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i-Apocalypse! 2012?

An essay for the 2011 Net204 Communications Conference, which can be found here.

JMW Turner Death on a Pale Horse (1825-30)

Death on a Pale Horse

In this essay I explore origins of communal anxiety over the apocalyptic potential of the Internet.  Scenarios for social annihilation fall into three categories: sociological prophecies of doom, warnings of economic blight from rival technologies, and practical portents.   While any new technology inevitably results in the end of old ways – be it of ways of thinking, as in the first group, or of monopolies of knowledge or power possible in the second – the main conclusion implicates the third category – the Internet’s ability to escalate crowd psychology – as most favorable for the postmodern Horsemen of Gossip, Rumor, Misinformation and Panic[i].

Dubious of the fledgling Greek alphabet, Socrates[ii] begins humanity’s eschatological cannon of technology[iii] – a burgeoning vault of social dissension inclusive of sublime images of Industrial Hell and the Cold War lament After the Goldrush[iv].  A technological determinist viewpoint accuses radio to be the cause of Hitler[v], and electronic media, said Postman in 1995, would be “outrightly destructive of rationality, civility and a whole passel of cognitive processes and social attitudes we rightly cherish and see connected to literacy”[vi].  Every new technology, we fear, destroys another soupçon of humanity’s dwindling essence bringing us closer to insentience – a desire Freud rationalized as the poor battered ego relishing the idea of escaping into nothingness[vii].  So technology remains and develops alongside humanity in what Campbell called evolutionary epistemology[viii] because of ‘techgnosis’ (our belief in technology as the means to Utopia), because of Hegelian dialectics and creative synthesis, but most likely because old ways are usually inferior to the new.

In this Internet Age, armored in the rhetoric of democracy and characterised by anonymous, instantaneous and seemingly uncontrollable proliferation and dissemination of text and images, again the specter of the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse arises.  There is a current proliferation of dissertations, book and chapter titles pertaining to Internet culture that employ the language of The Book of Revelations[ix].  True to this postmodern Zeitgeist, however, Armageddon has been outsourced to the Horsemen Franchise of Gossip, Rumor, Panic and Misinformation.   The circumstances resulting in communal annihilation depend on the sources from which speculation originates, falling loosely into three chronologically linear categories: academic sociological speculation arising in early studies of Internet behaviour, the currently detensifying propaganda war based on economic rivalry, and the stirrings of practical portents.

Sociological Speculation: Prophecies of Doom

Sociological prophecies owe much to the Frankenstein narrative[xi], and generally presuppose a gullible community swapping tradition and culture for a handful of shiny beads[xii] – trading off future prospects for immediate gratification.    Siegel elaborates:

The evolution of the internet has been portrayed as inevitable and inexorable.  As with the car, the rhetoric of freedom, democracy, choice and access has covered up for the greed and blind self-interest that lie behind much of the Internet has developed today.  The rhetoric surrounding the automobile had made it impervious to skepticism.  Cars were not just a marvel of convenience, people were told, they were a miracle of social and personal transformation.[xiii]

apparently at risk are no less than the defining characteristics of humanity – community, language, individuality, imagination, self-awareness.

Sociologists argue Internet use leads to shallowness in homo interneticus’ relationships through degradation of community spirit and language skills.   The demise of the nuclear family and local club memberships, Watters suggests, is due to the persistence of strong and weak tribal links substituting for monogamy and neighborhood[xiv] – although McDonald suspects poor quality associations are the result of the internet infantizing adults even as it draws children precipitately into adulthood[xv].  The Twitter experience, Glover muses, reduces the sophisticated slow dance of conversation to ‘glib’ extremism[xvi], and now success is measured by the Internet standard of popularity, Adams is concerned about the lack of genuine intellectual aspiration among girls: “the majority of these nine year olds, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, simply replied, famous”[xvii].

