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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

INTERNET CITY


"They used to say it across the fence while they were hanging wash. Now they just say it on the Internet."
-Dennis Miller

The Internet City
For a while now I've entertained the idea that urban areas - cities - have more in common with each other, regardless of country or culture, than they do the rural areas of their own land. So Paris and Pretoria and Hong Kong and New York City have more in common with each other than New York City does with Otego, New York.

Certainly the culture of big cities is distinct from rural areas. The pace of life is faster, the focus on more material goods, the entertainments more readily laid out, the variety of people, input, and opportunities greater, and so on. Where you find your own amusements and have to be creative in a rural area, you can just open your door and find something nearby to do in a city. Rural people have dances and go hunting and fishing and go on drives, while urban people go to the theater or art gallery or see a show in the park, and so on.

The core understanding of reality and how the world works is quite different between these two areas, which helps explain why rural areas tend to be significantly more conservative and religious than urban areas. Both places have their advantages and drawbacks, but they are very distinct.

My brother suggested that the US Senate should have one urban senator and one rural senator from each state which would help control the urban-centric tendencies of congress. Its true that this often ends up being so, but not always for states. Sometimes the population is so concentrated in cities that you end up with just urban guys. Dividing up districts for the House could be done the same way, for that matter.

However, I've noticed something about the world and how its developing culturally these days. The internet is making everywhere urban.

What I mean is this. All the variety of input, the exposure to alternate ideas and peoples, the introduction to various cultures and identities, and the dizzying multitude of opportunities are available to everyone, everywhere, in the same level of access, no matter where they are, on the internet. Sure, China tries to control that, and places like North Korea do, but overall the effect is pretty standardized.

That's why kids in Africa and kids in Canada both get the same rage face jokes. That's why sayings and quips from the internet such as "Lol U mad?" and "I can has cheeseburger" carry over to every language. And I'm not kidding here, I've seen those "memes" in Russian and French, in English and other languages all over the world. Those 'rage faces' show up in China and Peru. Everywhere the internet is found, you find similar experience.

To be sure, each language has its own version of phrases, abbreviations, and so on, but there is a consistency of theme and use across all cultures, national boundaries, and peoples. The unifying force is the internet, which we all plug into.

And that urban effect is changing how cultures are built, I think. It isn't very widespread yet, because its fairly new (about 10 years now) and mostly focused on younger people, but as time goes on, it will become more and more influential on global society.

I think there will always be distinctions in cultures, and there will always be things that are unique to each area - just as Paris is distinct from Mumbai and why Mexico City has things unique to its self that Sidney does not (and vice versa). But overall, the cultures are blending online into a single, shared popular culture, at least. The exposure to so many different peoples and ideas are making younger people more and more libertarian, as well, I believe.

And what's interesting to me about this is that it is creating the one single multicultural society that the left seems to be so fascinated with, on its own. There was no government program, no set of politically correct rules (in fact, PC is generally hated online). There was no UN commission, no artificially created "language" like Esperanto, no law to mandate behavior.

It happened organically, and is building on its own, free market style, because of individual interest and involvement. As people are exposed to different folks, they find out that the Russian people are fun and interesting, and Americans aren't stupid fat bigots, and Australians aren't all bush whacking goofballs with funny hats, and Colombians aren't all drug-running rebels in the jungle, and so on.

Those idiotic stereotypes fall apart from personal exposure. Sure the jokes persist about fat Americans and backward Latvians and surrendering Frenchmen, but that's all they are becoming: jokes. It has a bad side, of course, as all things do. That level of detached acceptance can be taken too far. Yes, even pedophiles and murderers are decent people, outwardly at least. When they aren't engaging in theft or fraud, a convict can be a perfectly nice, interesting person.

And that part of human nature that makes it possible for us to be social can lead us to think maybe the person - and by extension, their behavior - isn't so bad if they are nice and friendly enough. He seems like such a nice guy, can what he does be all that wrong? And some behavior like copyright violation, theft, and the most repugnant, horrific imagery conceivable is becoming less stigmatic as well.

What this will do to overall culture, ethics, and virtue is uncertain. I honestly see a lot of bad coming from this, as people abandon what they were taught out of ignorance and surprise that someone engaging in another behavior isn't as awful as they thought. The internet rewards instant, emotionally gratifying arguments and ideas more than carefully considered analysis and reason, which means that sophistry and clever slogans will tend to dominate the discussion rather than fact and logic - even more than it does already.

I-ObamaWhich means that as I wrote in 2008, President Obama really is the first I-President. He represents this tendency very well. He's vaguely exotic, with a nice patter, he delivered sophistry and slogan. He won not because he was the best and most qualified guy, but because he was the best and most entertaining package. He was young! He was black! He promised hope and we could all get along!

But this effect means that a clever one-line argument, or at least appeal to emotion, can be a powerful lever to make people believe or change their beliefs online. Lacking the mental tools and experience to rationally analyze and reject an idea on its own merits, they'll be more easily swayed, particularly online. That's why you get nonsense like the skeleton picture I posted a few days ago. It seems compelling, if you just take it at its face value.

People my age use the internet as a tool more than a distraction, whereas younger people tend to use it primarily for entertainment. They'll use their phone mostly to text and play games and watch little movies on an itty screen, where older people use the phone to talk and do business, schedule things and so on as well as the other. There are exceptions both ways, of course. You'll find the serious, hard working kid with a blackberry building his future and the middle aged guy playing Star Wars: The Old Republic 11 hours a day, too.

How long that divide will endure I can't even guess at. Maybe it will be a consistent pattern, where as people grow up, they use the internet differently. Maybe the younger entertainment-focus crowd will stay that way because they can as society changes. I don't really know.

Where we'll end up from this isn't really very certain. It is obvious that the internet is 99% distraction and 1% information. People browse not to learn so much as to have fun. Its like going out for a night on the town in the city. You have so many opportunities, there's always something going on, and you can stay up all night being entertained. But you rarely use it to actually learn or grow, just to be distracted and have fun.

And after a while, you start to long for some peace and quiet and that nice neighborhood you grew up in once more, especially when you think about raising your kids. That is, if you ever grow up.

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