Monday, March 16, 2009

Internet as Borg: Threat & Promise

In two iterations of the Star Trek franchise, a collective entity known as the Borg figures prominently in several plot lines. The Borg is seen as a threat to individual freedom because it endeavors relentlessly to assimilate individual organisms into its complex network, thus subjecting them to a hive mentality. Among the Star Trek cognoscenti, the Borg has become a metaphor for any impetus toward coercive collectivization.

I reflect on this metaphor often, and, I must confess, ambivalently.

I have been an internet denizen since early 1996, when I bought a new Macintosh that came loaded with Apple’s (now defunct) eWorld browser and e-mail software. (My college daughter had been using a rudimentary form of e-mail called Broadcast, limited to college campuses, but in which the internet culture of anonymity via screen names had already taken root, for a year or two before that.) That was, of course, on a dial-up connection with a by-the-minute pricing structure. Logging on to “check e-mail” was something of an event. Nonetheless, I got my first taste of the potential for forming community that is completely internet-based, participating actively in messages boards that got ever more sophisticated in the way topic threads could be organized and accessed.

Three years later my parish had its own website, ultra-primitive by today’s standards but reasonably handsome at the time. A couple of years after that, I made the move, both at home and in the office, to always-on DSL. In 2005, or thereabouts, it was on to a wireless router, first at home and then at church, now using a laptop in both places. We updated our parish website about the same time. A parishioner told me about Google, and my life has never been the same since. I have long since reached the point where I will sooner “google” a piece of information (even looking up a Bible verse!) than walk across a room to pull a book of the shelf. And I remarked to a parishioner just yesterday that I no longer check my e-mail; my e-mail checks me!

It was largely because of my internet presence via a listserv that I got appointed to a high-profile committee at the 2006 General Convention, which was also my introduction to blogging, as I made a nightly post on my deputation’s blog. And I quickly learned thereby how what you post in cyberspace can come back to bite you quickly and mercilessly, as a witness at a committee hearing quoted my words (out of context, of course) in front of a gallery of about 1,000 persons.

In September of that year I began my own blog, and continued to make comments on others. It occurred to me this morning, as I was drying off from my shower, that I have in all likelihood reached the point that the list of people who are familiar with my name and my general views is longer than the list of those with whose names and views I am familiar. That’s a convoluted way of saying that I am a net exporter of information and influence. The surplus balance may not be all that large, but it is, I’m sure, a surplus. And it would never have been possible without the internet.

Some seven months ago, I joined Facebook. I resisted for a long time, and was skeptical at first. It took me a while to grasp—shall we say—the “Zen” of the medium. It has given a whole new meaning to the word “friend” (to say nothing of turning “friend” and “favorite” into verbs, a development against which my inner linguistic purist still rebels). I have come to value it as an easy way to maintain relationships with people in different overlapping universes—extended family that I actually see on relatively rare occasions, people from my past who are no longer physically proximate but whom I don’t want to totally lose contact with, people who do live close by and whom I do see regularly but may not have the chance to just chit-chat with, and people whom I have never actually met except in cyberspace, but with whom I share something in common. It is, as they say, a “social network,” and now I get it.

Over the last several months, the parish office has become much more web-dependent. Our calendars, internal e-mail, and membership database software are all now web-based. (Consequently, when the DSL goes down, productivity grinds to a halt.) Organizing, promoting, and keeping track of our growing small-group ministry is facilitated by a web-based application. The April edition of our newsletter will be delivered to the majority of our households via the internet, with a few hard copies going out to households that are not online.

I pay my bills online and file taxes online. I make travel arrangements online and do a substantial amount of internet purchasing online. My personal organization software still lives on my hard drive (Outlook with a Franklin-Covey add-on), but I have little doubt that five years from now I will be using a web-based application for that as well.

And I am not alone in any of this. To many of those who are reading this post, I am probably something of the technological Neanderthal.