Sociology considers this consistency of desire symptomatic of the Internet’s standardization of experience leading to the loss of individuality and imagination.  Baudelaire jump-started modern aesthetics revealing the beauty of the ‘uncanny’[xviii]; however, to ‘stand out’ on the internet demands conformity to familiar formulae with recognizable styles of self-presentation that appeases aggregators.[xix]  Social media “reduces complex emotions to keystrokes and turns life-changing events into photo albums … every experience, good and bad, is tainted by the self-consciousness of how they will characterise it online.”[xx]  Nor does ‘new’ equate with imagination.  Citing as evidence the Retro nature of digital societya “petty mashup of preweb culture” repentant ex-übergeek Jaron Lanier adjudges the post-1990 Generation bland and somnolent: “mining the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump … Since genuine human experiences are forever unique, pop music of a new era that lacks novelty raises my suspicions that it also lacks authenticity”. [xxi]

The fracturing of identity in cyberspace as we re-define ourselves beyond traditional parameters of gender, appearance, social status and location generates enough debate to occupy its own stream in this online conference.  A century of study into Western identity rests on the dualism of consciousness defining itself by what it is not – the assumption is of a singular, integrated entity.[xxii]  However, in cyberspace where identity is a kind of “infinitely flexible psychic plasticine”[xxiii], psychological devastation must inevitably be the outcome.  In the cyberspace of pliable identities, for the first time “the isolated, elevated asocial individual” ceases to be marginalized[xxiv], fraudulence becomes entertainment[xxv], and a narcissistic culture that exalts self obsession above authenticity leads to an inner futility.[xxvi]

Some prophecies may yet prove Cassandraic, or they may be based on false assumptions – for example, both Wertheim and Le Bon believe the ‘unity of the self’ is old-fashioned fiction.[xxvii]   In general, however, the basis of these speculations is open to question on several fronts.  De Bono denounces these traditional, judgmental ways of thinking based on comparative example as unsuited to the uncertainties of modern times; such pronouncements he believes might better be replaced by value-type contemplation of possibilities.[xxviii]  Secondly, such speculation is as futile as King Canute demanding the tide to halt: the fecundity of the Internet indicates it meets a need.   And finally, as both Levinson and Lanier note, critics of the internet invariably did not use it or had a vested interest in preventing others from doing so.[xxix]  Levinson identifies the most persistent, vociferous critics as the entrenched elite – retailers and ‘old-fashioned media’ (book, magazine, newspaper and music publishers) – attempting to maintain control over the masses.

Economic Warmongers: “We’ll all be rooned!”[xxx]

Persistent, public denunciation of the internet originates from and is sustained by business models dependent on control, of both consumer and product, for economic viability; most notably from its self-declared mortal enemy, the ‘old media’.  Poor Christmas trading profits in 2010[xxxi] motivated large Australian retailers to demand online goods be taxed at ‘bricks and mortar rates’: import restrictions and GST-free online shopping were blamed for the recent bankruptcy of RedGroup bookstores, unable to compete with foreign sites such as Amazon.com.  The Internet, they argued, puts local people out of work and will collapse the economy, despite disagreement from government and business analysts who consider a robust online market stimulates small and large business alike.[xxxii]

The personification of ‘old media’, Rupert Murdoch forecasted the internet would herald “media’s golden age”– once those “dreadful Orwellian State bodies” (the ABC and the BBC) stopped dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market.[xxxiii]  And if commercialization did not control the Internet, Sterling[xxxiv] warned, it would be criminalized or militarized.  Social media, however, evolving beyond control, became a living thing, fascinated with itself, wanting to grow, and finally self-replicating in viral bloom from the internet’s bottom-up spread of information. [xxxv]   Subsequently a propaganda war erupted as old media sought to discredit online journalistic credibility.

