This blog is about getting on the web without being trapped in the web

If you are on the web, you are moving cheerfully and purposefully along its strands, accomplishing the tasks that you set out to do. Learning and enriching your life through the endless worlds of content and information, entertainment and utility.

If you are in the web, you are not moving through it by your own volition at all. You are being manipulated and cajoled into doing things that the masters of the web want you to do. You pick up your phone to do one thing, and emerge hours later after scrolling and watching with the empty feeling of having accomplished nothing at all. You feel degraded rather than enriched. The next day a package arrives full of something that you absolutely didn’t need, that you had seen an ad for or read an article about and thought it was cool at the time.

There is nothing better in the history of human civilization than being on the web. (OK, maybe like love, or coffee). I love the web!

But, we have created few things as dangerous to our hopes and dreams than being trapped in the web.

First, Let’s explore how we get trapped in the web.

Web Sugar

Web sugar is the sweet stuff on the web that is nearly irresistible on a biological level.

It’s stuff like video games, porn, endless YouTube playlists, and social media likes. Web Sugar has been engineered to mimic the reward mechanisms in our brain, and in that way it is similar to addictive things in the real world: drugs, gambling and real sugar.

Web Sugar mimics these mechanisms in order to take up as much as your time and attention as possible, similar to how the promise of an occasional win on a slot machine can keep you putting in coins and pulling the lever for hours and hours.

It doesn’t hurt to indulge in web sugar periodically and intentionally, but beware of its ability to suck up all your free time that you could be spending pursuing more worthwhile pursuits on the web or in real life.

They are luring you into being trapped in the web using that addictive web sugar.  

Magic Mirrors

Magic Mirrors are what I call traps on the web that use your data to show you want you want to see.  

You may have heard of ‘filter bubbles’ which describe the effect of magic mirrors on society.

That means if you like fashion, Google will show you more fashion related results, if you like sports, Facebook will show you more sports posts,  if you like mid-century modern furniture, Instagram will show you beautiful danish designed chairs, etc. etc.

So far, so good. However,The algorithms behind Magic Mirrors will gradually show you more and more extreme content, and will drive you to be less open to ideas that differ from your inclinations.

In fact, the only exposure you might have to differing ideas or attitudes may be warped parodies or very extreme versions of those ideas. This can warp your view of reality without your even realizing it.

This gives you a distorted view of yourself and your correctness, and a distorted view of the truth.

Data Farms

Critics have often said ‘If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.’

In the case of the internet, this isn’t quite right. The product is not you, it’s your data, which the services sell to advertisers so the advertisers can, in turn, sell you stuff.

Almost all the time, you voluntarily give some data to the site or app, such as your name, profession and maybe a couple interests, but then they can track your activity across the site and across the rest of the web. They can also sell or share what they learn about you to advertisers or other sites or apps. This is perfectly legal and seldom done with malicious intent.

Shoshana Zuboff gives the analogy of the tech companies collecting and selling ‘data exhaust’ but I think a better analogy is that of a dairy farm.

So if the tech companies are the farmers and the product is the milk, what are you? You are the cow to be milked.

Or, since I like to use arthropod-based analogies, you are the aphid to be milked for honeydew by a giant, impersonal hive of algorithm ants.

How do they get you onto the farm? They lure you in with Web Sugar and show you a rosy reflection of your world in a Magic Mirror to keep you there.

(side note, I didn’t plan this, but this is creepily similar to the Matrix.)

So you’re a data aphid, now what?

There is some good news!

First of all, lots of concerned citizens and governments are trying to help out all of us data aphids by introducing online privacy regulation, investigating tech companies under anti-trust laws, and teaching us how to use tech humanely.

The even better news is that once you know about web sugar, magic mirrors and data farms, it’s relatively easy to find ways out. It’s kind of like knowing about these things transforms you magically from an aphid into a spider, free to explore the World Wide Web and *spin* out new possibilities.

You just have to be more conscious of when you are giving away your data, when you’re consuming web sugar and when you are looking into a magic mirror. I don’t suggest you should never do these things, just that you should do them cautiously and with intention.

I’m put a bunch of resources for navigating the web’s traps below, and if you prefer to have it explained with badly drawn pictures of spiders and web analogies, I’ll be writing about the topic myself in the coming weeks

I also hope to temper the scary and depressing stuff by highlighting some truly delightful corners of the web, and maybe even the real world.

Web Sugar

Dopamine, your smartphone and you

Sean Parker says Facebook Was designed to be Addictive

Nir Eyal

Tristan Harris

Magic Mirrors

Ted talk on filter bubbles

Data Farms and Regulation

GDPR explainer

GDPR explainer

California privacy regulation explainer

Stratechery on Tech & Antitrust


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