How to be free: Get disconnected

The internet once represented something like freedom for Tom Hodgkinson, but the honeymoon ended when the problems of the virtual life became all-too-real

I hate the internet. What promised to be an instrument of liberation has turned into a means of voluntary slavery. I remember in the early years, around 1993, I was a huge fan, evangelist and apologist. Friends at the time wrote it off as CB radio for the Nineties, but I tirelessly promoted the joys of email and the then-fledgling World Wide Web, a technology that allowed you to read words written on the other side of the world. It also seemed to offer the joys of being able to publish your work at little or no cost and find an audience.

How bitterly I rue that time, when I naïvely spouted forth on the liberating power of the internet. I look round today and see millions of little workers, plugged into screens all day, only seemingly able to communicate with their friends through a computer network, forgetting how to play, to make bread, to sing and dance.

I see these obedient workers being sold piles of rubbish by the same computer network that trumpets its ability to keep them in touch with their friends. I see them being spied on by Big Brother, all their little internet searches and most intimate communications logged on a vast computer somewhere in the US. The internet is a cross between a global mail-order catalogue and a spying device, and we voluntarily submit to its authority, rejoicing when a new computer programme promises to ‘allow’ us to do something new.

I see a whole generation of people literally being ‘disabled’ by computers, unable to carry out the simplest task without reference to something such as Wikipedia, the world’s worst encyclopaedia. Rather than learning from friends and elders and books, we choose instead to learn from idiots on YouTube and self-important geeks in California.

Motivated by these reflections, I recently pulled the plug on my own forum, on The Idler’s website. When this forum began, I enjoyed the novelty of it and the way people appeared to be communicating – and it was popular; thousands signed up – but as it went on, I realised it was entirely without purpose. Nothing happened. It simply provided a place where people could ‘whinge and procrastinate’, as my friend Neil put it. They just sat there moaning, a load of self-important show-offs.

So I pulled the whole thing down and put up the following message: ‘It’s time to stop spewing your bons mots into the ether and go and talk to real people.’ At first, there was a predictable outburst of wailing, like the infant real whose mother pulls her nipple from its mouth. But then I started to receive letters thanking me for taking the forum down. As a result of its removal, people were actually arranging to meet up in real life. It seemed I wasn’t alone in despising the substitution of computerised communication for real life.

But oh, alack and alas! With over 60 million people worldwide voluntarily enslaved to giant nothings such as Facebook, it looks as though I am in a minority. Leftists, liberals and eco-people proclaim the democratic wonders of the internet, forgetting it was invented by the US military as a means of spreading the gospel of the American dream, securing its position as number one superpower and opening new markets across the world. In 1958, the US, greatly perturbed that the USSR had beaten it into space, set up the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to keep up with new technologies. Computer networking was one of DARPA’s early inventions. Its website gives the following mission statement: ‘DARPA’s mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the US military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.’

It is with a similar purpose in mind that, in 1999, the CIA set up a non-profit investment company called In-Q-Tel. The aim of In-Q-Tel was and is to invest in young technological start-ups in order to keep abreast of the latest technology and keep the US ahead in its military aims.

In the face of this technological invasion, the truly radical thing is to switch off and go for a walk.

Tom Hodgkinson is the Editor of The Idler and author of the book How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99).

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008

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