So although established journalists are increasingly embracing social media[xxxvi], traditional media tactics – “Violence is news”[xxxvii] – hyperbolize reports of community and social carnage prompted by internet use.  Consumer confidence is undermined with regular reports of the Internet’s imminent demise with the bursting of ‘dotcom bubble 2.0’[xxxviii], and social anxiety perpetuated in a litany of accusations that the Internet has destroyed university life[xxxix], demanding the sacrifice of critical services to pay for a handful of ‘magic beans’.[xl]  Language and spelling are bastardized[xli].  Organized crime uses encryption to elude police.[xlii]  Online addiction and gambling are problems that can only get worse.[xliii] Tobacco advertisers use social media to subvert bans and solicit vulnerable children.[xliv]  Google encourages hatred.[xlv]   Musicians are ‘forced’ to ‘sell out’ to advertisers.[xlvi]  The motives of the internet captains are suspect;[xlvii] monitoring online conversations to sell our deepest secrets[xlviii]– James Bond its latest victim[xlix].  Participatory culture is a myth:

People who work in radio know that only about 1% of people want to take part in all the fun, the other 99% want to listen’… most of those who talk about social media have a vested interest in talking it up.”[l]

Finally, invoking Godwin’s Law, comes the reduction ad Hitlerum argument of wanton destruction of rare University books to accommodate an internet café.[li]

Media collisions in the past, however, have proved culturally invigorating.  Although Daguerre’s first photographic image prompted the exclamation “from today painting is dead!”[lii], photography freed Art and imagination from the tyranny of realism.  Sterling, examining the technological ‘fight to the death scenario’ in the Dead Media Project, determined that media evolves, survives or disappears for reasons outside media itself.[liii]  Like the art and photography, or cinema and television, each must find its niche.

Is there apocalyptic potential in these media wars?  Redolent of Stockholm syndrome, the old media,  despite dismissing the social as trivial[liv], increasingly sources it for content in a process Adam believes degrades the quality of ‘news’: it’s a trend dulling journalistic incisiveness to a “vacuous, disposable fodder [of] fast food media”[lv], proving  more destructive than the gossip, rumor and misinformation it perpetuates.  Replacing Jefferson’s vision[lvi]  of a free press as guardian of democracy is the:

sycophantic worship of all things media, a devastating lack of substance, soft on real issues heavy on pop culture but always with a sexual leaning, a desire by the creators to push new and bigger buttons of the collective spirit.[lvii]

Kearney’s timely reflection on the “I’m speechless. This just defies description” coverage of recent natural disasters supports her concern: “Journalists and the media they work for have squandered our best words with decades of hyperbole … In its unending bid to make tomorrow’s news more amazing than today’s … words have failed [and] actions have attempted to fill the void” by parachuting in celebrity breakfast television hosts.[lviii]  “Media is the lynch-pin of Democracy”, Adams continues, “Incompetent media leads to an ill-informed public, which can only lead to distortion and mistruth.  Democracy is in trouble…”[lix]

Practical Portents:  Living in Interesting Times

Is there hard evidence for the iPad of the Apocalypse?  The previous two sections have addressed essentially subjective, nebulous fears and prejudices, and while altercations with disabled ATMs or airport security systems are frustrating, they are not catastrophic.  Safety-critical software – as in life-support and aviation equipment – is invariably backed up by human operatives and manual procedures, and the 2002 military exercise Millennium Challenge removed potential illusions of technological omnipotence in warfare.[lx]

The rising prospect for community destabilization resides with the Internet’s ability to escalate individual human behaviour to the phenomenon of crowd psychology.   Online ‘trolling’ was the first portent.  As the escalation of bullying into the public sphere[lxi], its inexplicable ubiquity in cyberspace prompted Lanier to call for more focused research on clan orientation and the aggression of the pack to ‘outsiders’.[lxii]

Le Bon’s[lxiii] definitive opus on crowd psychology- or pack behaviour – garnered during the French Revolution, continues to be validated by modern research.[lxiv]   He likened crowd psychology to a chemical reaction wherein the end product diverges from its original components; the crowd sheds consciousness, reason, individuality, and intelligence, cognizant only of simple and extreme sentiment:

Doubtless a crowd is often criminal, but also it is often heroic. It is crowds rather than isolated individuals that may be induced to run the risk of death to secure the triumph of a creed or an idea, that may be fired with enthusiasm for glory and honour, that are led on — almost without bread and without arms, as in the age of the Crusades — to deliver the tomb of Christ from the infidel, or, as in ’93, to defend the fatherland. Such heroism is without doubt somewhat unconscious, but it is of such heroism that history is made[lxv].

