Profoundly Perplexing Cyberspace

Tomasz Setowski

Tomasz Setowski

Tom Standage, a British science writer, the digital editor at The Economist and the author of such unorthodox chronicles as “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” and “The Victorian Internet,” a steampunk classic about the rise of the telegraph — makes a convincing case.

Social Media

What is media today? Conglomerates and moguls, of course: Time Warner, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch. What was media the “day before yesterday”? It may have been Cic­ero and other upper-class Romans, passing from person to person papyrus rolls with latest news. They copied, annotated and passed them around.

Speeches, books, even personal letters were read aloud by slaves and sent on to friends and acquaintances. This distribution system made early media social; by sharing in this fashion, people were able to do what people do in such situations: signal their interests, define their personas and strengthen their ties with others.

Fourth style fresco painting of Sappho holding a stylus

A fresco painting from Pompeii of Sappho holding a stylus.

Graffiti in Pompeii were nothing less than “wall posts”. Even content reads like yesterday’s posts:Graffiti from PompeiiWax tablets were used for sending messages are the iPads of their day (flat objects from across the ages are going to look similar).

wax tabletThe Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences were written by Martin Luther in 1517.  On 31 October 1517, Luther posted them on the door of the church in Wittenberg. They “went viral” and thus widely regarded as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. Thomas Paine‘s revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense was a “media hit,” as well.

Every time in history such things happen due to changes in technology, there were disdainful commentators lamenting blasphemous advancement of humanity toward havoc, destruction, moral degradation.

socrates_out_on_a_drink_by_maladjustSocrates argued that, exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing”.

In 1641, The Worshipful Company of Stationers worried that “every ignorant person that takes advantage of a lose presse may publish the fancies of every idle brain”.

Thomas Fuller, a 17th-century clergyman, argued that pamphlets “cast dirt on the faces of many innocent persons, which dried on by continuance of time can never be washed off”.

Then, now, again, and after the morrow people believed, believe and very likely will believe that technology is able to alter humanfolks fundamentally. To do so is to fall into the trap of thinking that machines are somehow alien. They are human creations that reflect our needs and desire, Tom Standage argues.

Then, is there also a “need and desire” to drown in a sea of misinformation and, while at it, part with our privacy?

Charles Seife, an American author and journalist, a professor at New York University, wrote Virtual Unreality, a seriously entertaining book with a built-in warning: beware, be skeptical of what you read, view and watch online.

Mr. Seife cites an appalling example of dangerously misleading Internet: President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa was persuaded, largely by HIV-denialist websites, to try to thwart the distribution of drugs that could treat the disease in his nation. Mr. Mbeki’s campaign resulted in the deaths of over 300,000 South Africans between 2000 and 2005.

Charles Seife is an American author and journalist, a professor at New York University. He has written extensively on scientific and mathematical topics.

Charles Seife (Credit: Sigrid Estrada). Charles Seife has written extensively on scientific and mathematical topics.

Internet groupthink is creating a new kind of reality, Mr. Seife says, reality in which privacy is not merely endangered, but nears extinction. “[Free information] is a double-edged sword because when information is out there for everyone to manipulate, for everyone to alter, for everyone to broadcast, unfortunately, you get a huge amount of nonsense as more and more people put their stuff out there. You get noise to the signal.”

Q:  Looking to the future a little bit, do you think we’re going to keep cruising along with the way things are happening, where we have less and less control over our private information or do you think we’re going to be entering some kind of a different realm? I’m wondering if this is a transition stage and if we’re going to have more control and if people are going to become more and more aware of how their information is being used.

A: I definitely think we’re in a transition phase. But I hate to say it, I think we may be entering a post-privacy society. I teach journalists, and one of the things that keeps journalists in check is a sense of privacy, a sense of boundaries, and the understanding that you are imposing upon the people you interview and there are certain things that may not be worth exposing even though they’re juicy. In trying to talk about journalistic ethics, the students today are actually studying with the understanding in a way students even seven or eight years ago weren’t. And I wonder, these are people who are used to sharing everything online and so it’s really much harder to understand the value of why others would not want that, would not behave in the same way.

FacebookQ: Is that something that will just go away as older generations go away? The worries about over-sharing, sharing private information…

A: I see through my students’ eyes a world without privacy that is completely normal. It’s something that’s completely foreign to me but I understand others can live with it. The future is not going to be up to us; it’s going to be up to them.


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