Is the Internet Threatening Our Democracy?

Unrelated meme commonly seen over the Internet.

Unrelated meme commonly seen over the Internet.

The chances are if you can identify with not owning your own digs, serving coffee to skangers or having an uninvited rodent living under your bed who you have affectionately named Reagan  – you probably graduated from university in the late noughties. You might even try to explain away the charity shop clothing as ‘a choice to be cool’ when in actual fact you just can’t afford new threads. Yep – noodle dinners, aran sweaters and paying for petrol with piggy bank coins are just some of the perks that come with being a graduate of the recession. Did you know that 80% of hipsters aren’t even that way by choice? They just can’t afford to dress any different.

But alas, we finally have someone to blame as according to Jaron Laniers new book “Future” (Salon.com, Jaron Lanier: The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class) – its the fault of the good old internet. Yeah, you were right when you thought that modem with his blinky light was a little suspicious. You were right when you secretly stole wistful glances at your parents Beatles/Duran Duran/Stones collection and daydreamed about growing up when bands were still real and no one could take a picture of your hairy armpit and share it with 1000 friends.

According to computer scientist ‘visionary’ pioneer, Lanier, the internet has eroded employment and job security by using technology to replace things that used to provide real-life jobs. He uses the example of Kodak and Instagram to start with. In its heyday, Kodak used to employ more than 14,000 people and was worth $28 billion – they even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, when it employed only 13 people. The jobs then disappeared into Narnia-land and were never found.

The people, imaginably, went into the dole queue and blogosphere and  minimum wage jobs along with a ton of journalists and a load of lawyers – and probably a heap of graphic designers too.
So the rich got filthy, the middle got poorer and and the poor continued doing the lotto.

But why was this? Well according to Lanier, in Salon.coms article, what’s been happening is a shift from the formal to the informal economy. Now, instead of formal jobs and formal money – we have social or other paybacks such as internships and blogging and freelancing and YouTube. Now for every ‘real’ job going there are statistically at least 40 applications – and as a result the dude serving your your Subway, is quite possibly not just a sandwich architect but an actual architect.

I am one of those people who was very lucky to be paid for my writing for a couple of years by a national paper or two – however without a pension or a salary, it was precarious work.
I am also one of those people who is now applying for every full time journalism or press role going – while writing free blogs such as this – competing for every job, against lots of people with my experience and qualifications. Its getting so desperate, that I am actually considering very strange ways to get noticed again as a journalist.

(My ideas so far:

  • Pose a stripper and do a first hand piece
  • Become homeless and do a first hand piece
  • Graffiti a huge wall somewhere with Give me a Job next to my email address.
  • Fly to Afganistan and burn a Quoran in public
  • Fly a helicopter over Dublin scattering thousands of CVs over the Liffey while bungeeing naked.
  • Dress as a man for a year a la Norah Vincent and write a book about it
  • Dirty protest outside the Dail.)

The last one is a final resort. The thing is we live in hope – I live in hope. But its silly. You cannot live on hope. Hope does not put food on the table or money into a mortgage – hope won’t keep you warm when you’re 90 and living off a state pension – but this is sadly what is sustaining the masses these days – hope. We see the tiny percentage of those who have made it through blogging or YouTube and we aspire to that – but this minority is so rare.

Some might argue that there are plenty of freelance agencies out there – but these are usually ready to exploit professional, trained and experienced workers for very little pay. Let me give the example of Elance.com – a freelance article writing website. I joined this website in the vague hope I might make some decent money as a freelance writer, but when I worked out what I was actually getting for some of the articles it worked out as around 2 euros an hour for something that takes a lot of effort and that I used to make 20 – 50 euros an hour doing. Two euros.

And what of freelance for fuck all? It can’t last forever – as Lanier points out so astutely –“When I talk to libertarians and socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody’s this abstract robot that won’t ever get sick or have kids or get old. It’s like everybody’s this eternal freelancer who can afford downtime and can self-fund until they find their magic moment or something.”

One argument people might make is that the internet has provided us with far more and far better communication then before – that we are no longer just in the hands of the mainstream media – and to an extent this is correct, however, the quality has suffered in exchange for this quantity. Sensationalism and speed is taking precedent over quality and fact checking – it’s only news now if its connected somehow to Demi Moore.

Journalists are spread far and thin – and while we have such a wealth of blogging and information from all angles – it also takes away from the trained journalists who make their living that way. If suddenly tomorrow everyone was allowed to declare themselves a taxi driver, or a teacher, or a doctor without training, how would original taxi drivers or teachers or doctors survive in their trade if people who were untrained were willing to do the work for free or much cheaper? As Lanier explains training or ‘qualifications’ are part of the social construct.

“One of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.”

Speaking of teachers – their wages have become shocking too, its not just the middle class artists and journalists who have suffered – in 2008 a graduate primary teacher was starting on around a 1/3 more money then they are in 2013 – now they’re getting about the same as you get working in retail – that’s to educate the children of the future. Makes sense.

Sure the internet has done its bit for job hunting – you can publiscise yourself via your blog (ironically what I’m doing now), and LinkedIn and Twitter. Communication is fast and free. We can observe ourselves observing mundane activities like the little self aware technology obsessed sharers we have become.

It’s now easier then ever to sit in your pjs and apply for 20 jobs in a day, you don’t even have to spend a penny on postage, you don’t have to move a muscle. But then in some ways doesn’t this make it harder? When it took postage and legwork and dressing up in a suit to knock on doors, you probably only applied for the ones you really, truly wanted – now everyone can apply and you become swamped among 10 thousand other cretins sitting in their pajamas.

Sure I’m being cynical, and the less cynical (most probably people who it has benefited) might point out the success stories from the likes of YouTube and blogging has lead to democracy in terms of choice in what we like watching, laughing at and listening to. But I guess until we find a way to incorporate this cyber world into formal currency, we are perhaps sacrificing the democracy of a few artists for democracy as a whole.

In this ‘winner takes all’ society, where the people who win are the people with the biggest computers, for us plebians and non-Zuckerbergs of this world it has become a desperate fight to keep our heads above water – like survivors of the Titanic, waiting for that one sporadic, possible lifeboat to arrive before we freeze to death. We all know how Titanic ended – all of the fat rich people hogged the lifeboats, and wouldn’t more their butts to let anyone else in.

And finally I will address the point of ‘losing the personalism in art’ – the part that saddens and frightens me the most, in equal measures. With the advent of Spotify and downloading and blogging and self publishing and Kindles and ebooks and magazines online articles without authors – who knows who is creating what anymore – and this is sad.

As Lanier says: “To me a book is not just a particular file. It’s connected with personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And what I’m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they often think of them as really differently as just data points that you can mush together. They’re divorcing books from their role in personhood….

“And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.”

So in conclusion – yes the internet is both contributing to a greater form of democracy and freedom of speech; information sharing has provided us with a unique platform which has been both truly magical and awful all at once. Its invaded our boundaries somewhat and perhaps brought us closer together, and closer to understanding what our race is really about as a whole. However, if we don’t face up to what it is doing to our formal economy, and our workers, where will we end up – without a middle ground, without a democracy?

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