When the Architect came along all those years ago and promised me the world, I was ready to commit. His offer was too tempting; in fact, it was impossible to say no. The Architect told me about this new place, this new civilisation he intended to build. A unique experiment in bringing humanity together; an attempt to create a society based on the free exchange of ideas, respect and tolerance.and, so he preached, it would be global and interconnected. By implication, he said, it would keep growing, and eventually mankind would live under the same roof using the same digital technology and social facilities. He was inspiring and visionary, never tiring of hammering home his mantra. Digital technology and social networking, he spelled out for me, would change the world for the better as it would revolutionise the way we perceive each other. To me it sounded both: inspiring and reasonable. Needless to say that, as a wholehearted cosmopolitan, I embraced the idea straightaway. An additional carrot was his assurance that the entire infrastructure of this new place would be provided free of charge. Well, I thought, who can argue with that?
The move to Digitopia was easy; there was no need for lengthy visa applications or complicated citizenship tests. All it took were a few clicks on a computer and volunteering a few personal information about myself. Now, I was ready to go, and I could fancy myself being part of a global pioneering community striving to do plenty of good in the world, bringing all of us closer together. So it happened that, more than a decade ago, I moved into the digital promised land. Living in the social networking bubble was strange yet intriguing. Your digital living-quarters were luxurious, spacious and equipped with the most modern and advanced features and gadgets the digital age had to offer. Perhaps most astonishing was exploring your new digital reality in all its varieties. After all, it was supposed to be a social experience more than anything else. You have to understand that Digitopia is an entire ecosystem, and as such it has plenty to offer. In a way, it is almost a state-like entity but with an added global dimension and reach. It maintains relations with traditional state actors all over the world, and many traditional countries are keen on using Digitopia to further their own agenda worldwide; For example, some countries aaare happy to use Digitopia’s cloud to undermine rival states; others attempt to gloss-over policy failures by blaming Digitopia. Keeping Digitopian’s in a constant state of political agitation and arousal is a godsend for all the merchants doing business there. In any case, reaching the user in Digitopia has become as important as reaching the citizen. Traditional states have been forced to surrender even more of their political sovereignty to this new, technologically advanced, turbocharged empire. The crux of the matter is that for the governing classes on both sides of Digitopia’s border, its mostly a win-win situation, nonetheless.
For a long time, I experienced life in this new digital home of mine exactly as the Architect had promised. The sun, it seemed, was always shining in Digitopia. My neighbourhood was incredibly peaceful, and it was rare that I encountered people who deviated from my own political views or who didn’t share my outlook on the world in general. The libraries were stocked with books and magazines, and the newsstands also left nothing to be desired. The same can be said about the shopping experience in this new, strange land, and, at first at least, this convenience had its appeal. Yet, there is something unique about this place that clearly distinguishes it from other destinations I had visited before. Perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, but in the heartland of social networking, everything is highly individualised. Whether you intend to go on a shopping tour or just want to determine what sort of leisure activities you fancy pursuing, the technology employed in this innovative place always points you in one particular direction based mostly on your own preferences and desires. Living under such circumstances makes thinking for yourself, exploring your creative potential as well as living outside the box not just difficult but also entirely unnecessary. The price of happiness is a certain level of emotional numbness. In order to understand this, and most who have never visited the place and have remained on the outside find that difficult to do, I must point out that this beacon of progress has only one commodity it trades in, and this is your personal data. Trading is perhaps not the most accurate term to describe the prevalent business-patterns; monetising your online behaviour is perhaps much closer to the mark. Most residents are seemingly aware of this fact, but many are not overly concerned. The bureaucracy relies on something I think, if I recall correctly, most people there refer to as algorithms or so. Almost everything is transparent in this community, but the technocrats guard one secret with utter determination, and this is how these algorithms work, since this is the source of all their economic power and political cloud. The tradeoff with citizens, well, I have to correct myself here, since people there would never allow me to call them that; they are referred to as users. Being a citizen, so some digital natives told me when I was still living there, is an antiquated and outdated term, applying only to the outside world. Too all those who, so they claim, have not seen the light yet and have not had this modern, fashionable and trendy user experience. I must say that, especially in my early years of living among them, I could see there point of view. Being a citizen implies collective responsibility, the need for managing conflict and at times even controversial and difficult political debate. The user experience is different in nature and much easier to digest. It celebrates illusive harmony and individual responsibility. In my experience, and I know both worlds pretty well by now, the user experience is the much easier one. For quite some time at least, being a user was a compelling proposition. Returning to the tradeoff: As the Architect had promised me such a long time ago, living in Digitopia and using its infrastructure and services was and still is completely free of charge. In return, citiz… (forgive me, I mean users of course) have to reveal more or less every aspect of their lives to the technical bureaucracy running the show, since this is the only way to power the ever growing economy of Digitopia.
