Displaying personal information on the web was once reserved for mid-western Americans who thought the world wanted to know about their pets. Now it’s commonplace. This change in the dynamic of the web is the most frequently cited characteristic of the web 2.0 inflorescence.
We hear so often about the explosion of blogging on the internet, but then there’s also the flickr feed, delivering a constant stream of your photos to the world, not to mention YouTube.
Or how about a phenomena sometimes referred to as microblogging, best exemplified by Twitter? Fed up with the glacial pace of your blog? Never fear, because Twitter allows you to deliver a blow by blow account of your day: a therapeutic letting of the bodily fluid that is the stream of consciousness. What you see, what you think, and what you do can all be turned into a preformatted flow of data. As far as I know, no one has quite hit the nail on the head for the “where you are” feed — yet. Don’t worry; this gap in the market will make some trendy Californian nerd very wealthy indeed.
It seems natural to wonder what the zenith of this might be. Are we heading for a Google powered Vulcan mind-meld? What does this amount of exposure to someone else’s psyche mean? The national telecommunications network is already called the UK Spine, and could well go on to form the central nervous system of some collectively conscious beast with a cortex stretching from Exeter to Hull. It’s easy to imagine various parts of the UK responsible for different aspects of brain function. Soho, for example, would certainly be the cerebellum and take charge of all of our most basic functions while Glasgow would doubtless be responsible for our fight or flight mechanism. Presumably more the former than the latter.
I’m genuinely terrified of what might happen if the government were to make (more) use of access to the quantity of personal data that will soon either be knocking around on the web, or gathered through CCTV, road pricing, mobile phones, ISPs, credit cards, and so on to infinity. Anyone who doesn’t fear this must, presumably, trust the intentions of government. I can understand this illusion- I don’t imagine that Our Dear Leader sits in a swivel chair, stroking a cat and pondering some diabolical scheme. But collectively, when the minds of the polity fix on some warped vote harvesting scheme, they are less than rational. In fact, many aspects of policy at the moment are, if you are honest with yourself, bonkers. But I’d better stop short of a polemic against the government because I don’t want you to think I’m a nutcase. And besides – they might be watching…
We can, however, take heart in the thought that in the gestalt entity which is mooted here we will be exactly as responsible for oppressing as being oppressed. We will have all merged into one, but in ourselves we would not be conscious of anything. A government sponsored pogrom would be analogous to a Freudian exercise in memory repression rather than an actual human rights abuse.
However, to posit this all-encompassing entity is to ignore the brute fact that no amount of exposure to other people’s lives gives us even the slightest clue of what it is to be them. Many people are sufficiently familiar with one another to predict the anecdote that is about to be recounted or the justification for any given supermarket purchase. But their conscious lives remain at least nearly as much of a mystery to one another as they were before they met.
So if we‘re not concerned with the outlandish possibility of consciousness migrating up to the level of the nation there is still another more probable consequence of our desire to record out personal lives on the web. At first Wikipedia’s entry on blogging seemed to be slightly stretching it when it compares the practise to the mass observation studies carried out by Sussex University. In those studies, many ordinary individuals were asked to submit diaries of the lives, detailing all of the mundanities that made up their routines. They were then used as the basis for investigation into various aspects of psychology.
But this is obviously exactly what the internet represents. Flickr as photo-elicitation, Twitter as word association. All of this data is searchable, often helpfully tagged and so vast in quantity as to be statistically unquestionable. When we next experience a psychic convulsion on the scale of the Diana lunacy, psychologists will have a field day. Imagine – comparative studies of different nations’ reactions, tracing the views of all those who link to the same news story, or studies of what activity men and women engage in as the news unfolds – the possibilities are limitless.
A cataloguing of the human mind in much the same vein as the human genome project would surely ensue. Our humanity diminished, our knowledge increased. Quantified, tabulated and analysed, a society’s reaction will be predicted by a statistical-psychology in the same way that the average behaviour of molecules can be used to explain pressure and temperature in a gas. The selection of a prime ministerial candidate and the design of new brands of cereal will be orchestrated by men wielding apathy-elasticity graphs and quoting the marginal bathos of the south-east.
In the same way that we know the climate’s getting hotter, but we still don’t what the weather will do next week, information on your behaviour might not exist, but groups of people will be easily second guessed. Would it be taking it too far to suggest that what we consider free will could turn out to be the random margin of error in a statistical sociological model? I would say no, but then I’ve always suffered from a high modulus of exaggeration.
by Jimmy Tidey
Illustration by Jack Noel.