Wow! I am an avid reader of Hacker News - the high-quality social network for techies that originated in Silicon Valley. This network does not only deliver technical content for nerds, but deals with any topic that is interesting to society. The articles featured on Hacker News often allow me to find the best places on the Web.
Yesterday I found another such gem - an article on the great site Ribbonfarm. This thought-provoking piece uses the metaphor of Knights and Mooks to analyse in great detail the erosion of civics that faces society as a result of humanity being Very Online in the Internet Age.
I consider this article an absolute MUST READ for anyone interested in Humane Technology. Here it is:
By Venkatesh Rao, founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm.
Online public spaces are now being slowly taken over by beef-only thinkers, as the global culture wars evolve into a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict. As the Great Weirding morphs into the Permaweird, the public internet is turning into the Internet of Beefs.
The Internet of Beefs, or IoB, is everywhere, on all platforms, all the time. Meatspace is just a source of matériel to be deployed online, possibly after some tasteful editing, decontextualization, and now AI-assisted manipulation.
If you participate in online public life, you cannot entirely avoid the Internet of Beefs. It is too big, too ubiquitous, and too widely distributed and connected across platforms.
If you have read the article you may agree that there are some profound insights to be had in this splendid analysis (of course some criticisms as well, like in the comments section). There is also a great discussion on Hacker News (now 320 comments). Currently this is the top comment (by user Lammy):
This article resonates with me and my experiences online to a startling degree. Specifically:
“We are not beefing endlessly because we do not desire peace or because we do not know how to engineer peace. We are beefing because we no longer know who we are, each of us individually, and collectively as a species.”
I think we are seeing a genuine lack of strong family, social, and organizational ties among most people, myself (sadly) included. I don’t think I or any of my peers fully grasp what we’re missing and how isolated we truly are. I think we as a cohort had very good reasons for participating in that change, such as me (an LGBT person) leaving the Catholic church I was raised in rather than bury that other part of myself to fit in. The problem is that I replaced it with nothing, and I think the same pattern has repeated across many other people and many other traditions. The temptation is to suggest MeetUps and other things built to connect people, but those suggested replacements don’t come with the same assumption of trust built in like many traditional organizational and family ties do.
Like Lammy I also generally agree with the essence of the article. It puts a lot of thoughts I was having about technology-driven trends in society in a clearer perspective.
In some places I think the metaphor leaves things out of the picture, maybe because they are more speculative still. Such as the statement that there are no strategies behind the Knights motives other than sustaining the conflict and participate in the Holy Grift. Described like this in the article:
The mark of a knight of the vast round table of the Internet of Beefs is the relentless pursuit of the Holy Grift. A mercantile mission for the end of history. [..] The signs of a core economy of profiteering and carpetbagging are just too unmistakeable. This does not mean that there isn’t a core of actual missionary sentiment driving most knights. It just means, push come to shove, that the grifting motive will rule behavior rather than ideological ends.
The grifters keep the culture war going, but did they create it? This might be the most basic political question of our times, and I believe the answer is no.
A basic mistake made by many watchers of the culture war is to assume that grifter knights did in fact create the mook manorial economy that sustains them. That it is not only being sustained top-down, but was in fact created top-down, by design.
While I agree with this in most parts, I also think that there are - to stick with the metaphor - Practitioners of the Dark Arts, Evil Wizards if you will, who use the tools of technology to unleash Virulent Magic. This magic permeats the whole battlefield. It feeds the Gods of Populism, among others. And they do this strategically with the objective to remove the barriers to more wealth and power. On a small scale such obstacles are ‘Good’ Rules and Regulations (to be abandoned or watered down, e.g. environmental protections) and on a larger scale they are Democracy (disarming checks and balances like e.g. impeachment), Freedom and ultimately respect for Human Rights. Strategic erosion of civic society ensues.
Part of the new feudal system that is forming is the aristocracy - a Plutocracy really. Not everyone is merely a grifting knight here. There are would-be Kings and wizards around.
One interesting observation directly relates to the quest for Humane Technology in the part of the article where it looks for a solution:
Because the only way to end the endless Hobbesian war of all against all at the end of history is to reboot history. This is not a trivial undertaking.
It is not about contrite Robber Baron oligarchs suddenly growing a conscience thanks to the sermonizing and shaming of ethicists, and designing more humane technologies into their neoliberal capitalist platforms.
Maybe with his sermonizing and shaming of ethicists he is directly refering to Tristan Harris and the CHT, who knows? Note that he is not saying that Humane Tech cannot be part of the solution, but rather that it will be insufficient to solve the problems we face.
(Similarly he observes that dealing with climate change and economic challenges, and solving them individually is still not enough to end the IoB.)
A reboot needs something much larger:
The only way to reboot history is to figure out new beings to be. Because that’s ultimately what beefing is about: a way to avoid being, without allowing time itself to end.
The article - after a brilliant analysis - unfortunately does not offer solutions. But it poses a Big Question for us to ponder:
So where does that leave us?
We who seek to discover a future again, and ways of being that reboot history, by giving ourselves to history as beings for it to be about?
We who are Very Online and destined to eventually die on the Internet of Beefs, but do not wish to?
Though there is a lot more to be discussed in this article, I’ll end with some words of optimism.
The last couple of years there has been an enormous uptick in media and online focus on the harmful technological issues we face, triggering an ever growing awareness among the general public. Most of this is still only hinting at possible solutions, but we know that - just like with climate change - the solutions must come from all sides in a multi-pronged attack on the problem.
With regard to the Internet of Beefs I observe that it is possible to a) extract yourself if you are involved in it and b) to not get involved by not opting-in and remain on the sidelines. Since our Mission is to “Promote Solutions that Improve Wellbeing, Freedom and Society” that means we have to find ways to circumvent the Internet of Beefs.
Our Vision is to have “Ubiquitous Humane Technology that Allows Humans to Flourish and Humanity to Thrive” and in the light of this article that means that the ubiquitousness of the technology must be oriented to a rebalancing of our online world - where we now have lost our souls and identity - to our meatspace - that place that we knew so well, but have come to ignore and neglect, lured as we were by glitzy technology.