Wednesday, October 3, 2012

An eternity on the web

On the BBC’s website, a report appeared a couple of weeks ago concerning the death of the internet. Seriously. If this report is anything to go by, then the internet is dying. It is decaying. Links are being severed due to a lack of interest in them. If you click into something that hasn’t been viewed in ages, then there is a good chance that you will be greeted with an error message.

What does this mean? The report bemoans the fact that history is being lost, as primary sources fall into disrepair. Web pages dedicated to what was happening on a particular day such as a news story or a blog post may be lost forever. The latest celebrity meltdown, for instance, may sadly (depending on your point of view) be relegated to those great many other silent events of History which remain outside our accepted view of the events that make up History. However paradoxical it may sound, History is incomplete, never total. Things get left out.

The report laments the fact that the internet does not store things forever, as if it were some kind of omnipotent archive, creating what would in effect be a total History for the historian of the future. But should we lament this? Would it be naive to assume that it could actually have been any other way?

So enthralled by the internet were some in the early days that they cast it as some sort of path to salvation. Some recognised a possible path to utopia, where all the old-world sins of nations, spies and armies would be laid bare. Is this not what wikileaks was all about, with its idea of total transparency, of absolute knowledge? Was not this absolute knowledge being painted as a path to salvation?

Perhaps there was some truth in this idea. When the internet came up against dictatorships in the middle East. Their ideas of censorship, though brutal, could hardly be particularly effective when we consider the possibilities of this new method of communication. In effect, the internet aided a revolution. We all saw the Arab Spring. We all saw an Egyptian name his son Facebook. We were all deeply surprised, and a little taken aback.

Maybe I was for different reasons. Did anyone else realise there was more to facebook than sneering comments or boring status updates that equate to the self-invasion of privacy? But in another part of the world people thought that they could start a revolution with the internet while the rest of us were sending each other pictures of cats.

Go us.

This is what the internet can do. It can overthrow regimes which fail to move with the times, fail to integrate key social and technological trends which happen in spite of those regimes. It can be used as a tool for revolution in such desperate situations. But it can’t be said that this was predicted, not in the sense of a definite possibility that everyone was sure was going to play itself out. No, we were shocked when the Arab Spring happened. Putting it into a nicely packaged framework is still a problem of sorts, especially for our mainstream media. This all points to the fact that we have entered into uncharted territory.

Could the internet be used in this way again? Perhaps, perhaps not. Every day we see it becoming more and more integrated into our lives, more and more part of the very fabric of our societies, as the world lurches forward in this uncertain time, into some unwritten future.

There was, of course, always the hope that the internet could provide some sort of catalyst for revolution. Perhaps we would, or still could, emerge into some sort of marxist utopia aided by the internet. I suspect that such a world would have problems all of its own. There was the hope that digital technology could provide us with some sort of immortality. A good example of this are the books of science fiction author Iain M. Banks. Banks’ characters invariably exist as members of, or outsiders to, a great utopian hi-tech galaxy spanning civilisation known as “the Culture” (“hippies with nukes,” as he once called it in an interview). In the books members of the Culture can preserve themselves digitally, to the extent where the personality of an individual is indistinguishable from its digitised twin. This is a form of cyber utopianism regularly espoused by the likes of Ray Kurzweill, who reckons that within our lifetime it will be possible to live for a very long time, if not forever, because of technological advancements.

This view is understandable. The printing press ushered in an era of unprecedented change in Europe. Writing itself led to centralisation, bureaucracy, cities, states and nations. But will we ever live forever? Or, to express a similar, connected desire, will we ever find eternity? It is, after all, a deep human desire, to find the proof that all our utterances, desires, hopes and dreams find some ultimate form of meaning. Heaven, then; some eternal realm where everything survives. A realm of pure form, filled with the objects of mathematics and geometry, as Plato would have it.

The internet. Perhaps the writer of that article is expressing the same exasperation that Plato felt when he looked around and failed to see eternity. Why can’t things last forever? Perhaps we hoped beyond hope that the internet served as that other realm, in opposition to our own fallen world of change.

But then the internet is not like that. It too will decay, it too will fade away unless maintained properly. If the Arab Spring is anything to go by, the real uses for the internet has nothing to do with its apparent eternity. It has its role to play, but it is a role in this world, in the realm, embedded in our world of change, a tool to shape the road ahead.

It will not stop the flow of time, or usher in the end of History and the beginning of a total History, where all is preserved, forever. It will not usher in heaven on earth, the second coming, or the final revelation. Its effects are much more profound than that. Things will decay on the internet, just like anywhere else.

Once we accept its failings, accept that the search for meaning and eternity begins and ends with ourselves, then we may begin to use the internet in a productive way, using it to change our world for the better, rather than be in thrall of one of its brightly lit monitors.

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