Wednesday, March 07, 2012

A Truly Free Pyschopathology

2012 is going to be the year that Battlefield Internet really ramps up, waged primarily on two fronts: piracy and privacy. The opening salvos have already been fired. SOPA. PIPA. The revelation that Twitter has been selling archived tweets to marketing companies. The introduction of Google's policy changes at the beginning of March. The death of Megaupload and the rise of the darknet. Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.

We have a symbiotic, sometimes even parasitic relationship with the internet. (If I couch this in terms that would normally be used to describe a living, breathing organism, then that's entirely deliberate.) We adapt to the way it changes, and it in turn changes again to the way in which we've adapted. Sometimes, we're the frog in the pan of slowly boiling water, and we don't always know when we should jump before it's too late. Or, in other words:

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are." 

- Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (8th January 2010)

Maybe it's just me, but I find that terrifying and depressing in roughly equal measure, particularly the chilly, clinical ambiguity of the phrase "current social norms".
Which (clumsily) brings me to the book I'm reading at the moment. Twenty-six years after George Orwell introduced us to doublethink and the Ministry of Truth, and two years before Judge Dredd's Mega Cities and Block Wars started to appear for 8p Earth Money Every Saturday, there was J.G. Ballard's High-Rise, which, in the light of current shifts in our online landscape, seems more freakishly prescient than ever

"...they had little chance of success, precisely because their opponents were people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.

Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later. The more arid and affectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly 'free' pyschopathology." 
- J.G. Ballard - High-Rise (1975)

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