The Digital Age calls for an Internet Etiquette
The phrase ‘Pandora’s Box’ has come to refer to something best left untouched for fear of what might be released. For those unfamiliar with the Greek fable, the story goes something a bit like this.
Zeus, leader of the Gods on Olympus, feels the need to punish humans for accepting the gift of fire from the titan Prometheus. Zeus has already enacted his revenge upon Prometheus in the form of an unending torture ritual in which an eagle is sent to feast upon the titan’s liver, which grows back daily (evidently the leader of the gods had some pretty sadistic tendencies).
Feeling unsatisfied, Zeus creates Pandora, a woman imbued with all the qualities of the goddess Aphrodite, offering her in marriage to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. As a wedding present, Zeus gives Pandora a box but warns her never to open it. Pandora, who Zeus created to be naturally curious, can’t resist doing so and opens the box.
From the box escapes all life’s miseries and heartaches including greed, envy, hatred and pain. With these disasters let loose on the world, Pandora shuts the lid of the box. The last thing that remains is hope which humankind comes to rely on to counteract the negative forces now weighing heavy on the species’ lived experience.
‘The Horn of Cornucopia’ is another fable that has its origins in Greek mythology. Otherwise referred to as ‘The Horn of Plenty’, the artifact is a classical symbol of abundance. Knowing that he is one day destined to overthrow him, the titan Cronos plans to have his infant son Zeus killed. To prevent this from transpiring, Zeus is hidden away from his father in a cave on the isle of Crete. On the island Zeus is fed and cared for by a she-goat caretaker named Amalthea. One day while suckling at the teat of the magic goat, Zeus breaks off its horn, from which begins to flow a never-ending supply of nourishment. Thus, the Horn of Cornucopia has become an analogy for limitless prosperity.
Pandora’s Box and the Horn of Cornucopia are real. Somewhat paradoxically however, in the 21st century these legends have come to embody themselves in a single entity – one of humanity’s own creation: the internet.
The internet is a global digital repository of human knowledge that we each now contribute towards. It is both a conduit for human potential and simultaneously an amplifier of the more insidious aspects of our nature. From the internet flows near limitless information, insights, and enlightenment — yet polluting the stream is envy, lust and wrath among all the other human flaws.
The allusion to Pandora’s Box when discussing the internet has been made before by the likes of English comedian, writer and TV personality Stephen Fry. As explained by Fry:
“The dark side of the rise of machines and the sudden obsolescence of so many careers and jobs; the potential for crime, exploitation, extortion; suppression and surveillance; and even newer forms of cyberterrorism, give us the collywobbles and are challenges for certain. But we must understand that it is going to happen, collywobbles or not, because the lid is already off the jar.”
Along with a variety of other contemporary thinkers, Fry contends that the internet is in dire need of “reformation”. He points to the rise of the gig economy, big data, and private companies exploitation of the personal data of millions of internet users for corporate gain to argue his case. Yet it is in Fry’s very identification of the myriad of problems stemming from the expansion of the digital realm that the author jettisons his own calls for reformation.
When speaking of reformation, one needs a solid point of reference from which to depart. A specific goal post to aim for, an identifiable enemy to channel the energy of change. The French Revolution took aim at the French Monarchy, the Protestant Reformation the Catholic Church, the Chinese Communist Party affluent landlords.
The problem is that the form and function of the internet is multidimensional and its reach is global. This has rendered the technological phenomenon somewhat awkward for any one person to comprehensively envisage. Further, power is now so diffuse throughout the digital landscape that it has become impossible to accurately pinpoint. Individual people themselves have in turn, become an inextricable part of the online machination. In our own way, we each contribute towards and are critically invested in the virtual world.
Due to the above factors, identifying ‘the opposition’ and generating public support for drastic reform would prove challenging. History tells us that people will remain adverse to change if they have a large enough stake in the prevailing system. With this in mind, rather than press forward with the monumental task of reformation, it would be in our interests to first reconceptualise how we’ve come to engage with the internet.
Instead of adapting the tool, we should channel our energy towards empowering the user.
