Saving the Web, Saving Community (Heavy Topic Warning)

Is the ‘web losing it’s populist (and/or democratic) spirit? Hossein Derakhshan, at least, thinks so. he argues that the ‘web is dying because the hyperlink is dying —

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web… Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. … Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

Much could be made of the argument that Hossein is just feeling the effects of being disconnected for six years. After being put in prison as a political dissident six years ago, he reappears on the scene only to find out the world has moved on without him. There are several points in his article that might indicate this — that he felt like a king when he was in the center of a vibrant group of bloggers, but now no-one pays attention. In the world of social media, no matter what sort, six years is a long time. Shakespeare can get away without writing something for several hundred years and still be famous — the average 20th century inhabitant, not so much (although I must admit even Shakespeare has been suffering from his lack of current writing recently — we have developed a very bad case of chronological snobbery).

On the other hand, there are several points where Hossein strikes a run out of the park. It’s absolutely true that people are being pulled into the shallower end of the pool in the modern Internet. They interact through Apps that reduce all conversation to the simplest snark possible, either through an image or a very limited number of words.

The average American, I read someplace recently, has an attention span somewhat less than a goldfish. Maybe that’s what happens when you live in a goldfish bowl for a bit too long.

But I’m not here to tell you what’s wrong with the world (like Chesterton, I’m actually pretty certain the answer is me). Rather, I’m here to tell you how to be a better engineer. It just happens, though, that the lesson of Hossein is a lesson we engineers could use a dose of. We can’t change the world, of course — we can’t make people actually sit and read longer articles, to pay attention to more developed lines of reasoning, or to construct their arguments in terms other than short snatches of snark.

But we can change ourselves. We can, in fact, focus on learning to pay attention longer, to dive deeper, to focus on building community rather than “just followers.” We can learn to use the technologies we develop to foster conversation, in other words, to really listen to the voices we don’t agree with, to expand who we are and who we know.

The central trend in technology today is to follow the crowd to the biggest set of likes on the biggest social media site. The trend line runs to a centralization of power and information in the hands of a few large companies, rather than, as Hossein says, distributed throughout a wide array of blogs linked together into a diverse community. Honestly — this isn’t healthy for any of us as individuals (nevermind what it’s doing to our societies).

This week, make a commitment to yourself to listen — really listen — to someone you disagree with. Not because you’re going to change their mind, and not because you expect them to change your mind, but just out of respect. Make a commitment this week to refuse the urge to call someone a name because they disagree with you, to resist categorizing someone because they don’t believe the same things as you do — to not call someone a hater, or a bigot, or a ‘phobe, or a…

You can’t change the world, but you can change yourself — and you can set an example for others along the way. Technology can have a major impact in our lives for good or evil, either destroying community, or saving community. In the end, it’s our choice which the result will be.