Internet criticism: "Switching off is no solution"
We are online, always and everywhere. What does it matter with us? The Internet pioneer Geert Lovink on programmed sadness, wanted Facebook dependency - and why he can not look the other way.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Lovink, much of what internet pioneers played out in the niche decades ago, is today a digital everyday life for the whole of society. Nevertheless, in your new book, you write that net culture is in the midlife crisis. What's wrong?
Geert Lovink: It has not remained much of what we built then. The so-called public Internet has turned out to be a shrinking universe. The Silicon Valley - Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on - is now attracting a lot of attention. We thought for a long time that content was all about content . But the companies also have a huge impact on the Internet structure itself.
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Digital Nihilism: Theses on the Dark Side of the Platforms (Digitale Gesellschaft, Vol. 29)
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SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Lovink: The area that net criticism can still talk about is getting smaller, at least in relative terms: the private platforms are growing and we have no influence on what Facebook does. These companies are not regulated publicly, they are not even systematically archived.
SPIEGEL: There are also tangible political questions about this, for example when parties are campaigning on Twitter or the US president is foreign policy. Why is this so difficult to grasp for net research?
Lovink: The problem is that the outcome of many ongoing developments is not yet apparent. Our work has become very tedious because we can no longer study the net from the inside as a whole. And we have not developed alternatives to Facebook or Google. This idea of ten or fifteen years ago does not work anymore, that at some point a new service comes up again and replaces the others like once Facebook MySpace did. We have believed too long that people will eventually get fed up and go somewhere else.
SPIEGEL: On Facebook or Twitter, users often write that they are tired of excitement spirals.
Lovink: Yeah, but they do not know how to get out there. That's the lock-in effect. People are stuck and can do nothing more with their emotional energy than to put them in the platforms themselves. And then there are those shitstorms, the trolls and so on. At some point, everything implodes.
SPIEGEL: You speak of "digital nihilism".
Lovink: Statistics show that less and less happens outside the platform bubbles, so people do not really feel self-effective anymore. This causes a culture of indifference. However, it is very different how people react to it. We are not all trolls, we are not all sad and we are not all depressed. Nihilism is a collective term here, I'm talking about a wide range of states of mind.
SPIEGEL: What exactly did your research reveal?
Lovink: I've worked a lot with young people to understand why they can not get away - which keeps drawing them in when they type on the phone. For example, we begin to analyze the tactics of companies that influence sentiment, so that the adolescents stay online longer and return faster. The social feeling is in a sense also a product of software decisions, a programmed sadness.
SPIEGEL: In pedagogy, adolescents often talk about addiction when it comes to unbounded network usage.
Lovink: Well, that's a danger. And it's also good to talk about it publicly. But there are 2.8 billion Facebook users - and they are not sick. To say that they are simply addictive does not work on these scales anymore. But what happens if we stop talking about dependencies in the medical sense? Then it will be exciting! The social media dependency of hundreds of millions of people is technically induced and wanted - but it could also be hindered.
SPIEGEL: Conversely, there are more and more users who feel overwhelmed and suggest "digital fasting". Does not that help?
Lovink: It's very good that more and more people are acknowledging the challenge. But switching off is not a solution. Especially not if you come from the generation that has built these systems. As pioneers, we have another responsibility - precisely because there are so many young people who would communicate differently without being constantly sucked out and overwhelmed. Who is responsible? This question is still unanswered. And we have to get there ourselves, regulations by the politicians will not help us.
SPIEGEL: Your inventory sounds very pessimistic. But do you have any hope?
Lovink: Yes, of course. I'm an activist, I'm from the hacker scene. We have always wondered: what can we do? And we continue to work on alternative systems today. But we also have to be clear about the overall situation, which is in fact not exactly happy. We can not just look away and continue to hack.
Here, too, read why computer scientist James Bridle believes that algorithms are causing "devastation" in our thought system.