The State of the Internet

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© Greg Ory 2017, Debate: A diagnosis of the state of the Internet, proposing decentralisation and more aesthetical variety.

The Internet was created with a clear goal: To provide an open, free and fair space for communication. Part of this has led to regional and ultra-regional benefits. But as time goes by, novelties become trivial. Today, the bulk of the Internet consists of: 1) electronic post services; 2) research, information and entertainment sites, usually operated by legal entities; 3) and social networks. One essential element is missing: the sites of natural persons. The Internet is largely occupied by private companies, intermediaries between users and the web. It is hard to use it without bumping into territory owned by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple. They are five companies owned by five people, say ten perhaps, affecting the lives of five billion people in the world.

The web is now perceived as Facebook and Google. Without instruction and technical expertise, the mass of users cannot make more of it. This is why today the Internet comprises a small number of content producers and a huge mass of passive consumers: passive because they have either no content or no skill to make it known in a personal website. They end up on Facebook and Twitter. And yet, the space exists as much as the knowledge. Anyone can learn the basic programming language, HTML, and it is perverse that it is not yet being taught in every single school. Whoever does not speak this language, browses through the web as an illiterate person, a shipwreck drifting around. Full appreciation of the Internet requires virtual emancipation, which requires surpassing the condition of a mere consumer and becoming a producer of contents. Without this effort, the whole purpose of the Internet will be a false promise.

There is a problem of space on the Internet and nobody is taking note of it. Private companies reduced the web to a set of standard spaces. When you join Facebook, you adhere to a pattern: The default space. To share your thought, you will use the standard space and fit your content therein. Anyone’s information is levelled by the same program. Yet information thus levelled has no impact. Imagine a crowded pub or bar with everyone screaming and competing to see who speaks louder. This is not a scenario where genuine content stands out and discernment prevails.

There is an intrinsic law in language which I call the content-space-principle: No content can be displayed directly, because content is thought and thought is formless. We always need to convert thought into space. Traditionally, we think something, we take a clear piece of paper and fill it with words. The paper, which is space, becomes content.

What is the difference between a screen and a piece of paper? A sheet of paper is clear space. The screen is not blank. It is almost always edited space, i.e. space which has already become content. Thought will have to share the screen with layouts, buttons, functions, distractions. These can often get in the way of and curtail thought. It is as if you wanted to write an essay on a piece of paper already filled with contents. Thought cannot be adequately fitted into a space which is no longer thought-free and as neutral as a blank piece of paper.

To convey a thought on Twitter, you have to fit it into a space already full of content, where it will occupy only a small field. The rest of the content on the screen is pre-modelled by Twitter. Yet thought needs not a small field, but a neutral screen. Thus, to convert thought into a screen, you have to convert the screen into a neutral space, as free as blank paper. You need to be free from the implicit content of default layouts. Otherwise, space will be content interfering with thought. It will be working against thought.

Virtual emancipation means emancipation both of content and of space. No content will stand without a proper space. It seems a petty issue, but it is in small details that a default layout imposes itself, its own brand, its agenda, its dynamics, distracting from thought with buttons here and there, pop-ups, adverts, offers, a tiny world that makes thought look like a bagatelle.

The Internet is facing an extremely dangerous problem: Space is destroying thought. People are not aware of it. The only humane future of the Internet is this: That everyone may own their own unique space, where they can neutralize the screen and model it according to the needs of their thoughts. There must be no intermediary between the space owner and the rest of the web. This is not the case of a default account, whose space belongs to a private company. This must stop if we want freedom of expression and critical thinking to prevail!

Whoever is glad to pay for her own house or car, should also pay for her own virtual space. Those who live at others’ mercy are not free. You want to share a certain content on Facebook, but Facebook can remove your content if it wishes. It owns the space. It is as if someone lodged you out of charity and, beholden to them, you need to think twice before every word you utter.

If I had a degree of talent for prose, I would follow the example of George Orwell’s 1984 and write a book called «The Total Company»: It supplies everything and sells everything. Starting with a simple search browser, it expanded. First, it added e-mail services, website analysis, operating systems. Then, annoyed by the virtual world, it explored the real. It pervaded services of all areas: Technological, real estate, auto-mobile, textile and even food supply. Finally, the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors became departments of the Total Company. Whenever a small entrepreneur took some initiative, an audacious project, the Total Company easily bought the man, the initiative and everything else. And now we have this wonderful scenario: A one-company-world. Capitalism? It is a funny concept of capitalism, for I have not yet found, through the pages of John Locke, the passage sanctioning this sublime one-company-maket. And yet, in the hallucinations that haunt me, I seem to see the Total Company aiming, at all costs, for this joyous ideal: the whole Internet under its jurisdiction, one single company controlling little worlds and groups, all users accommodated to a feudal relationship, sharing on the same default space.

Please consider resting your eyes at regular intervals.