Recent events in the Middle East attest to this effect.  An initial attempt to shut down internet access implicates social media in the continuation, if not ignition, of this popular uprising; Twitter continues real-time, unedited coverage.[lxvi]  Closer to home, crowds in New South Wales increasingly prevent, and even attack, both police and paramedics attempting to treat or rescue its injured members.[lxvii]  Both in the Middle East and Australia, these crowds exhibit the characteristics of ‘despotic authority’ and prejudice against anyone who cuts across them – a trait exploited by propaganda committees everywhere.[lxviii]

The definition of a crowd – a community formed around current issues – also serves to define the cyber-community.  In situ both disenfranchise traditional organizations, and herein lies both Watter’s explanation for the demise of civil involvement, and Moss et al’s theory of the new internet-facilitated community model that ‘looks after its own’.[lxix]  Either can turn against any ‘outsider’, be it climate-change scientist[lxx], schoolmate, emergency services officer or, as in the Middle East, corrupt régime.

Another characteristic of a crowd is its need for a leader to follow[lxxi], and the tendency to reassure itself with confabulations should leadership or direction be absent.  Numerous studies demonstrate how gossip and unsubstantiated rumor become contagious if they play to the crowd’s fear or prejudice, to be forwarded without any attempt at verification[lxxii]: there was the hysterical stampeding of teenagers over reported sightings of Justin Bieber around channel 7 studio in 2010,  for example, and misinformation led to panic when tsunami warnings intended for the U.S. were rebroadcast, without substantiation, to the Australian coastline by media and local internet users.[lxxiii]  Mobile internet technology provides a medium par excellence for the Horsemen of Rumor, Gossip, Misinformation and Panic, and these are the entities the Queensland Police Service so successfully unseated during the 2011 Queensland floods; by positioning themselves within the crowd and providing both timely and creditable information[lxxiv], and immediately quashing rumors like ‘18 meter waves approaching Townsville!’[lxxv] They are also the mechanism Laqueur identifies for the new kind of terrorism: primary mass destruction unleashing sensationalist media hysteria.[lxxvi]

Arguably the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations might be interpreted as metaphors of the human experience of change.  Apocalyptic allusions for new technology are an age-old habit, and this essay has considered some of the theories and causes underlying such associations for the Internet.  A potential for violent communal upheaval is evident in the Internet’s ability to escalate human behaviour into a crowd dynamic, and, it must be said, in the advent of a singular global civilisation, any one big mistake may yet see us fighting World War IV with sticks and stones.  Technology, however, as per evolutionary epistemology, does exhibit a tendency to redress problems caused by technology; subsequent to the Horsemen’s ride, St John reassures us:

 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…[lxxvii]

"Good evening, Dave. Everything's running smoothly. And you?"


endnotes

[i] The original Horsemen of the Apocalypse emerge from the last Book of the Bible, Revelations, Verse 6.  Only one – Death – is named, although the others are generally held to be War, Famine and Pestilence.  The Horsemen of Panic are first mentioned in (Pratchett, 2003, p. 40).  See (Discworld and Pratchett Wiki, 2009) for other Horsemen Franchises.

[ii] (Plato, 360 B.C.)The final portion of this dialogue examines how the written word destroys truth, memory and philosophic debate.  It has been pointed out by Levinson (1997, p25) that knowledge of Socrates exists only because his pupil Plato existed in the overlap of the aural and written traditions, from which he suggests the overlapping and integration phase of technologies provides the most fertile developmental impetus.  Lanier (2010, p 11) argues Internet development has already passed this evolutionary milestone, becoming ‘locked down’ into software design constraints.

