A day offline

So during the SOPA strike I thought it would be interesting to not only black out my site and not post, but to not use the internet at all. The result is a fascinating lesson in how entwined into my daily life the thing has become.

I had already installed the operating system updates when I realized that counted as “using the internet”. But then I went and installed them on the laptop anyways, because there was security stuff in there.

I settled down to read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a book I picked up at a library sale for very cheap and never got around to opening. I had only read a few pages before an interesting math puzzle presented itself to me: How close to Hawaii did ancient explorers have to get before they could see it?

I spent far too much time on this. Most of that was doing practice exercises to try to recall how trigonometry works. Someday I’ll take a formal class on that and maybe be able to retain it properly. I also cheated a little on not using the internet, because I simply could not find the elevation of Hawaii’s highest peak at home. I suppose I could have gone to the public library and found a math book and a Hawaii tour guide, but I didn’t want to. Besides, it was just a quick math problem and then back to my book, right?

So right now I have an answer. Mauna Kea, the highest peak in Hawaii, is 4205m above sea level and is visible over the horizon to about 231km away. If your ship has a lookout 10 meters above the water, he could spot the peak on a clear day about 243km away. That’s about 150 miles. I have no idea how accurate my calculation is, and frankly I’m not even sure I’m going to bother checking my work. I’m a little tired of thinking about it.

I still have not resumed my book.

The thing is, I really thought I’d get more stuff done today without the distraction of the internet. Instead, I found myself reinventing the wheel to try to accomplish what would be a perfectly simple calculation if only I could look up sines & tangents. I’m not sure whether the lesson here is that the internet is awesome or that I really need to go back to school.

The internet is clearly a powerful thing. Sure, we mostly use it for stupid crap, but look at everything else we’ve made and you’ll see that stupid crap is what we do most. It’s not only the convenience of being able to look up, say, a math function you haven’t used in years and was never properly trained in, it’s also the ability to find, at any time, just about any fact known to humanity. It’s the power to read articles on any subject written by experts in the field, to check current events almost anywhere in the world, to hear the voice of anyone and have your own heard in return. It’s not just a neat toy, it’s knowledge and communication on a scale undreamed of only a few decades ago, within my own lifetime.

It’s changing the world, and that’s a little scary. We find ourselves facing issues we never thought of before, not because they didn’t exist, but because the people involved had no way to communicate before. It’s more true now than ever that the world is watching, and that should encourage us to be open and honest, to deal fairly with each other and to explain ourselves as clearly as possible. It has always been true that when the weak work together they can defeat the strong, and never before has it been so easy to coordinate large groups of people.

In the short term, that property gives a powerful advantage to authoritarian groups, because they can distribute propaganda to, organize and mobilize their followers very quickly. In the long term, I think it’ll erode their support quite badly. My reasoning here is that it’s hard to keep people in line if they start questioning things, and since any given authoritarian group is going to be heavily contradicted by just about everyone else their only options are social pressure and isolation.

The widespread nature of the internet makes information isolation more and more difficult. I’ve heard some cults actually require members to install software that monitors and controls their internet use, though I haven’t verified it. If none have yet, I’m sure they will soon for simple survival. Actual physical isolation is still effective, as the FLDS incident a few years ago so heartrendingly illustrated.

Social pressure can be terrifyingly effective, making somebody go through the motions long after they’ve stopped believing in it. It’s hard for somebody to say “I don’t agree with that anymore” when the consequences are going to include their family and friends disowning them. I recall reading an article about atheist priests a year or two ago, describing the life of professional clergy who have lost their faith, but continue preaching what they now believe to be lies (or at least false) because it’s the only job they know how to do, the only life they’ve ever known.

The networks can’t stop these things, but they can mitigate them. Here’s a link worth reading on that subject.

The internet is still young, still making its place in the world. I’ve no doubt it will be a different animal ten years from now, as it was ten years ago. This is a transitional period still, since it’s clear that lawmakers don’t yet understand how it works or what it is. I don’t know how long it will last, and since I’d have said it was just ending if you’d asked me five years ago I’m not going to speculate. Perhaps when I’m an old man I won’t understand it either, perhaps it’ll keep changing faster than we can keep up.

But it’s important to remember that what it really is, is us. I speak of the internet changing the world, but it’s really us changing each other, changing ourselves. We no longer have just a few voices trying (or merely pretending) to represent us all, we have millions. On my blog I don’t speak for anyone but myself, but there are many blogs that try very hard to speak for many. Often by letting many speak. Imagine any possible aspect of humanity, and you can probably find a group dedicated to it on the internet. It’s not merely a tool we use, it’s a perfect cross-section of the aggregate of us all.

If we can keep it alive and free through this turbulent adolescence, the internet has the potential to make us better in the big picture, by showing us ourselves in detail. Let’s not squander that chance.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on January 19, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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