When I think about what’s happening in the world of privacy, web sugar, magic mirrors and general web mischief, I often think about the analogy of what happened in the food business in the 20th century.
In the middle of the twentieth century, there were huge improvements in food science. Packaged cereals and cake mixes appeared. Canned fruit, canned soups and canned sauces arrived on the scene. Delicious, cheap snacks appeared in bags and boxes. New nutritious substances such as margerine were invented to solve problems inherent in animal fats. Vitamins supplements appeared, offering valuable nutrients to the mal-nurished. Fast food appeared, offering full meals and absurdly low prices.
Lest we forget, this was a really great thing! Malnutrition plummeted, fewer people went hungry. Life expectancies went up. Time and money were saved by all.
But then, slowly, we discovered there were downsides to fast and convenient foods. While there were many fewer hungry people, there were more and more obese people. Where there were fewer malnourished people, there were more people getting heart disease and diabetes.
As far back as the 1960s there were people who were skeptical about the consumer food industry. They were hippies who preferred homemade granola to Campbell’s soup. They wanted to grow their own food, or at least know the farmers who grew it.
The movement slowly grew. Alice Waters started the modern farm to table movement in the late 60s, we saw the rise of the organic movement, then we saw Whole Foods rise to unexpected success by selling food that didn’t use all the miracles of food science, and they charged more for it!
And then we got to today, when the organic movement is mainstream, nutrition is an obsession for a large number of people, and our energy is spent trying to avoid calories rather than to seek them out.
I think we’re at the beginning of a similar curve in the internet industry. In the last few decades, we have seen computing and networking power increase at an unbelievable rate and prices plummet to almost nothing! It’s fucking amazing! Don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t good. ‘Knowledge malnutrition’ is plummeting and the playing field is flattening across the planet (ok this might be controversial, but let’s put a pin in that).
But now, we’re starting to see some diseases of excess emerge on the web. Instead of high fructose corn syrup, we’re seeing what I’ve called ‘web sugar’, that addicts us and stupifies us. We have a new form of exploitative advertising that manipulates our behavior and compromises our privacy. We’re starting to get web diabetes.
If we accept that this is a potential problem, we can look to the food industry as an example of where to go from here. Gradually and eventually, the FDA did regulate food science, but it still isn’t in a state where we can just pick anything off the shelf and eat it without fearing consequences. Instead, we have to adjust our behavior and our culture to deal with a new reality.
I love getting sour patch kids at the movie theater even though I know they’re bad for me, and I still like scrolling Instagram a couple times a week and chortling at the memes, but I recognize that I can’t do either of those things as much as I feel like.