If, dear reader, you have followed me thus far, you understand how tradespeople and businesses operating within the social networking infrastructure, and there are plenty by now, can offer such a highly individualised user experience.
Another phenomena must be mentioned too. Some believe it to be the envy of the world. the ecosystem of the digital economy features one peculiar innovation. it is one of the most potent economic engines driving the boom and determine the user experience: I am talking about the so-called startups. Those owning and succeeding with their startups make up the most important layer of the social hierarchy; Indeed, the digital economy has not produced anything closely resembling a classless society at all. During my time there I noticed that many of these entrepreneurs are the most reckless, egocentric and sharp-elbowed individuals I have come across, and this newly emerging oligarchy is not shy about putting both its wealth and power on display for all to see. Unlike in our premodern old world, this new class of plutocrats doesn’t just possess sophisticated qualities for grasping business opportunities, but these individuals have become extremely powerful and sought-after preachers. A powerful religion has developed that I assume helps to legitimise their influence at the expense of virtually everybody else. They very effectively hide behind a veneer of what most of them call social liberalism, stressing the need for inclusion, justice and social responsibility in their constant sermons. but, as has always been the case in human history, they keep looking after themselves first; if there is such a thing that deserves to be referred to as the common good, then, it features for the new prophets of the digital age as a charitable exercise at best. In this regard at least, this newly crowdsourced religion that has taken hold in the digital bubble resembles the ones in our world. The only difference being that, in contrast to our traditional religions, startup entrepreneurs have to preach mostly to the already converted. I admit that this is an entirely subjective conclusion, but the elite currently ruling Digitopia outperforms our present one in recklessness and greed by a huge margin. True, every age has had its barons, and you have a point by interjecting and reminding me that the newly emerging digital economy can hardly be expected to be any different in this respect. I am happy to respond and argue that, contrary to the early industrial age and its accompanying wealth excesses, the digital economy emerged, at least initially, with the promise to be the great equaliser, democratiser and liberator in human affairs. So, I believe we have every right and many good reasons to be disappointed.
The occasional glitch in the matrix is what did it for me. Perhaps only noticeable by the most sensitive of souls living among us, it all started with a change in the overall weather-conditions, with the sun shining less frequently and diminishing in intensity, with dark clouds drifting in and out of view, with gradually increasing rainfall and localised but destructive thunderstorms. Since Digitopia offers plenty of diversions, such gradual changes don’t show up on the radar straightaway. They linger and simmer beneath the surface before bursting out into the open and impacting the conscious self. What I am trying to say is this: There was no single, isolated incident prompting me to unplug and quit social media. No intellectual awakening in that sense took place. Rather, feelings of uncertainty, lurking danger and boredom had started creeping in, and even though immigration-rates to Digitopia remain surprisingly high, I was by far not the first and only one choosing to leave.
Since social networking does not operate on the principles of force or overt coercion (at least not yet), exiting seems like a natural and easy choice. The mechanisms employed to oblige users to remain loyal to the platform are cleverly designed and extremely manipulative in their application. In a way, leaving Digitopia can feel to some almost like giving up a psychologically addictive drug. As your entire existence is lived in one cleverly constructed digital space, and all the services and products you are using are connected to the platform, getting out comes at great personal and emotional costs. In essence, you must be prepared to leave a considerable part of your life behind, at least as far as your digital existence is concerned. By the by, it is an illusion to believe that, once you have left Digitopia, you will be entirely free of the place. Digitopia’s intelligence service has a long arm, and its reach goes well beyond its natural borders. You can never be sure that Apps on your smartphones and tablets, not officially connected to the Digitopian entity, are not passing on information about you. Digitopia is a social phenomena that is not localised anymore. So, please, be on your guard, even after you have made it outside its ecosystem.
