Alt-Trite; Or, To Circle-Strafe Around Evil

From The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

Some time around 2017, the Internet fundamentally changed. It became two worlds: The "alt" space, which really consists of a plurality of isolated communities; and the monolithic, corporate-controlled "walled garden." This change was presaged by dark and foreboding trends – the emergent dominance of social media, the rise of "microtransactions" and "gamification," and the increasingly tight squeeze commercial interests, by leveraging their influence over advertisers, were putting on digital spaces which, historically, had been grounds for the mostly consequence-free exploration of the whole scope of human ideas.

Freedom, infinite digital space, creativity, and sincere connections between people without borders or geographical limits could well have been leading to the future utopia most of us early adopters were envisioning in the 90s and early 00s. The escape from the strip-mall society, from the dysfunction and abuses of the waning post-WW2 social order, into the limitless realm of cyberspace was a life-saving maneuver for many youths, myself included. My world was so dark and abusive, so full of irremediable sorrow and drudgery that I came to inwardly regard the Internet as my real home – my real life, and the physical realities imposed upon me, going to school, earning a living, etc, were "real" to me only in quotes. But where is my home now?

If anyone today was looking for a similar escape from the abuses of the "real" world, could they find it? Like the Lovecraftian tentacle-monster from the end of Quake, the attention economy and the new "digital society" that politicians and Wall Street speculators are now busy building and exploiting has extended its tendrils into everything; the evil has followed us through that magical portal of the computer screen and daily takes away more and more of the humanity and goodness of people, the real-virtual life and sincerity that once was possible on the free and open internet.

Mother of Microtransactions, Witch-Queen of Monetization, Mistress of Paywalls, She Who Thirsts For Your Personal Data
"Shub-Niggurath" from Quake. aka, Mother of Microtransactions, Witch-Queen of Monetization, Mistress of Paywalls, She Who Thirsts For Your Personal Data

After 2016, with the rise of Donald Trump's political career in America, which many people consider thanks to the widespread use of social media, the Internet became a battleground. As much as the Internet had been an escape from the "real" world of politics, celebrity, money, influence, and as such could be conceived of as separate from it, suddenly the Internet was revealed to be, apparently, the place where the real power was. Since, here was a U.S. President, a former television personality, who had been elected more or less as a joke from some online forums – a rather big joke – and America itself was the punchline.

A lot of chaotic, exciting cultural realities were coalescing on the Internet around this time. Notable among them was "Pepe," the friendly, autistic frog whose popularity on the anonymous imageboard 4chan was to lead to the bemusing reality of him being lionized by the old media as an "alt-right" fascistic hate symbol.

An image from 4chan in 2016
An image from 4chan in 2016. A comically muscular "Smug Pepe" turns aside the horns of Moloch, the ancient Canaanite god who presided over child sacrifice (who represents Hillary Clinton, naturally).

The consequences of all this hysteria, however, have been very grave – not only for we former denizens of the free internet, but seemingly for the whole of society. In order, we presume, to prevent such a "democratic tragedy" from ever occurring again, the large tech companies, like Google, began to see what they could do to subtly influence and alter the discourse, going as far as adulterating their own core product, Google Search, whose results had previously been objective, (though perhaps gameable) but which increasingly report less and less in the way of accurate information to the end-user.

Gradually since then, more and more measures have been taken to restrict the freedom of Internet users – and much of it not so subtle. (A notable event to consider here is the Tumblr "porn ban" of 2018, which is akin to a digital "book-burning" of historic proportions). Concurrently, the predatory mechanisms invented to psychologically manipulate people online, with funding from big investment, either to harvest their data, mine their attention for advertising value, or most disturbingly, alter their behaviour, have year on year gone further and gotten more widespread, being adopted as the norm by more and more companies and websites.

As far as censorship goes, one can argue for or against the ethics of it, but one thing that ought to alarm anybody is the power of the gigantic tech monopolies to unilaterally take action – often invisibly, especially to less technically advanced users – to control and manipulate the public. The profits of the likes of Amazon and Apple make them economic entities akin to countries, but countries have constitutions and laws (at least in theory) which ought to limit the scope of potential abuses. As ever, things seem to go on as they do only because they happen beneath the threshold of people's consciousness. And when free discourse and communication is made increasingly difficult, how are people to awaken each other to the real issues?

Faced with these dark realities, I have cause to nonetheless be optimistic. When I was a boy, I would sneak around to use my brother's computer so I could play Quake. These early video games, produced before 2004 (when big money started to realize the size and profitability of the market) have a kind of charm and ethic to them which more modern efforts seem to lack.

Playing these games growing up, participating in the social communities that sprung up around them, competing online against others, instilled a definite lesson into me: If you persist, what was originally impossible becomes possible. If you persist even more, through a great leap of understanding, what was once impossible becomes easy.

While the task of creating an alternative to the walled-garden of Big Tech seems intimidating and challenging – What is going to be more challenging? Outwitting the soulless forces of greed (rocket-jumping over the lava if necessary), or living in the claustrophic, cloistered "reality" that they are building for us?

A flattering picture of Mark Zuckerberg
"The Elder God" from Legacy of Kain.
I intended it to be a metaphor for the "true form" of Facebook, but you would have to imagine something much worse for that to be accurate.

It seems to me we have no real choice but to work together, innovate, and keep ahead of the various "tentacles" of anti-human technology, which is definitely possible. I salute the Yesterweb project for leading the way in showing how it is possible and will be possible for us to create a new (old), more human Internet.

This article was created by Euward Hermitage