Teaching the ‘ABC’ of the Internet
One of the benefits of living in a country that identifies itself as multicultural is that tolerance of religious perspectives is something institutionally endorsed. In Australia, general religious education is included in many primary school curriculums. General religious education introduces children to the place of religion in society, the diversity and history of religions, and the importance of religious beliefs for particular individuals and communities.
Religious studies provides many children with their first real taste of the diversity of human perspectives that exist in the world. Through such exposure, children are made cognisant of some underlying themes, morals and etiquette that underpin all religions and the fabric of human society. Concepts such as non-violence, acceptance, forgiveness and tolerance are just some of the words imprinted on young minds through such an experience.
Near two decades since its world-wide adoption, it is stunning that we do not have a similar styled class for the internet — a component of our society now far more pervasive and omnipresent than all religions of the world combined. With every update, every increase in bandwidth, every fiber optic cable laid, our connection with the internet grows stronger and more profound.
Technocrats such as Elon Musk plan to intensify this relationship. Musk is set to soon announce ‘Neuralink’, a product that will supposedly allow the human brain to directly connect to computers. Evidently, Musk and a majority of other prominent thinkers in Silicon Valley have reached the conclusion that the internet is an overwhelmingly positive outcome of human progress. It very may well be, but society is still reeling from the impact that such a disruptive technology has had on all aspects of life.
Before humanity endeavours to further extend the bounds of its virtual connection, we would benefit from the formulation of an ‘internet etiquette’. A moral scaffolding that will enable individuals to traverse the perils of the internet and meaningfully engage with the online world, a world which each of us is now an inextricable part.
We begin indoctrinating people into modes of behavior deemed socially acceptable from a young age. People are taught to cross the street when the traffic light is green, to be silent in a movie theatre, to rise when the judge walks into a courtroom, to wait in line. Once learned, these behaviours become unconscious and therefore appear seemingly natural to us. Yet the truth is that people are programmed to conduct themselves in certain ways to ensure social cohesiveness.
Why is it that society refuses to adopt the same approach towards the internet?
As both a site of mass communication and a medium for the dispersion of human knowledge, we critically lack an etiquette that allows people to engage with the internet in meaningful ways. Just as general religious education in Australia equips individuals with the faculties to navigate a world comprised of different religious perspectives, the teaching of an internet etiquette would imbue people with an understanding for the dangers that seep out of our screens.
And make no mistake — the dangers are many.
Modern Horrors Escaped from Pandora’s Box
In ‘A Unified Theory of Everything Wrong with the Internet’ Jesse Weaver brilliantly highlights the negative repercussions of fake news, trolling, cyberbullying, filter bubbles and echo chambers — modern horrors escaped from Pandora’s box. In doing so he articulates a key aspect of the internet in his concept of ‘anonymity’. As expressed by Weaver:
“We engage in the digital commons through glowing, personal portals, shut off from the physical world around us. When we engage with our devices, our brain creates a psychological gap between the online world and the physical world. We shift into a state of perceived anonymity. Though our actions are visible to almost everyone online, in our primitive monkey brains, when we log in, we are all alone.”
Weaver’s description reflects an entirely new social dynamic. This dynamic is a direct consequence of humanity’s nascent relationship with the internet and it amplifies some of our worst traits. Presently we leave it up to the individual to discover this for themselves. Worse yet, we then expect that they use the internet for entirely innocent and sensible purposes. However the odds of people doing so are stacked against them — this is particularly so for younger generations, the members of which are growing up having never experienced a life disconnected from the internet.
One of the greatest tragedies of the Digital Age is that some of the best and brightest minds in our society are employed by companies whose success is predicated on us remaining locked into echo chambers and paying attention to virtual illusions. It is no secret that tech giants such as Facebook, Netflix and Twitter employ a host of psychologists and behavioural scientists to exploit the weaknesses of our psyche and addict us to their platforms. Young malleable minds are those most prone to such tactics. Indeed, the sad truth is that in many cases these are the minds being targeted.
It is no wonder why mental illnesses of all varieties are beginning to infect a younger and younger subset of the population. We’re failing to educate young people about the benefits and dangers of the internet before their biological reward systems become hijacked by clever marketing strategies and mounting social pressures force them to be forever plugged into an online world. If left unaddressed, this is something that will jeopardise their health, development and sanity. Indeed one could argue it already is.
