While multitudes of gamers young and old awoke on Christmas morning to find that their coveted Playstation 4 consoles would not be able to access an utterly necessary proprietary network, somewhere a grinch-y chortle arose in answer to their dismay. While the act ostensibly came as a sort of vicious prank, CNBC later reported that a repository containing the identifying information of some 13,000 customers had been posted online. When leaks such as this contain credit card numbers, the signs are there to consider it a modern-day act of highway banditry. CNBC’s story seemed to confuse responsibility for the event between two mutually antagonistic hacker groups, Anonymous and Lizard Squad, but a possible mistake and the selection of a set of words that avoid clearly stating fact are understandable in today’s Balkanized internet. Online hacker collectives are as numerous and distinguishable to the average person as political parties in European parliaments.
If a writer felt like borrowing a literary cliche to emphasize the spirit of the times, a Dickensian lament towards the dichotomous nature of an era, encompassing both the best and worst of people and technology, would be an apt choice. The internet has become an irreplaceable institution over the last couple of decades. Teenagers coming of the age to spread their wings and drive themselves to their cacophonous array of social commitments are becoming entirely reliant on GPS systems within their smartphones to navigate. Small business in the retail sector looks more and more like an extension of tourism as niche purchases are driven online, and walk-in traffic often carries with it the ambiance of a leisurely weekend diversion.
In 1995, less than one percent of the global population had access to the internet in their homes. Less than 20 years later, some 3 of the worlds’ roughly eight billion inhabitants have it. In the United States, 86.75 percent of homes are online, and the rest of the public can generally make use of complimentary internet access at places like public libraries. The skyrocketing rates of connectivity represented therein pose an almost Faustian bit of irony; that while the internet’s beauty is in its ability to increase the efficiency of connecting people, in doing so, the people behind the screens come face-to-face with the darker aspects of the human species. “Doxxing,” or the public revelation of personal information, works entirely off of that premise. The publishing of phone numbers, addresses and other personal data is frightening because humanity can generally be relied upon to house zealots, anarchists, and people just plain cruel enough to use that information to for their own quasi-masturbatory sadism.
The internet is a gateway that spans global distances between the virtual homesteads of individuals, companies and governments. Something that becomes more apparent with each new headline-generating scandal is that this gate can never truly be secured. It is fundamentally designed with a bias to facilitate the transportation of information, not information’s security. However, as much as the internet provides a path from the outside in, it can also function in many important roles to carry information from the inside, out.
News services face an environment of steep competition in the online world, and also have more accountability to merit. Reputation means everything when so many options are so readily available, and the only limiting principle in this regard is again, human nature. It is an individuals’ choice to pursue what interests them, and on the internet, where news is nearly universally funded by advertising, a click equals a vote on merit. If people would rather know what dress Angelina Jolie wore to an award ceremony than about human rights’ abuses in far-flung corners of the world, then that is exactly what they will get more of. Even likely historical movements like 2014’s Hong Kong protests and the militarized situation in Ferguson, Missouri, face a popularized test of merit in order to gain people’s sympathy, before they enjoy the exponential signal boosting that only the internet can provide.
It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. The internet, by and large, serves as an absurdly enormous cosmetic mirror, showing a species its imperfections under grotesque magnification. One could be reminded of the pivotal scene in The Fifth Element, where directly before the climactic resolution, Milla Jovovich’s character is incapable of fulfilling her savior role, due to her existential despair at understanding the enormity of humanity’s wrongness. Were the scene not so sensitive, it would well explain the hopeless cynicism of internet-age culture. However, in the real world, where people’s actions are not bound by narrative caprice, there exists the ultimate in uncertainty.
There is no mechanism, insurance policy or otherwise, which guarantees Deus Ex Machina, and the equal and opposite reaction of nature to that uncertainty is to allow the species free will and self-awareness. Goodness is observable through the messages of support and sympathy that swirl into the maelstrom of social media, and the aforementioned magnification can also serve to illuminate that for every loud malcontent, there is a quiet and thoughtful person, who listens to all sides before casting their lot and believes in the best of people. Whatever the cultural outcome of the age, as long as the internet exists, the answer will be archived there.
Opinion by Brian Whittemore
Photo Courtesy of Stian Eikeland – Flickr License