“If our primary method of communication can only operate on literal meaning and certainty, it is only a matter of time before we do.”
divnr™ is an idea I have been working on for some time, and was borne out of frustration with the certainty the technological age insists it can offer. It indeed excels with finding or calculating absolute truths in our world; the quickest route between two coordinates, the lowest price for a Ford Focus, the next best Chess move. What computers determine in a nanosecond and the minds behind this stage of our technical revolution are phenomenal.
However, the qualities in the machinery and the engineers who construct its mechanisms are, by their nature, configured to seek out certainty. Computers do not play well with ambiguity, and it is natural for those drawn to the profession of designing within its framework to incline towards the same absolute terms.
If the machine world operated within its limitations of the known, there would be no issue. But, due to its vastness, there are few aspects of life into which this network and its mantras do not penetrate. Unfortunately, authoritative sources such as one that presents without ambiguity are too great a seduction for our fear of the unknown, and so they thrive.
Take the simple example of the “like” button, present in almost every social network. This seemingly innocuous response belies the level of ambiguity both in the stimulus and the stimulated “like”.
Suppose you look from the position that no one can ever truly know what it is like to be another person and that our series of mostly failed attempts to connect are central to our suffering. It’s easy to understand that even this reductive, banal interaction of post<->like could help soothe the anxiety of separateness.
Perhaps the best way to view this is to recognise the interaction from the native context of its host machinery. Boolean operators are part of a computers staple diet; is a specific thing true, or is it false. So, perfectly in keeping with the environment, a response is prompted: do you like, or in the absence of action, not like this. We know that our actual feelings for a tweet or photo are more complicated than this convenient signal can afford us, but these nuances are harder to capture, store and analyse. Rather than push the interface to absorb these more sophisticated responses, we seem to have adapted to the format most readily digested by the machine. The introduction in 2016 of additional “reactions” to Facebook’s roster of accepted emotions (Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry) hardly helped matters. Four of them are positive; such is the reluctance to convey anything deemed a negative feeling. More importantly, though, they are arbitrary. Because humans are incapable of feeling or discerning more complex emotions? No, because Computers do not play well with ambiguity.
“Ambiguity is no longer in play.”
There are many more examples of this prescribed approach to extracting user information, most notably registration pages, usually comprising name, age, city, email, password. Its ubiquity might have us believe this is the most appropriate, or even the only technique in determining the answer to the age-old question, “Who are you?”. Only, given a traditional database and an insistence on the conformity & design of its data to ease digital digestion, would this be true. A person is so much more than this dataset, yet this format has not changed over twenty years. Why? Familiarity, of course, plays its part, and subsequent interactions on the platform also enrich a systems understanding of an individual or group. Still, I think the main reason why this hasn’t changed is that they provide definite facts that are common to most people, and therefore machines parse them easily.
Why you may ask, is this reductive representation of human emotion and identity important, it only exists in a portion of our lives, amongst other real-life interactions. These “real” interactions are becoming rapidly smaller, a trend accelerated by the Covid pandemic; personalised shopping, criteria based dating, automated parts of customer service. The more we occupy the digital world, the more our lives are lived on its terms. The less well we play with ambiguity. Reality is an open, unknowable system and an animal that can not manage without a projected certainty of things is a wretched animal indeed.
The machines insistence on absolutes has made them something of a comfort blanket for our anxiety for certainty. Through their contained image of the world, they have convinced us that we can be sure of something so impenetrable as another’s character and deliver judgements without hesitation. In the absence of self-doubt, Cancel Culture has become regular news, with public figures held accountable for online discrepancies, as if their 140 character posts are definitive of their spirit.
Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are, in my mind, not the issue here. They have simply recognised the power of the strict logic boxes they have at their disposal and the public’s appetite for this strictness of thinking.
We’ve delegated so much responsibility to these machines that it’s hard to imagine how the public might reclaim comfort with disorder. Convenience and certainty, once attained, are hard habits to kick. Asking someone to read a biography, lengthy account of an event, or court transcript and potentially come out of it with less certainty than when they went in is a challenge when coming from a place where content is concise and conclusive.
This transition is even more problematic when the relationship you have with the digital world has a power dynamic that is deeply unhealthy and places the user in an environment of another’s design. The ordered beauty of a walled garden ought not to be confused with nature itself.
You register with the server. You prove who you are to the server. You ask the server for your information. Yourequest the server removes your data.
