The Curmudgeon’s Corner: Fall 2016

I’m tired of the internet.

I guess that’s a bit broad but I can’t find a better way to rephrase it. There are so many things on the internet that I’m sick of that I can’t help but diagnose myself with a case of General Internet Fatigue (GIF!). I still use the internet, of course—we all do—and I think that may be part of the problem. Much like working in a daycare, sometimes you can’t avoid the thing that’s making you sick.

I have thought about the reason for this fatigue, and I think I’ve come upon the key reason. It boils down to this: going anywhere on the internet is like locking yourself in a room and exposing yourself to white noise at painfully loud volumes. The culture of the internet is entirely driven by the creation and sharing of content; but that’s nothing new. However, the number of people who make their living on the internet has skyrocketed. With this has come the advent of internet metrics, whether it’s pageviews, clicks, Youtube views, shares, likes, whatever you want to call it. High metrics equals more money from advertisers and sponsors.

Of course, this over-reliance on metrics means that people attempt to game the system. Everything, and I mean everything, screams for your attention. I’m reminded of the so-called “loudness wars” of the 1990s and 2000s, in which the dynamic range of music CDs was drastically reduced in favor of more total volume in an attempt to catch more listeners’ attention. The internet is currently experiencing its own “loudness” war. Every piece of content put out by a website or social network, is at maximum volume all the time because it initially catches your attention. Headlines hype relatively mundane news out of control; opinions are loud, harsh, and judgmental; and everything is a potential controversy. Controversy generates clicks: see the amount of media attention the Drumpf campaign has generated in the U.S. Bad science articles begin every headline with “Science proves…” because that turns your head, even though the word proves” should be used with extreme caution in a science article. Sports writing has suffered so many “hot takes,” or poorly-informed articles written to generate clicks by infuriating people, that it has reached memetic status.

It becomes a positive feedback loop. As time goes on, more and more volume is needed to become noticeable. But as some music producers found, though, full volume all the time is not the way to go. It fatigues the ears. Songs begin to blend together. When there’s no softness, no quiet, no gentleness, one loses the appreciation for the loud and raucous segments. When we’re constantly inundated with information that’s been hyped out of control, we lose a sense of what’s important and what’s not. Mundane events become twisted into factories for outrage. I’ll give one example from my own corner of the internet—video gaming. In late 2014 in Australia there was a petition started by change.org to remove the then already-one-year-old Grand Theft Auto V from electronics retailer Target. Target weighed their options and eventually caved in. Some gamers decided that this was not just a calculated business decision, but CENSORSHIP. Target had caved to CENSORSHIP and thus deserved their rebuke, despite their not actually being censored. By playing up the dumb non-controversy, the critical point was overlooked: the uncomfortably realistic depictions of violence, particularly against women, in the game. Once the artillery barrage of gamer rage had been deployed, there was no hope for any civil debate. The noise won.

Just as there’s been pushback against the volume of the music industry, and I think it’s time for pushback on the internet. There are a few steps I’m taking to reduce my internet fatigue, and I’ll share them with you in case you feel the same way.

Don’t give in to the noise. Stop creating it, stop fanning it, and stop acknowledging it. Stay off the junk sites. Don’t click the obvious click-bait. Stop reading articles that you know are going to irritate you. Again: if you roll your eyes while reading the headline, do not read it. Although, perhaps it might be useful to investigate why you roll your eyes. Seek out answers instead of falling back on tired memes and clever tweets. And most importantly—have perspective. This isn’t to say that you’re not allowed to care about anything, but perhaps it’s time to think about what’s worth your time. The cover of an issue of Batgirl just isn’t that important in the long run (look it up, I don’t want to explain.

Jason Ball is a PhD student in the class of 2015. Before coming to OIST he worked as a high school teacher for two years, and has many strong opinions on science, education, academia, and geek culture. “The Curmudgeon’s Corner” is his place to complain about it.