But even in that jungle—or perhaps exactly because of it; after all, every jungle is pure potentiality in the mind of an explorer—the promise of true democracy in cyberspace was lingering. The power of any state and any ruler lies in the delicate balance between two complementary principles: “Divide et Impera” (divide and conquer) and “Panem et Circenses” (bread and circuses). (Delivered here in Latin because it sounds authoritative, but also because ancient Romans mastered these principles almost perfectly.)
Let’s start with the first one: Divide people and you will rule for a thousand years. When the internet was born, this dream-like new technology appeared to stand in stark contrast with the divisions that governments often foster to stay in power. The collective and open nature of the early internet was thus a promise for freedom. If everyone can come online and freely speak, the thinking went, if people can discuss and deliberate, if ideas can clash, merge and agree, then true collective action must ensue. We cannot be conquered because we are not divided any more. That was the promise that the internet made. That was the promise that the internet broke.
The very players that were supposed to embody the spirit of freedom and self-determination of the early United States, namely private businesses, seem to have played a crucial role in this process. Corporations were very skeptical about the early internet. No business could be done where everything is free and anyone (honest or thief, rich or poor) could be on the other side of the transaction. The internet was perceived as just another overhyped trend, not something that would last. Yet, over the course of 20+ years, corporations flourished online. Today it is hard to think of a popular website that is not owned by a company or a purchase that cannot be made online. With the invasion of corporate players, the online jungle started to retreat. Yes, you can still explore the jungle, but please stop for a minute at the gift shop. Websites became prettier, more stylish, embellished by CSS and made more interactive by JS. A smoother experience emerged. Text gave way to pictures and videos. Entirely new categories of jobs—web developers, designers, etc.—came into existence. Search engines became eerily good at guessing what you are looking for. The helicopter has been transformed into teleporter of incredible precision and accuracy—though it may not always take you where you thought you were going. It assures you that there is no more need to explore, because the territory has been already mapped out for you. All your necessities can be satisfied by no more than 10 websites, from purchasing food and clothes, to watching videos and listening to music, navigation and transportation, reading the daily news, and of course, engaging with social media. No daylight is left between our necessities and their consumption. We’ve traded surprise for functionality.
How did we get here? Remember the second principle of Roman hegemony? Bread and Circuses. Give people the basic necessities and distract them with entertainment and you will rule for a million years. Let’s start with “bread.” There is a well-documented history of the ways economic processes changed the inner workings of digital environments. For the relevance of this piece, however, we will only discuss one aspect: The transition from mass consumption to mass customization. The early age of capitalism featured mass consumption, a concept pioneered by Henry Ford, in which the same affordable product is sold to a large mass of individuals. “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black.” With the reduction of costs in manufacturing, more products could be made for the same cost, meaning more choices for people and more competition for manufacturers. As brilliantly documented by Charlie Brooker’s early documentaries How TV ruined your life and Screenwipe, advertisement changed swiftly, too. Advertising moved from function (This toothpaste cleans your teeth) to experience (This toothpaste is the only one with a double helix of organic kale microfiber. And it will make you feel good.). A product stopped being just a thing you use and became the ideas and aspirations associated with its use. And its use became as much a part of you as your personality, height, and voice. You could choose among millions of different yous, on the shelves of a supermarket or in the semi-infinite possible permutations of a Subway sandwich. People could finally experiment with their individuality and creativity and reinvent themselves every time. A revolution of freedom (brought to you by E Corp in single-serving portions). Digital technologies accelerated this process by zooming in customization to a single individual with surgical precision. Corporations were quick to understand that the data trail that we leave behind when using any connected device can be used to uniquely describe us, our interests, our preferences, and our behavior to an unprecedented degree of precision and granularity. “We the Consumers” can now have the music we like, the clothes we want, and the news that best enrages us, while skipping the whole laborious process of browsing through a lot of music that we don’t like, clothes we wouldn’t buy, and news that may not enrage us.
You don’t need to reach for your destination. Your destination comes at you.
Although it is easy to see how these algorithms might be dangerous for democratic institutions when overfitted, this is what society is for. You don’t want to fish everytime you want to eat sushi. Division of labor is one of the driving principles governing our collective evolution. A perfectly oiled clockwork where each individual is necessary but not sufficient for the workings of the collective superorganism.