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The Internet is not the answer.

February 2, 2015

In “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” the narrator writes from middle age around 1987. He lives in Canada, but he can’t leave the U.S. alone. He can hardly pass a newspaper in a rack or newsstand. He is addicted to newspapers, and he knows it.

U.S. politics infuriate him; friends try to coax him away; and even on vacation at an island on a lake, eventually he must make his way to town to buy a newspaper. His friends complain, gently, that he now lives in Canada, he should take an interest in Canadian things, the things going on around him.

Imagine if he lived today with the Internet at his fingertips, how far removed he would be. As the title of a new book states, “The Internet is not the answer.” It’s also not the problem, really, since most of our problems have to do with greed, hatred, and delusion.

The Internet merely offers a new way to manifest these. Since capitalism—our economic system—has essentially become our culture, and since the Internet is one new way to “make” money, there are issues.

Consider, during a BART transit strike in San Francisco, a city much afflicted by “New Wealth,” a Silicon Valley CEO’s suggestion: to pay them whatever they want (to get BART going again) but start looking immediately for ways to automate their jobs.

The fact that San Francisco is becoming unlivable for people below upper-middle class is a societal problem, perhaps, and not a capitalist’s. But the societal distortions, after creating much suffering, will eventually affect a capitalist, too. Someone has to buy the goods.

What are people for? To a corporation, they are for purchasing goods and services, and the only calculus permitted is done in dollars. Much of the disgruntlement in “The Internet is not the answer” is with the kind of adolescent greed that has come to define much of Silicon Valley culture and the current state of our economy in general.

There are very real societal changes from our Internet economy, and the imagined “goodness” of being networked seems to dissipate whenever we look closely. Mostly, we have become the source of behavioral and marketing data—our every use of Google, Amazon, and Facebook tallied and perused.

Aside from the loss of privacy to corporations and government, I can’t help but think that the “Big Data” quantification of everything will prove underwhelming in the end. I fear we are in the midst of a very expensive experiment to prove the obvious: first, man’s well-known appetites, and second, the fact that most of us average.

At the same time, the self-referential robotic nature of Internet services will spiral inward, presenting each of us a world that is a mere caricature of our past. Yawn. I suppose we can live around that.

More annoying is that most interactions with corporations and governments nowadays are self-service: We are responsible for negotiating automated systems, and it is hard to reach a human being. Maybe no one is there.

In more ways than one, we are all working for free as new ways for transferring wealth are developed. We are complicit, though, expecting things for free on the Internet, too.

Much money is bet on what looks like a house of cards: We could, theoretically, all stop using Facebook in an instant, and then what? The water utility and the toilet paper company seem much more valuable.

And the newspaper company. We are much worse off for losing a system that could pay for journalists to cover the news—something worth our addiction.

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