In a report titled ‘#Statusofmind’, The Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement recently examined the impact that social media is having on the lives of young people. The researchers found that social media is “linked with increased rates of depression, anxiety and lack of sleep” and that, “the unrealistic expectations set by social media may leave young people with feelings of self- consciousness, low self-esteem and the pursuit of perfectionism which can manifest as anxiety disorders.” Among a number of other recommendations, the report underlined the need for “Safe social media use” to become a core component of school curriculum.
In sum, society is letting too many individuals be swept away by the cacophony of negative voices and fabricated realities that now permeate the online space. This is a tragedy and something that we should strive to remedy because when viewed through another lens — the internet is a miracle, a modern manifestation of the Horn of Cornucopia.
Fruits Borne from the Horn of Plenty
Ultimately, determining whether the internet is a good or negative outcome of modernity is a matter of perspective. The developments sketched above have informed a broadly accepted pessimistic attitude of both the internet and society’s ability to cope with advancing technological change. However, this is to focus exclusively on the negative aspects of the internet to the exclusion of the positives, which we presently do not do a good enough job of contemplating or explaining.
If people of the past where to witness the access to information we now hold in the palm of our hands, they would surely have lost their minds. We forget that the average person living today now has more knowledge at their disposal than the richest, most powerful king living just a hundred years ago.
If one subscribes to the words of Francis Bacon and his famous quote “Knowledge is power” then this is an overwhelmingly positive outcome for the species. After all, the honest truth is that each of us — right now — can educate ourselves about anything.
New educational mediums such as podcasts have lowered the cost of receiving an education to zero. One can now be privy to conversations with leading experts across all fields, meaning that anyone can receive an education tailored to their personal interests — so long as they have a good enough phone plan. Podcasts have also facilitated the rise of the ‘rockstar academic’. Intellects such as Jordan Peterson, Yuval Noah Harrari and Sam Harris have exploded in popularity primarily through their engagment with such mediums.
Instructional content is also manifest in the continual expansion of multimedia found on websites such as Youtube. If one can avoid being swept away by bizarre fads such as the ‘Cinnamon Challenge’ (2007–2014) , public planking (2011) and twerk videos (ongoing), they can find apprenticeship in range of channels designed specifically for the purpose of education.
Finally, the expansion of the online community has facilitated the rise of ‘citizen journalism’. Online publishing platforms such as Medium and Mogul News are radically transforming the way media content is being consumed and engaged with. Through their adoption of a small monthly payment scheme akin to the strategy employed by popular entertainment services such as Netflix and Spotify, these companies provide the average person access to high quality content free from the influence of mainstream conglomerates and drastically reduce the cost of entry for new writers. Such platforms also facilitate the creation of new communities that identify with a range of different writing styles and niches. I’ve argued before that is spurring the rise of a new form of literature tailored specifically for the Digital Age.
These are only cursory observations of the benefits provided by the internet, the point being that ordinary people now have access to resources that can radically accelerate human potential. Caught in the midst of these rapid developments however, we’re critically failing to convey these amazing features of modern life to the public. Instead, we expose individuals to the tumult of information that now lies at their fingertips, and with little to no instruction, expect they will be able to navigate a sensible course.
Musk’s Neuralink or any other attempt aimed at deepening our connection with the internet is therefore not what will benefit society — at least not right now. What’s needed is an internet etiquette. The formulation of a moral scaffolding that will allow individuals to venture forth into the online environment with an appreciation for both the internet’s problems and potential. If we teach people how to harness the internet, if we imbue them with a sense of awe for what they can achieve with such a tool, the pitfalls caused by the opening of Pandora’s Box may be avoided and the fruits of the Horn of Cornucopia may be provided to all.
Alex Goik is a Media Analyst. He commonly writes for Mogul News and at Foreign Affairs Navigator where he strives to offer fresh perspectives on foreign affairs, tech and China (coupled with the odd analysis of human nature)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this text belong solely to the author and not those of their employer.