On Saturday afternoon, after a pleasant walk along Regent’s Canal, I found myself aimless in Camden. Wonderful, I thought, I’m in one of the most vibrant areas of London. A lot will happen: I can go to an impromptu concert or a comedy night. Let me Google what’s on tonight.
A good 45 minutes later I was fed up and despondent, and my phone battery was almost dead. An Internet search for “live music in Camden tonight” had resulted in an overwhelming avalanche of content: lists of dodgy-looking websites that screamed with pop-ups when clicked; map listings that insisted on trying to download other apps before loading them; ticket sales sites for major music venues whose concerts had been sold out months in advance; reviews of events that seemed ideal until I realized they had already happened; and, of course, tons of sponsored posts almost indistinguishable from the real thing. I gave up and walked into the first pub that had a “live music here” sign on the door.
Since then, I have tried and failed to use the Internet to: buy artificial flowers that I can use for a costume party (Amazon shows me dozens of almost identical listings that are not what I want but have clearly hacked the keywords); getting clarity on the legal terms of a contract I’ve been asked to sign (they direct me to law firm blogs that make my head spin with legal jargon and then try to sell me services); and research the Japanese knot (apparently it’s a culture war issue now). It was too much: the pop-ups, the cookies, the sponsored posts, the tracking requests. It’s exhausting, discouraging and infuriating.
It didn’t used to be like this. I know that makes me look like I’m a hundred years old, but I remember when you could use the Internet. Not just usable: magical. Every answer to every question, at your fingertips. Yes, I remember that the teachers warned us that Wikipedia was not a reliable source of studies, but that for everyday things it worked. Recipes, travel guides, fixing instructions, recommendations for interesting things to read, see and do.
Now it’s a disaster. I’m not really sure what broke it, but I’ve read quite a few articles and tweets over the last few years about how SEO hacks and machine learning have destroyed search engines. Basically, Google’s algorithm has started to eat itself: if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, it can’t help you, and even if you do, it will try to cram all kinds of irrelevant nonsense into your browser. before you find it.
And it’s not just about Google, either. Twitter may not have completely collapsed under the weight of Elon Musk’s aggressive revamp, but trolls and spambots flourish as the algorithm recommends ever stranger posts to me (no, I’m not interested in reviews of reality shows I haven’t watched). seen in the media). I’ve never heard of something I don’t follow, or the crypto scams that direct message me daily). Facebook is a graveyard of cultivated content and ghostly memories from a time when posting blurry photos from a night out was considered a fundamental part of the student experience. Instagram is just LinkedIn for aspiring influencers. LinkedIn is… well, LinkedIn.
As for the rest of the Internet—the fan communities, the random blogs, the weird little websites dedicated to board games or alternative fashion or snow ocelots—I’m sure there are still some of them out there somewhere. The thing is, it’s getting harder and harder to find them unless you already know exactly where they are.
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I’m not the only one who feels like something, somewhere, went wrong. “I have no idea what to do online anymore,” laments the journalist (and new statesman columnist) Marie Le Conte in her recent book Escape: How a generation shaped, destroyed and survived the Internet. The limitless casualness of the online-first world has gradually been subsumed by the big social media platforms (you know, the ones that monetize our outrage and anxiety). Like me, Le Conte came of age at the same time as the World Wide Web, and has seen the anarchic, atomized Wild West of the 2000s overwhelmed by a few giant websites that tamed it, making it They disinfected and made it completely unknown. -fun. Everyone who spends time online now hangs out on the same platforms, which has had a detrimental effect on how those platforms feel: “Our spaces make us feel tense because we no longer feel truly safe in them. “Our Internet is open and flat, and it is not a pleasant place to be.”
My difficulties finding a job in Camden are part of the same trend. At some point, the idea that the Internet existed to be useful to us has morphed into an understanding that we exist to be useful to you, primarily so that we can be sold or manipulated in some way. I never much cared for the saying “if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” because I felt like at least I was getting something of value: you can have my data as long as you show me what I’m looking for. for. Now it’s a different game. They are mining our data, provoking and trolling us, and for what? So we can continue to be data-mined, provoked and trolled, in the futile hope that at the end of it all there will be someone who can explain what “vacant possession” means in language that doesn’t sound like it comes from a legal body. Text book.
There’s been so much hype about ChatGPT (which is now six months old) and other chatbots destroying our jobs and making fact-checking impossible, and now experts are warning that artificial intelligence could lead to human extinction. But I don’t think we should be so hyperbolic to see how technology is destroying something precious: itself. Or rather, the version of himself that seemed like a magic spell back in 2006 when you could ask “what should I do tonight?” and I would tell you. I don’t think that’s going to come back: all the incentives are skewed, the tech giants are too powerful, the algorithms have a life of their own and there is nothing to stop them. The Internet now keeps us in this for as long as possible, not because it is useful or attractive, but simply by eliminating all alternatives. This is it: pop-ups, trolls, and sponsored posts have won.
Oh ok. There’s always Wikipedia.
[See also: The Reeves doctrine: Labour’s plan for power]