Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Seneca Cliff for the Web as we know it?

We can't ignore the evidence any longer. The "Web", intended as a constellation of independent information providers is dying. It is going through a Seneca Cliff of its own, being replaced by a "Trinet", controlled by the three giant companies, Google, Amazon, and Facebook.

I have been noticing it with the stats for "Cassandra's Legacy". You can see how the decline in the number of contacts has been steady over the past year. Here are the stats:

We don't yet see a Seneca Cliff, that is a rapid drop in the audience (don't look at the drop at the end of the graph; it is just because the data are for the current month). I think it is mainly because I have been trying to contrast the decline by publishing more posts, but that has not been sufficient to change the trend. Here are the data for another blog of mine, "Chimeras"

In this case, the blog used to be visited by students looking for text to cut and paste for their term papers on mythology. They are not coming anymore; evidently, they found other sources of information. Or maybe the search engines don't lead them to my blog anymore. Hard to say, but it is a fact.

So, what's happening? As always, things change and, in our times, tend to change fast. Many of us can remember the "age of mass media," now obsolete as steam engines and mechanical calculators. It looks incredible that there existed a time when everyone was exposed to the same information, provided under strict control by the government. In the Soviet Union, it was under control of the Communist Party. The West was theoretically more open but, in practice, you had access only to information that was controlled by one or the other of the two parties sharing power.

Now, in an age of privatization, every one of us has picked up the job that once was in the hands of the dominant party (or parties). We have become our own censorship agents and we have been busily building up walls to keep away from us information that goes against our individual party line. It is the concept of "information bubble," or "echo-chamber," or "walled garden."

The difference is that, while once the different echo-chambers were aligned along national borders, now they are fragmented in a pattern embedded within the various language islands of the Web, of which the English one is probably still the largest, at present. Add to this fragmentation the fact that people's brains are different and the result is the phenomenon called "opinion polarization". People across the street where you live will behave in ways that are completely incomprehensible to you if they happen to be part of a different information bubble. And chances are that you'll see each other not only incomprehensible but truly evil.

Nowhere this phenomenon is more evident than with the actions of the Trump administration. If you are a reader of this blog, you are likely to think that actions such as supporting coal burning and removing the environmental protection legislation are not only incomprehensible but evil. But they are perfectly understandable if you think that they are taken by people who live in an information bubble where it is an accepted fact that climate change is a hoax concocted by the left in order to impose a world dictatorship and enslave the American people.

It doesn't matter how powerful you are, even if you are the president of the United States, you are still sensitive to the echo-chamber effect. Again, the situation is not much different than it was when dictators tended to believe their own propaganda.

So, where are we going? I think we can say that the Web is like an ecosystem and that it is being colonized by informational lifeforms which compete and evolve in order to occupy as much virtual space as possible. What we are seeing nowadays is just a phase of a continuing evolution: changes are ongoing, and everything will change in the near future in ways that are difficult for us to understand.

The main problem, here, is not so much the evolution of the virtual ecosystem of the Web but the fact that we - as human beings - live in a real ecosystem and that this real ecosystem is being disrupted by what we are doing to it. The virtual and the real ecosystem interact in the sense that our view of the real ecosystem is filtered by the virtual ecosystem to which we have access. But while there are many possible virtual ecosystems, there is only one real ecosystem. And if we destroy it, as we are doing, the virtual echo-chambers won't keep us alive.

But, after all, the real ecosystem is the result of the virtual ecosystem stored in the DNA of the creatures populating it. If the model stored in the DNA turns out to be bad for the survival of the phenotype it creates, then that DNA is ruthlessly eliminated from the genetic pool of the planetary biota. The same will be the destiny of the bad echo-chambers of the Web. And so it has been and it will be. It is the way the universe works.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)