[iii] So far the (James Randi Educational Foundation) has listed 44 end of the world predictions.  The next is due in 2012, when the Mayan calendar once again rolls over to ‘0’ – see (Dunning, 2008).

[iv] See for example, the Sublime Hell of John Martin’s Pandemonium (1841), 12 x 18m, Leicester Gallery, London, contrasted with Caspar David Friedrich’s images of Sublime nature.  After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Reprise Records, R6383 (1970).

[v]Had TV come first there would have been no Hitler at all”, McLuhan, in (Levinson, 1997, p. 4)

[vi] (E-Literacies: What Neil Postman has to say …, 1995)

[vii] In (Eagleton, 2010)

[viii] (Campbell, 1974)

[ix] There are five book titles in this bibliography alone sourced from the local regional library- and not counting the chapters and sub-headings in Lanier, Siegel or Levinson, for example.

[xi] Where aberrant desire for transcendence results in annihilation and despair. (Lewis, 2002, p. 407; Mora, 2010)

[xii] The role of shiny things in shaping mankind is worthy of study.  Accounts of the first Australian settlement refer to the taming of the natives with “Bawbels” see (Worgan, (1788) 2010). Famously Benjamin West recorded the selling of Manhattan in ‘Treaty of Penn with the Indians’, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

[xiii] (2008, pp. 1-2)

[xiv] (Urban Tribes, 2004)  He cites as early templates the TV shows Friends (1994-2004), and Seinfeld (1990 -1998). 

[xv] (A dreamtime for frogs and princesses, 2011)

[xvi] (Oh, what a tangled world wide web we weave, 2010)

[xvii] (2009, p. 75)

[xviii] (The Painter of Modern Life, (1863) 1972).

[xix] Facebook, YouTube, WordPress, etc

[xx] (Maley, 2011)

[xxi] (2010, pp. 128-131)

[xxii] Starting of course with Freud, and in philosophic terms, which considers identity and consciousness its province.  Cognitive psychology regards it as our first person narrative, religious ideology names it the soul, and neuroscience considers it an illusory sequelae of organic mechanics, see (Lodge, 2002, pp. 2-9) for discussion of ‘the ghost in the machine’.

[xxiii] (Wertheim, 1999, p. 249)

[xxiv] (Siegel, 2008, p. 6)

[xxv] (Siegel, 2008, p. 71)

[xxvi] Lasch, in (Siegel, 2008, pp. 49-51), also (Ireland, 2011)

[xxvii] (Wertheim, 1999, p. 248; Le Bon, (1896))

[xxviii] (De Bono, 1999)

[xxix] Both devote sections to why technology criticism should not be left to Luddites (Lanier, 2010, pp. 14-16; Levinson, 1997, pp. 56-58)

[xxx] (O’Brien J. , 1921)

[xxxi] (Humphries, 2010 ; Lee, 2010 ; Herrick, 2010)  David Jones, Myers, Harvey Norman and others formed a consortium to lobby the Federal Government to tax online overseas purchases

[xxxii] The real issues identified are unrelated to the internet, and include escalating retail rents, overpriced and limited selection of goods, poor service and knowledge of product …  (Zumbo, 2011)

[xxxiii] In (Birmingham, 2009, pp. 32-34)

[xxxiv] (Sterling, 2005, p. 157)

[xxxv] (Rushkoff, 2005, p. 196)

[xxxvi] For example, Annabel Crabbe, Laurie Oakes, and Aaron Kearney are proficient across many platforms.

