In an ideal world, It would be the cool, intelligent debates that go viral, with the rest of the idiots on either side bickering, fading into the distance… but what’s newsworthy about that?

For every ten thousand sharply polarised individuals, there are ten million silent onlookers of diverging opinions, none of which are clinically passionate enough to raise their voice for either side. These often wiser people are curious to see it all unfold and move on with their lives, perhaps with a bit of a different perspective on politics or human nature. Just because some thousands flag a post by someone they disagree with does not mean those views ought to be removed from the public platform.

Such is – was – the beauty of the Internet. You would have multiple different forums to retreat to if one was treating you badly; now, we barely know how, where to set foot outside the ruling websites. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!

There’s just something off about the entire world being herded like cattle into a couple of centralised websites. It’s probably the logical next step to globalisation and the fusion of cultures (primarily for commercial interests). And so never again, it seems, will we enjoy the blissful anonymity that blessed us with freedom of expression and the much needed escapism that was the World Wide Web for the fleeting, rapturous moments of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

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