Today’s 2-for-1 special features two books that discuss the future of the Internet in two different ways. One, THE WORD EXCHANGE by Alena Graedon, is fiction; the other, DIGITAL DISCONNECT: HOW CAPITALISM IS TURNING THE INTERNET AGAINST DEMOCRACY by Robert W. McChesney is non-fiction. But both cover many of the same themes, and discuss many of the same problems.
In a nutshell, both books warn of the problems of too much information going to the wrong people. Whether it’s words or ideas or political campaigns, the fact remains that when privately held corporations know too much about us — whether it’s Graedon’s mega-corporation Synchronic, or McChesney’s take on Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook (to name only a few) — our choices get taken away. And life as we know it gets that much more difficult.
We begin with McChesney’s DIGITAL DISCONNECT, which is a frightening, yet plausible tale about what could be the future of the Internet. McChesney starts out with a brief history of the Internet, including the halcyon days of the 1980s and 1990s, where users could do anything online and not be tracked by mega-corporations like Google, Facebook, etc. The people who came of age back then believed that the Internet could be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (OK, I’m misquoting, but it’s apt); the Internet was supposed to be an open-sourced forum that was free from corporate misrule. And knowledge was supposed to be paramount, so everyone could educate themselves as they saw fit.
But that idyllic vision turned into the rough-and-tumble 2000s and beyond. Corporations like Google and Facebook, which were unknown in the 1980s and 1990s (or much lesser presences, at best), started to collect all sorts of data on the people who used their services — without oversight of any sort. And while they said they were not putting people’s names with all this data collection, after a while it gets fairly easy to match names with data.
Then, couple all of that knowledge with the fact that it’s now legal in the United States and much of the civilized world for companies to watch what you’re doing online. So if you go to, say, the New York Times, there are many companies that are observing what articles you click on and are trying to figure out why you wanted to read those particular articles rather than, say, the newest stuff about Kim Kardashian West.
That means the range of information that’s available, over time, is harder to come by. Advertisers have started steering people to content, more so than ever before, and due to the collapse of journalism in the United States, it gets harder and harder to sort the wheat from the chaff — the truth from the falsehood, as it were — while many Americans don’t seem to realize just how much information these monolithic corporations actually have.
Granted, McChesney’s take has been described as liberal, even partisan, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. McChesney discusses many things from the perspective of freedom of information — and the freedom of a person to hold his or her own information without the “help” of various corporations.
The final part of McChesney’s narrative discusses what could happen when the next “smart devices” come onto the market. For example, a “smart” refrigerator can tell you when you need to buy some milk, which seems innocuous enough. But it also tells whoever and whatever is gathering that data that you like milk, which means corporations can send you more milk coupons (harmless), send you more advertising with milk in it (less so), or even start telling you about how you’re not a child, so you shouldn’t really drink cow’s milk any more and should drink the super-expensive coconut milk (which is flat-out wrong).
And that’s not all. Because your “smart” refrigerator’s contents would no longer be your own private affair. The fact that you like chocolate mousse at three a.m. would not be a surprise to anyone (possibly harmless); the fact that you have a sweet tooth might actually cause your health insurance premiums to go up (detrimental and flat-out wrong).
You see, who controls the information when everything is available online? And where is the oversight?
McChesney is right when he says this is deeply worrisome. And he’s also right that if the flow of information can be disrupted entirely — whether it’s by Verizon, Comcast, Sprint, or any of the other telecommunications giants — we’ll have a less informed populace, which leads to a less informed democracy almost by definition.
DIGITAL DISCONNECT is a spirited, entertaining, educational book that everyone should read. There are parts of it you will not agree with, even if you are an ardent liberal; there are parts of it you will absolutely agree with, even if you are an ardent conservative. And that’s because the issue of who controls the flow of information is the most important debate we’re not having.
Now, why do I think THE WORD EXCHANGE, Graedon’s fictional tale of word flu and Memes (souped-up smartphones with seemingly all-encompassing power), has anything to do with DIGITAL DISCONNECT? It’s simple: here, we have a tale of technology that has gone way too far and has fulfilled McChesney’s dystopian vision of the future.
In Graedon’s conception, very few people actually read any more. They instead use Memes, and will look up any word they’re not familiar with. While this seems benign, what would happen if one corporation, Synchronic, decided to put nonsense words into people’s Meme feeds and charge money for looking up the meanings? Because people apparently don’t have any memory any longer, apart from these Memes . . . they can’t remember the definitions of hardly anything.
Synchronic starts their reign of terror slowly, by first changing the meanings of well-known words to see if they can get away with it. (We know this mostly because of subtext, but it’s there.) When they realize no one except a bare, literate few have twigged to this, they start adding more and more nonsense words to the lexicon in order to get the fee every time users look up these nonsensical words.
But their actions backfire spectacularly, causing the word flu — aphasia mixed with a physical virus. Very few have any immunity to this excepting academics who read more than one language or people who write e-mails or journals or actual books, which means the word flu is immediately devastating to the world economy.
While I didn’t totally buy the idea that aphasia can also transmit as a harmful virus, I liked Graedon’s conception quite a bit. Her take on power and who controls it is frightening. Synchronic, through their ever-present Meme devices, knows everything there is to know about everyone with the exception of people trying to stay off the grid. And those are vanishingly rare in Graedon’s version of the near-future, because everyone wants to be connected to the Internet via the Memes, and almost no one recognizes the dangers of this.
Ultimately, Graedon’s world fights back against the word flu, Synchronic is vastly reduced, and people realize the dangers of the Memes. But it takes a long time to get there, and I never once believed in any of the characters, only in what they were doing. (Don’t get me started on “heroine” Anana, a woman I considered far too dumb to live, or we’ll be here all night. And why Bart, an academician with a formidable intellect, would ever like Anana was completely off-putting.)
Bottom line: DIGITAL DISCONNECT and THE WORD EXCHANGE have many of the same themes. But one thing is clear: Whoever and whatever controls the medium controls the message, and both authors have clearly understood the costs of that in their disparate ways.
DIGITAL DISCONNECT: A-plus.
THE WORD EXCHANGE: B
–reviewed by Barb