Let us not forget Locke: The oppressed and tired of oppression should seek refuge in an idyllic land of no man and there build their freedom. Locke is not urging you to go and found inerudite nations of shopkeepers around the world. Nor would he call erudition to follow the good boy who goes to Oxford to join the rowing club. I would rather affirm that all initiatives that add meaning and life to freedom manifest themselves in these five groups: the commercial, the philanthropic, the cooperative, the scientific and the artistic initiative. We no longer have no man lands to explore, but we have the Internet, where everyone, if only they know how to use it, can found their company and their cooperative, can build their philanthropy and their art. This is the Internet. To this generous land we direct the boat of freedom for nothing? Adam and Eve, returning to paradise, have no time to contemplate it: They are too busy on Twitter, Adam scratching his sack in front of the screen, dying to see his friend’s last night’s menu on Facebook.

For those who disapprove of Adam’s sin, acknowledging the content-space-principle is fundamental. Some determinists, now in disrepute, used to say that geography influences culture. Whether they are right or wrong, the world would be a much worse place if all its space were uniform. The free interaction of man and space is enriching, especially when it comes to the geography of the Internet: Uniformity is an absolute killer. Imagine a writer wishing to share her work with an audience. They will need a meeting point online, the artist and the public. Will that be the default layout of Facebook? Will that be Twitter? A blog? Let it be a space she can shape as much as she wishes!

Facebook is an interesting case. When it was launched, there were already reasonable means of interaction: letters, telephone, fax, email, chats, forums, blogs. It was a scenario that perfectly covered the longings of Internet users. With Facebook, suddenly you had nine hundred friends. It is a number that surpasses the human capacity of attention. It turns Facebook into a means of social isolation and social comparison. The emotional and intellectual quality of such crowd interaction is mediocre. But I am sure you are clever enough to use it in moderation, being an enlightened humanist as you are. The victims are always the others, exposed to an avalanche of adverts and a wonderful market of friends. It encompasses now entertainment, shopping, journalism etc., a thriving Total Company with a visionary goal: The user’s experience of the Internet will take place within the borders of Facebook. There will be no need to log out. All human relations will be there, beautifully framed, synchronized and levelled. The customer owns the account and the account owns the customer. Only art itself, being creative freedom, diversity of content and aesthetics, is not compatible with an addictive pattern.

Take also Google’s market power and its unbridled expansion. It is increasingly difficult to use the Internet without using a service linked to Google, another kind of Total Company, the omnipresent brother. Fifty other companies could be sharing the space Google is now taking. But we may feel very blessed and reassured, indeed, for Google’s motto is «don’t be evil». Perhaps, in Google’s progressive ethics, doing the right thing means paying for its service not with money but rather with personal data. Immersed in a paradise of adverts, customers make decisions they would otherwise not make.

Mediocrity measures art in numbers. It is a question of group dynamics: The more people see a poorly liked page, the less they are inclined to hit the like button. It becomes a vicious circle. In a medium of social comparison like Facebook, everyone likes what has the greatest impact. They become worshippers of numbers. As the newsfeed is bound to swallow new posts, users seeking attention are conditioned to post even more in order to keep at the top of the newsfeed. These are posts created under pressure and exposed to an immediacy roller. A hate tirade will find more resonance than any elaborate article. Lost in parallel worlds, consumers of polemics are not in search of lucidity. They want to float together in a wave of hatred, for the thrill of hatred always involves an enthusiasm, a frantic excitement, an addictive joy. Moderation does not offer the same thrill. Let us be frank then: It is not on a Facebook page that the implicit essence of words will prevail.

For the classics, in a good writer’s text no word is superfluous. Twitter would seem to be a heaven of lapidary maxims, and it has made a great contribution indeed: It has shown that the limit between the concise and the frivolous is very tenuous. A short phrase is not necessarily succinct. The modern maxims of Twitter reveal more the precipitation of ideas than the concatenation of what is succinct and sensible. Twitter became a contest of rash summary judgements. Measured reasoning, however, requires time. The truth is far from the agitated mind. Everything invites the user to judge as quickly as possible. Where it is too easy to write anything, the intensity of hate is not surprising. It is easier and more exciting to hate than to understand.

This is what has become of the Internet.

To exceed in art or knowledge does not mean to exceed in our relationship with others. If quality in writing is excellence of form, it is possible to write well and have nothing to say, and it is possible to write badly and have much to say. Writing well is good, but it is better to write well and to live well. The debate on the writer’s ideal space on the Internet is a reflection on how she addresses her public, since her writings should mirror not only good form but also good life. This is the reason why I do not use social networks. I do not want to see the Internet reduced to a set of standard spaces. My appeal to writers? Respect your readers and do not expose knowledge and art to a mediocre quantification of truth and beauty, the ultimate goal of social networks. I do not prescribe censorship. I denounce the fragility of the medium, incapable of harbouring the true gravity of words and ideas. I defend not the destruction of the medium, but the emancipation of the space.

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