Where were we? Oh yeah; the previous column was about metaphorical bubbles, silos and castles that exist in the physical reality of our daily lives, but over the last few decades we’ve also come to live in the virtual reality of cyberspace and cable t.v. Friend Tom and I have been wondering about the difference between bubbles, silos and castles that exist more or less physically in real time, and those that exist virtually in cyberspace and on cable t.v. More particularly, how do they work among those who have grown up in a cyberspace world?
The cyberspace world can’t be understood without considering the role of algorithms. The virtual reality of cyberspace is defined by them. Algorithms are rules coded into computer programs that create boundaries within which any given cyberspace reality exists, and impose conditions that influence user behavior inside the reality they define. When you log onto an internet site, algorithms search your use of clicks and keystrokes that indicate your tastes, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors so the site can begin feeding you satisfying news, products and services intended to reinforce your commitment to whatever reality the site offers. Algorithms create self correcting, self justifying feedback loops to refine the information fed to you, excluding whatever is inconsistent or challenging. In other words, they create silos and castles for you to live in virtually. Like metaphorical physical silos, cyberspace silos are elitist and pretend to expertise. They inhibit intimacy with whatever is outside the silo, but don’t prohibit it, and you can live in several silos at the same time. Metaphorical cyberspace castles are fortified redoubts for ideologues and others who feel they are surrounded by enemies to be conquered or defended against. The virtual world inside a cyberspace castle has its own version of reality not dependent on outside verification. It’s possible to live in more than one castle, but they’re likely to be closely related.
What about bubbles? Bubbles and cyberspace don’t get along. Metaphorical bubbles enclose like minded friends, socially cohesive neighborhoods, occupations, disciplines, and the like. They involve in person, face-to-face relationships. They are reasonably transparent so those inside can see other bubbles and who’s inside them. They bump into each other, in sometimes companionable ways, sometimes not. Bubbles tend to be permeable, they occasionally merge or divide, and like all bubbles, pop. They exist for a season, disappear, and are replaced by new bubbles. There is nothing algorithmic about bubbles. They are held together by social norms with no solid boundaries, no rules on how to interact with other bubbles. Bubbles, however prejudicial or isolating they may sometimes be, are the enemies of algorithmic controlled cyberspace silos and castles. Bubbles resist the power of systems analysis, and put control in the hands of real people doing real things with each other. Our year of Zoom meetings demonstrated that cyberspace can imitate bubbles well enough to have a place in our daily lives, but cannot replace the organic qualities of in person physical relationships.
The virtual cyberspace world of silos and castles is fast, efficient, spans the globe, and links us with people and places we would otherwise never meet. Want to know something? Google it. Need to navigate somewhere? Maps will give you a route, tell you where to eat, and highlight attractions. Want to buy something, anything? The internet will find it, including whatever conspiracy theory tickles your fancy. Broad band access to the cyberspace internet has become an essential but extremely vulnerable part of our infrastructure. The internet highway is easily hacked, lined with scam artists, and we can’t do without it.
From our point of view (friend Tom and me), cyberspace created silos and castles undermine genuine friendships, contribute to pathological loneliness, seduce the unwary with dystopian cults, and reinforce the worst of our tendencies toward bigotry and violence. Cable t.v. contributes to its excesses with programming intended to reinforce the self justifying worlds of silos and castles as means to political and profitable ends. In a perverse way, users are encouraged to substitute cyberspace virtual reality defined by algorithmic silos and castles for the physical reality of daily life in permeable, temporary bubbles.
Can that be true? Don’t we continue to live in real neighborhoods with real people? Don’t we have real jobs with real coworkers? Don’t we drive on real roads, walk in real parks, and deal with real weather? Aren’t we free to express political opinions? Aren’t we free to vote for whom we want, worship as we desire, and be educated in classrooms with real teachers and real students? Yes, but not as free as we once were. Cyberspace algorithms are quite sophisticated at giving us the illusion of freedom while monitoring and correcting our behavior.
What about younger generations who have grown up in cyberspace and take it for granted? Do they know they’ve been seduced by artificial means like Pinocchio was seduced by Honest John, Gideon the Cat, Stromboli and Pleasure Island? Being on the older side, I haven’t shared their experience, but I have some guesses. First, we of the older generations are the ones who were seduced. The advent of the internet and cyberspace were erotically exotic in their seductive power, and we delighted in all that they offered. We were the Pinocchios turned into obedient asses. Some of us are slowly waking up to our condition to relearn the joy of living in the real world, using the internet’s cyberspace as a tool of limited value. We are increasingly willing to venture out of our cyberspace silos. However, escape from cyberspace castles may be less likely if those inside are unable to recognize its virtual reality as fiction, and not very good fiction at that. Those who are stuck will ever after be long eared asses.
On the other hand, to younger generations cyberspace is anything but exotic. It’s normal, routine, and maybe a bit boring. There has to be more to life. It appears they are becoming more aware of the human cost that underlies overnight deliveries, and the political dangers of conspiracy generated dystopian virtual worlds. They make a sport of hacking the hackers. What might look more exotically enticing could be old fashioned interpersonal relationships doing things in the messy, semi predictable way that humans do things. The fungible norms of in person group behavior might create interesting new challenges. The wisdom of the ages that has stood the test of time is something to be rediscovered again as if for the first time. Maybe “this fragile earth, our island home” is something to be explored, loved and cared for for its own value, and not for its exploitive value. If that could be true in some way, what might we do to open wide the doors for them to access this new world so different from the virtual reality of cyberspace in which they have grown up?