[xxxvii]whereas peace and harmony are not” (Laqueur, 2010, p. 325)

[xxxviii] (Wright, 2010; Washington Post, 2011; Evans, 2011)

[xxxix] (Narushima & Norris, Online study kills uni life, 2011)

[xl] (Boughton, 2011)

[xli] (Squires, 2010; Beckford, 2010)

[xlii] (O’Brien N. , 2011)

[xliii] (Bachelard, 2011; Sydney Morning Herald, 2010)

[xliv] (O’Malley, 2010)

[xlv] (Johnston M. , 2011; Harvey, 2010)

[xlvi] (Harris, 2011 )

[xlvii] (Vascellaro, 2010)

[xlviii] (Private conversations provide hi-tech fodder , 2011) (Teutsch, Bachelard, Whyte, Walter, & Bibby, 2010)

[xlix] (Friedman, 2010)

[l] (Glover, Tweet this: social networking hasn’t won the battle yet, 2011)

[li] (Narushima, Books get the shove as uni students prefer to go online, 2011)

[lii]Delaroche, in (Beaton & Buckland, 1989, p. 11)

[liii] Such as production costs, materials, means of distribution, mechanical or electronic issues, government regulations …  (Sterling, 2005, pp. 158-159)

[liv]  (Livingstone, 2011)  See Glover’s articles throughout this essay

[lv]  (Adams, 2009, p. 76)

[lvi]  (Levinson, 1997, p. 81)

[lvii] (Adams, 2009, p. 76)

[lviii] (Kearney, 2011)

[lix] (Adams, 2009, p. 86)

[lx] In (Harken, 2009, p. 221) A US war game in 2002.  Essentially the U.S. air force, navy and army were out-maneuvered by guerillas with mobile phones, motorbikes and speedboats.  “Bytes of information can be very valuable in war, but its bullets that kill enemies … The Blue team were distracted by all the electronic information at their fingertips and were convinced of their all-seeing omnipotence …”

[lxi] (AAP, 2011; Patty, 2011)

[lxii] (Lanier, 2010, pp. 60-62)

[lxiii] (Le Bon, (1896))

[lxiv] For example, see DiFonzo and Bordia’s Rumor Psychology (American Psychological Society, 2007).  The most contentious issue is his dealing with the female psychology as inferior to the male’s; however, it would be unfair to judge by today’s morality, as it would to equate the 1790 female to today’s counterpart.

[lxv] (Le Bon, (1896), pp. 12-15)

[lxvi] See Aljazeera’s Twitter Dashboard for concurrent monitoring of Tweets relating to the Middle East conflict.  (Aljazeera, 2011)  McGeough provides a considered article on the underlying causes of these uprisings; tension between knowledge, education and information, and the restraints of authoritarianism.  (McGeough, 2011)

[lxvii] (Keene & Noone, 2010; Justin Bieber Music Video, 2010; Sikora, 2009; Kennedy & Murphy, 2005)

[lxviii] See (Zarella, 2008) for a potted history of the UPC (Britain) and the OSS (US) in World War II.

[lxix] (Watters, 2004; Moss & Bearlin-Alardice, 2009, pp. 148-149) Social media was the place to go in Christchurch to find out what to do when you couldn’t flush! See #eqnz, and (Blog -Initiatives For Easing The Christchurch Traffic Congestion Post Earthquake, 2011) etc.

[lxx] After the release of the hacked ‘Harry Read Me File’ in 2009, climate research theorists were bombarded with incessant demands from climate-change skeptics under the FOI Act for their research data.  See also (Totaro, 2010)

[lxxi] (Le Bon, (1896)), Freud, in (Spruiell, 1987)

[lxxii]  (American Psychological Society, 2007;Spruiell, 1987; Zarella, 2008).

[lxxiii](Justin Bieber Music Video, 2010;  Staff reporters and agencies, 2011)  See  (China Buzz, 2010) for another example

[lxxiv] See (IGo2 Group, 2011) for statistical analysis of the tweet:retweet ratio (1:7), exponential growth of followers during the crisis, origin of tweets, examples of information being distributed etc

[lxxv] Via #mythbuster, QPSmediapolice.qld.gov.au

[lxxvi] (Laqueur, 2010)  He identifies several categories of terrorists for whom Armageddon is the solution.  Similarly (Kaldor, 2010) identifies civilians as the main victims in modern warfare – the safest place to be is in the army –  which seldom engages in head-on conflict – surrounded by soldiers with weapons …

[lxxvii] Revelations:21

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