But in our growing dependence on the internet, are we slowly being assimilated into the Borg? (Remember, “Resistance is futile.”) And, if so, is this a bad thing? This morning, courtesy of a Facebook friend who I have never met in person, I ran across an incredibly provocative video. I encourage you to watch it.

I’m sure there are important elements of what this man is saying that I’m not grasping owing to my poor math education in high school, and all the ensuing implications of that tragedy. But at a mostly intuitive level, it rocks my world. He’s talking about applying cyber-linking protocols not only to formatted, interpreted information, which is what web pages are, but to actual raw data—uncooked, unprocessed, unfiltered. This would, of course, require a massive amount of cooperation from millions of individuals, institutions, and (most importantly) governments.

There will be great resistance to this, and we will find out, I suppose, whether resistance is indeed futile. Many will be wary that he’s talking about their own medical chart and bank statements being suddenly accessible to strangers on the internet. I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about, but let’s just play with that idea for a moment. The main reason I don’t want the general public to be able to see my personal medical and financial information is the high probability that somebody will be inclined to abuse that information by causing me harm in some way. It could be a crook out to con me, or an insurance company selecting me out of its risk pool, or a government agency pressuring me to behave or not behave in a certain way.

Yet, that threat only works if there’s an imbalance of information, if they know something about me and I don’t know the corresponding or equivalent information about them. But in a (still quite hypothetical) world where all data are linked and universally accessible, such informational disparities would be more difficult to arrange. I don’t want the occasional nightmare where I am naked in public to ever come true. I might not like it any better if everybody suddenly turned up naked one day, but it would be an entirely different—and less threatening—scenario than if I’m the only one. It would have issues of its own, but informational disparity would not be one of them!

This vision of linked and universally accessible data is nothing but the fruition of the democratization of information that the linking of documents has already accomplished. And this is, on the whole, a good thing. Political spin, on any level, is a whole lot more difficult now than it was a decade ago. Why? Because there’s an army of bloggers out there who are not on anybody’s payroll that will waste no time pointing out when the Emperor is naked. Wholesale fraud can still be perpetrated, but not easily. There are too many sentinels who have the information to recognize phony credentials when they see them and cry, “Halt! Who goes there?” In my own micro-universe of Anglicanism, this has already been proven time and time again, much to the chagrin of both 815 and the Anglican Communion office.

In Star Trek, the Borg is indeed a menacing entity. It robs people of free will. It de-humanizes them (or whatever the equivalent is for non-human species.) As a steward of the Christian faith, I cannot fail to resist any “evil powers … which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” To the extent that the internet, and the very real worldwide web that connects people cybernetically, even people who don’t own or use a personal computer, dehumanizes people or somehow robs them of their dignity, the Christian community must cry “Foul!” But to the extent that it enables us to build and maintain connections between human beings that mediate life and love and truth, to say nothing of transparency and accountability; to the extent that it is a counter-force to the atomization to which we are so prone, a force that builds community and fosters mutual responsibility and interdependence, we cannot receive it as anything but a gift from the hand of a good and gracious God.


Anonymous said...

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

- T.S. Eliot, an extract of Choruses from “The Rock"

This is my continuing response to the digitization of our world. I use a computer (obviously) and various other forms of electronic communication, but I am mindful that the cumulative effect is continuing a trajectory Eliot wrote of nearly a century ago.

We are less and less a knowledge culture. Who knows how to do much, or how anything really works today? Wisdom is now the province of Yoda-like characters spouting mash-ups of recycled platitudes. We are even ceasing to understand information as "information" – forming us into something or informing us about something. It has become atomized, discreet data, shorn of context, divorced from a telos. It is infinitely manipulable, but ultimately without meaning. Slowly at first, but with gathering speed, we have embraced an abyss of meaning. We have set a vacuum at the center of our cosmos. We are a people who have mistaken options for truth, trading a gaze directed to God for a glance at our evanescent oracles – our electronic screens. It is a mistake written in the dust every lost civilization.

Brandon Filbert

Daniel Martins said...

Most apposite, Brandon.

I ought to have made the point that the need for critical thinking skills rises in direct proportion to the amount of information one has access to.