The age of digital slavery

Fire engine at night with red lights creating beams in the smoke-filled air

The internet was touted as a pervasive digital playground of free space, free-thinking and an insatiable curiosity. It has developed from a wild frontier, where anything was possible, into a corporate collection of cubicles in which we all slave – to their benefit.

Stick with me a minute, you’ll understand what I’m getting at.

When the internet began touching our lives, around the mid-90s here in South Africa, we were treated to easier communication thanks to email, the opportunity to communicate with people around the world in more direct ways – thanks to IRC (internet relay chat) – and search engines like Yahoo!, AltaVista, WebCrawler and AskJeeves helped us navigate this new territory.

Along with email we got UseNet and NewsGroups. We were sharing, navigating and discovering in this new space and working things out as we went, along with the garish flashing .gifs, those banner adverts and low resolution starry effects to go along with the selection of seamless background tiles which were a staple for any “well-designed” website.

Speaking of websites, making one of your own was hardly a simple exercise. You had to know the dreaded html and the design tool of choice for any Windows-based coder was Notepad. The thought of getting video online was something you really didn’t want to think about – at least until YouTube came along, but that was a whole decade away if you started using the internet in 1996.

We won’t even get into the speed of things, having to use 28.8k modems and tying up a telephone line for hours at a time. Thing is though, we were surfing dozens of sites in a session, hopping from one to another, following links, using the basic search options at our command and mostly sharing interesting links via email.

Now, well how many websites do you visit in a day? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and … ? Of course you’re on WhatsApp (or you’ve migrated to Telegram recently), you search via the Google page and what exactly else are you doing online?

When you share, you’re sharing on one of the social platforms, text on Twitter and Facebook – along with your images which also go on Instagram, you’re watching stuff on YouTube and looking for inspiration on Pinterest while chatting with friends on WhatsApp … I mean Telegram.

We’ve literally become slaves to these new corporate-owned platforms, feeding their engines with the fuel needed to attract advertising. They sell our profiles, our information and gain in the US$ billions for that information and for providing the opportunity to other corporates to reach our eyes.

What do we get? Oh yes, we get a modern digital platform on which to express ourselves – are you feeling heard by the world, or scrabbling madly to find an audience for your messages?

Our wild frontier has, with breathtaking speed, been reduced to little more than an electronic cubicle, keeping us trapped in a space we do not own by the promise of amusements and entertainments. It is working too, they are winning. Every day our horizons shrink as our voices become lost in a wilderness of others.

We trade our individuality for ease-of-use, jumping into the same box with everyone else. If you want to make a video, you publish it on YouTube, if you want to send a short message out into the world it’s going to appear on Twitter and if you’re looking to see what you’re friends are up to, we’ll find each other on Facebook.

It is the difference between living in a great big city or living instead in a small town or even a farm. It takes far more work to find each other in these more sparsely populated spots, but that is where we get to express our personalities – in our own spaces.

On a final note, it was today (February 4) back in 2004 when Facebook was first launched. It was also today, back in 1938, that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hit the big screen, the world’s first full-length, full-colour animated movie. It cost US$1.5m to make and raked in US$8m at the box office – the most for any movie up to that time and a rather formidable sum considering it was during The Great Depression.

Author: Morné Condon

Automotive journalist in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, following new models, old cars, car clubs and motorsport. My interests are not restricted to the automotive environment, although this is where I am mostly to be found.

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