People always talk about ‘the streets’ when they want to highlight somewhere gritty, down to earth and possibly unpleasant. It’s as though the physical pavement – resplendent with dog turd as it so often is – represents the visceral thoroughfare of life. It is odd, therefore, that the internet, which is gradually becoming the streets of the world, is so often expected to be a happy place full of glorious sunshine.
At the moment literally everything we know is moving online. Each year this cranks up a notch as business processes, government initiatives – and vast swathes of our social lives – duplicate and then even switch into the virtual arena. This is causing a mad panic behind the scenes as security processes and data governance are becoming increasingly fundamental. While legislation – like GDPR in Europe – is emerging to tackle the most obvious difficulties.
Yet this can be felt far more strongly than mere logistics. Our new digital world is changing the entire surface of society in a number of different ways. These days US teens on Spring Break are behaving better than ever before because they know they’re being filmed. In a similar vein many young people are drinking far less than previous generations because drink-addled just doesn’t look good, while teeth whitening and general physical upgrading is getting more and more ubiquitous.
But while it might make sense that seeing our every living moment shared, duplicated and commented on, may make us more vain and anxious, it doesn’t make sense that any of these changes should make us any nicer. All the nasty stuff that we have always accepted on the streets – the sexism, casual racism and violence – isn’t going to magically disappear because we move online.
Yet for some reason as a society we seem to expect human nature – like our physiques – to get a makeover. Bizarrely many appear to believe that all the awfulness of the real, physical world will simply vanish and – more weirdly still – seem genuinely disturbed when it does not. Theft and unnecessary shouting are surely destined to transfer from the mean streets of any town you care to mention straight onto our computer screens. Why on earth wouldn’t they?
It is, of course, a noble the idea that everything will instantly become a whole lot better once it is virtual. And in a lot of ways tallies with the idealistic thinking that underpinned the formation of the internet. Yet this type of crazy idealism may also be leaping back to bite us on the backside right now.
Suddenly some individuals seem genuinely shocked that bullying occurs amongst children online when this was always rife in the physical world. (I can’t believe anyone who went to school could have forgotten it – whichever camp they happened to fall into.) And the same is true of sexism, racism and all the other everyday horribleness which has always existed.
So, while it is good that we’re now tackling these endemic human concerns, it does seem that doing so via angry Twitter spats might not be the best approach. After all, this just riles up the perpetrators (and a whole lot of other people to boot). It just isn’t that helpful to break everything down into simple nice and nasty – liberal vs. evil – and it makes it easier to ignore issues like sexism afresh, because now we can brand the loudest shouters as feminazis.
Yet still none of this is really new. In a lot of ways this type of mad polarisation is no different from the gritty streets where people put on different costumes to show which gang they belong to. We may be at the start of the virtual world but human nature hasn’t changed. And so the answer as usual is a good old shout. Only now we have the length of 140-characters instead of a pavement.
Jon Collins’ in-depth look at tech and society
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond