The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Weren't we happier before the internet?

Technology is a Cruel Despot: Post-Defenestration, Two of Four

Guest answer by Laura Brown.

Life Remember when you didn’t know what a trending topic was? Remember when students had to go to a proper library and research from proper books instead of just Googling their essay question? Think back to when that eejit you only send Christmas cards to out of guilt got in touch once a year and you weren’t forced to read their hilarious insights into how their pet pooch prefers mega chunk biscuits instead of petachunks, or whatever dogs eat.

Happy wasn’t it.

I for one was more productive before the Internet. Perhaps I should clarify, before the Internet stretched its malevolent hand over my world and cast a shadow over it. Granted, I was 18 before I sent an email. This is not because my parents likened internet usage to developing a healthy relationship with alcohol or casting a vote – although they probably should have done – but because it was 1998. Mobiles needed a bag of their own and everyone had pay as you go. You stayed in touch with people by, you know, talking to and seeing them. You shopped in proper shops. You read the news in newspapers. There were changes and technological wizardry yes. Instead of whirring and burring into life the super duper Nintendo had replaced the gigantic BBC computer in our living room. But life and the happy routine was much as they always had been. We did the shop on a Saturday. My dad rang his mother on a Sunday. I came home from school at 4.30 and proceeded to speak for at least to hour to every person of my gang.

It was content. It was ordered. It was safe.

It is no longer safe. Danger lurks behind every click. My day can be thrown into disarray by a simple status update. I now know my friends are pregnant because they tell me on Facebook. I read my news online with my netbook perched on my lap or squinting into my smartphone. I am contactable 24/7, and don’t my clients know it. I have developed a cramp from leaning over too small computers with too small screens in uncomfortable chairs. These are merely aesthetic concerns and selfish ones at that.

No my real concerns about the Internet and its effect on our general mood lie deep within its
underbelly. We are crueller online. We revert to childhood, taunting and teasing. The Internet, particularly comments boards and social networking sites have become one big playground where the school bullies have been replaced by the boy who can type the fastest or the articulate left-leaning journo with a sharp tongue. The weakest is anyone.

We have real double standards. We abhor right wing media from stitching up members of the public, yet we will gleefully mock their journalists and columnists. We don’t know how many have written the text that appears under their name or whether it has been modified by a sub editor. We don’t ask. We criticise not just their writing but their looks, their mental state, ability to procreate, the paternity of their mother and their relationship to various despots in history. And we do it in an instant, for laughs, with no remorse. There are no consequences online.

We do not have real relationships. On my first day of marriage, in between watching Liverpool lose to Arsenal, having a friend breakfast, looking moonily into my husband’s eyes, I told all my friends (many of whom had not been invites to said event) on Facebook. I cannot have been the only bride who considered it might reflect a real cut in cost to invite people via Facebook. There must be someone who has done it.

Look at the effect the Internet has had on our national media. How much is content about being a bastion of virtue or a chase to get hits, add comments, generate bitchy, trolling debate in a bid to get advertisers. The Mail Online is the most popular news site in the UK yet it can’t make a profit out of advertising. The Internet doesn’t make money. It might help you widen your business and it has created new jobs but it hasn’t been successfully monetised yet. How much of that is because of how we behave online?

Society never truly became free until we realised that we don’t have true freedom. Instead we have limits placed on our freedom and behaviour to ensure we can all have a reasonable level of liberty that doesn’t encroach on other people around us. Yes, I would like to slap the irritating woman next to me on the bus. But I could take a picture and tweet it. Isn’t that just as bad? As much as Paul McMullan might have taught us this year that privacy is only required by paedophiles (why is there no punctuation mark for ‘what the fuck’ by the way?) in fact it is one of the cornerstones of our freedom. Respecting eachother’s privacy and right to it is a bastion of our culture. Until we start adopting the same kind of rules online the Internet will make us worse not better. As #thewomanontheleft or Jemima Khan who was outed by an erroneous super injunction busting twitter feed as being Jeremy Clarkson’s mistress, when she wasn’t.

Online we behave as though we have no personal responsibility. It has become a mad, bad world of all that is wrong about how we communicate. Even Wikipedia has been bastardised by Bell Pottinger (yes, Ed, allegedly) There is no safe haven online. Until we recognise that the Internet needs to be an extension of our civilised society we will never really reap the benefit of it. Or perhaps a reflection is exactly what it has become and that’s why it feels so rotten to the core.

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