The Client-Server paradigm is for convenience for the machine. Contrary to what one might imagine, it is not a plot assembled by clandestine organisations wishing to perform perverse acts on your online avatar. If a computer needs to trawl through data to offer a “definitive” account of something, it is more efficient, if not essential, that this information is in the same place and format. The unintended consequence of this displacement of data is that the user is at the mercy of the service provider’s profile of any given subject. The convenience of analysis inevitably supersedes the uniqueness of previous human experiences. Ambiguity is no longer in play.
“The ordered beauty of a walled garden ought not to be confused with nature itself.”
A trip to a butcher might have conjured a random conversation, disappointment with an unstocked item, and purchase of previously untried meat. Online stores preorder staple items you’ve had before, make suggestions based on these prior orders, and through their sophisticated connected systems, will always have your product in stock.
It is hard to imagine wanting to return to the old world, in which the inconvenience of physical exertion and uncertainty of outcome was part of the deal. Yet, within this effort and acceptance of dysfunction was a simple but important transfer of meaning.
Our sense of identity, I think, is derived from the obstacles we are willing to overcome based on the values we hold, and in that, even for a brief moment, the separateness between us is bridged. We know who someone is from the sacrifices they are willing to make, and more importantly, they know who they are. In an age of convenience, we discard meaning and its associated connection.
We often forget how densely populated the internet is because our interactions with it usually occur in isolation. More traditional population centres like mega-cities, I believe, offer the greatest diversity, not because there is something magical in their soil or air, but because the closer we are to one another, the more pressing the need to distinguish ourselves from others.
Among the billions of netizens, we feel this need to find distinction in ourselves most urgently, but we have a diminished ability to do so with the ease of modern life. This situation leads to people assuming positions that they might otherwise have felt no kinship towards, simply as a means of establishing a boundary within an ever-increasing crowd. As the public forums become dominated by the stark and outspoken whose motivation is for gaining individual distinction, we have lost the platform for honest and measured debate. These public spaces often descend into hostile places in which opinions are categorised into acceptable and unacceptable. Once again, the sense of self suffers, as does the authenticity of the conversation. Separateness prevails.
This diminished sense of self is compounded by the factor of text messaging. Since 2007, texting has become the dominant method of communication in terms of volume, which has increased with the introduction of messaging platforms whose rising popularity has outstripped that of the social networks. There is little so unique to a person’s identity than their intonation and turn of phrase, so instantly recognisable. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the decline in its use has impacted the integrity of our character.
Everyone who has ever sent an SMS or WhatsApp message has had the experience of being misunderstood or being perfectly understood for the emotion expressed at the time but regretting the contents. It’s as though it’s a legal obligation to cast Begbie in every epic text message battle we have. It is far easier to say something aggressive or downright rude in a text than to hear your voice verbalise the same sentiment. The ownership and value we place on our distinct vocal signature is something, I would argue, that is harder to put to the employment of meanness or ill will than the anonymity of messaging. Once again, convenience degrades our sense of self.
“… as though it’s a legal obligation to cast Begbie in every epic text message battle…”
The final complication is security, both in terms of literal protection of data and that of one’s social standing. News stories of compromised user information have become commonplace, from government agencies through to social networks. Naturally, this leads to a legitimate sense of caution when sharing personal data in privates spaces within the public platforms. If users are not willing to divulge intimate details in defining their online avatar, then the representation becomes divorced from the reality of the source.
Hyper-awareness around social standing and how our online activities may impact our lives is a very modern affliction. As previously mentioned, the online mob have mobilised into many aspects of public discourse and made it an environment in which free speech is an idea rather than an active practice. After all, dogmatic people, like computers, are drawn to absolute reasoning, making sense that this would be their forum of choice.
So, not only are users wary of providing an intimate portrait of themselves for fear of identity theft (a paranoia propagated, in my mind, to bolster the idea that online profiles are who you are). They are also keenly aware that they will be held accountable for their expressions on a platform that demands high-definition versions of their otherwise contradictory, uncertain self. The conversation becomes sadomasochistic, nothing more than a series of “safe” words, following a threat of exclusion or ridicule.
In light of these issues of Certainty, Network Scale, Privacy, and Convenience, I believe there is a need for an alternative. A system that counters machine instincts and is comfortable with uncertainty, and transfers that comfort to its users. If our primary method of communication can only operate on literal meaning and certainty, it is only a matter of time before we do.
Please feel free to take a look at the alternative I have created at https://www.divnr.io