Once you have mastered all your inner-strength and determination and decided to leave, Digitopia’s procedures try to throw pebbles in your way wherever possible. When you are in transit, for instance, making your way to the border, signs and posters go up everywhere, constantly reminding you on your way out whom and what you will miss. But because for me, words such as love, friendship and esteem had been bereft of any meaning in this place for quite some time by then, these final attempts to coax me into reversing gear appeared to be vain and had not the slightest effect. On the contrary, they only strengthened my own determination to leave and planted additional doubts in my mind as to the viability and usefulness of social networking in its current form. If they do this to millions of users choosing to leave, it only demonstrates how valuable we are as a commodity for their business interests. There is a lot of truth in the saying that we as users, even if not literally, are the product. In theory at least, this gives us potentially unprecedented power to bring the current business-model of social networking down. Power that, sadly, has not been realised and used by the great many yet.
I believe that dreams are the uncensored but coded journal of our lives our subconscious writes and maintains every night. They allow us to imagine alternatives scenarios and options, thus helping us to make better decisions. If Sigmund Freud was correct, and dreams that are most profound must seem the most crazy, we at least have some sort of hypothesis to work with moving forward. Just very recently, I was taken back to my long deserted living-quarters in Digitopia and confronted with my former self. As expected, living-conditions had been deteriorating further in recent months. I was sitting in my living-room gazing expectantly at a lit screen. My personal domicile was not in good shape. The door-locks were broken, the windows shattered and a chill was making things even more uncomfortable inside. Outside, a mob had gathered and was now closing in on my beleaguered home. It was at this very moment that the Architect appeared on the screen right in-front of me. He had done so many times prior, and he always told us exactly what we needed to hear.
When the wizard had performed his magic, and all seemed said and done, things around me had changed once more. The mob that had appeared to be so threatening just moments earlier had turned back into all the lovely neighbours I had known so well all along. The chill now felt like a mild summerly breeze. Well, and what about the broken door-logs and shattered windows? With such lovely and concerned neighbours around who needs to lock the door or hide behind closed windows with the curtains pulled down? In any case, the Architect had just promised all of us a complete refurbishment of our living-rooms; Digitopia’s bureaucracy was already hard at work, and there was nothing left but to be thankful, eagerly expecting the knock of the next salesperson to deliver the promised goods. My old self, so it seemed, was ready to embrace Digitopian life once more. Only one thing hadn’t changed, however. The sun still didn’t rise and wasn’t shining as brightly as she used to; that was odd I thought.
Luckily for me, it was just a dream. Now that I am back in the here and now, such sentiments have vanished into thin air. If there is anything I want to say to the people both inside and outside Digitopia, it is that I am glad I got out. Life is much more complicated again, and not everything is great and harmonious in this world. But, I don’t have to consider everybody to be a friend and can choose my own company. I don’t have to pretend to like everything I come across, although I still feel the urge to reach for the like-button now and then. Most rewarding is my ability to choose my own books and sources of news. They were available in Digitopia too of course, but the packing-order of distribution was governed by this invisible hand, this thing that they called algorithm over there. And, last but not least, I conduct my own research and even write occasionally, finding new outlets for my creative urges. Pursuing these things is not entirely impossible in Digitopia, but doing so is just that much harder.
The final question you might still want to have answered: Apart from doing so in a dream, would I ever return to a place like Digitopia? Well, believe it or not, there is a very simple and straightforward answer. Yes, since I can see the potential for doing plenty of good in the world using social media. But, no, not at present! There is one precondition that would have to be met first, and this means social media using a completely new business-model. By the way, I would even entertain the idea of paying for such services. Offering social media as a public good might also be an option policymakers may want to consider seriously in the long run. One thing is certain though; I will not settle for a nicely redecorated digital living-room. Unless the business-model employed by social media giants changes completely and without qualification, using their services is out of the question as far as I am concerned. Since this is unlikely to be forthcoming very soon, I am afraid that social media will have to make do without me for a long time to come. I am out of the matrix, and I hope you fellow reader will be out of there very soon as well.