Monday, March 21, 2011

Individualism and the absence of goal-setting on the Internet

Let's get one thing straight: The Internet is dominated by a handful of corporate* websites that are for-profit. Government websites and personal hosting space are almost nonexistent; can you name a site that you regularly frequent that isn't corporate-run? When was the last time that one of your friends decided to invest in a few servers and implement something like IIS or FTP for hosting sites or files? Was it practical? Did it prove useful?

On the Internet these days, ads and unskippable commercials abound; incentive and encouragement are given to those who help the corporations in question make money -- so long as such people aren't associated with ideas antithetical to the corporations' pursuits, that is. If you don't give a particular site a bad image or speak out against it, you're acceptable; if you have an interest in genuine goals and completion of finite, quantifiable tasks, however, you're in trouble.

This problem is compounded by the fact that, not only is the Internet run by corporations, it's more or less run by a number of them no larger than the amount of fingers on your two hands. So long as the incentive for providing a web service is profit, no resultant product site is going to be geared toward encouraging people to better themselves, or work. Work, in this society, is not something that consumers do; it's something that producers do, and while most people take on both roles at various points in their lives, they almost never take them on simultaneously.

People aren't interested in making society better unless the betterment of society is incidentally profitable on a personal level, so if they're not getting paid -- especially if they're expecting to be provided a service for purposes other than "work" by someone who is getting paid -- they're not going to be interested in doing anything that isn't for themselves. And, as the saying goes, the customer is always right.

Or is he?

When you really think about it, it does seem as though the primary cause of the monopolization of the Internet is the apathy and selfishness of the average e-consumer. "Here's a new technology that allows you to make videos of yourself and broadcast them to thousands of people; do whatever you want with it except take your clothes off or badmouth us. Oh, and since you can do whatever you want with this functionality, there's no need to go to any other sites with similar functionality ever, ever again!"

This line of thinking keeps the website's superficial, outward integrity in tact while simultaneously enabling the customer to fulfill his every most base desire, regardless of how much of a waste of time the desire is when put into the context of a finite existence continuously guided by decision variables affecting all of sentient life. In other words, the owners of the website get richer by encouraging its users to use the service for pretty much any reason they want, which usually turns out to be one that doesn't involve helping someone else; in simplest terms, the website has no goals.

Sure, there is a distinction to be made between continuous goals and finite goals, and profit is a continuous goal, but what about the latter type? To me, a goal in the truest sense of the word is any completable construct representing the need for an object that can be quantified. For example, "make money," as previously noted, isn't really a goal per se, but "make X amount of money" is, as it contains a quantity variable, and, once the quantity is obtained, the goal ceases to exist.

The problem with our current framework for the Internet is that, not only does it disregard attainable goals, it actively seeks to prevent them from emerging, as it treats the Internet as an end in itself (for the consumer) or a means to the end of profit (for the producer) -- rather than as a means to any other imaginable end, including real, quantitative goals.

Without intervention from an external body -- whether a government or something similarly authoritative -- the Internet, like much of our economic system, will continue to foster goalless profit-seeking, which, while superficially beneficial to the consumer for mere minutes at a time, is ultimately only materially beneficial to a fraction of the human population smaller than the population of the average city. Perhaps someone unaffiliated with a particular website has brilliant ideas, or is working on a project that would be of interest to you, but because the project isn't in the best interest of the two or three major websites capable of hosting it, you never learn that it exists. What a travesty this is if true.

Imagine a world where websites actually promote goal creation and completion. By this, I don't mean vapid social networking "gaming dynamics" (i.e. allowing users to set commenting goals, story writing goals, etc.), which only encourage further self-absorption in the same manner that the video games after which they're modeled do; I mean things like providing propositions for a community, convincing others that your ideas are reasonable, and finding new avenues for promotion and discussion.

A real-world example might be something like a YouTube, Blogger, or even Wikipedia specifically geared toward philosophy, science, and social welfare vlogs/blogs/articles as opposed to just about any non-"offensive" videos or articles that one could imagine. A mission statement or declaration of methodology and goals would be evident everywhere on the site, and all users would be subject to bans based not on how their content affected others emotionally, but on whether the content was logical and conducive to the goals proposed by the site. There would be no owners, and everyone would have access to all editable components and modules.

In this scenario, suddenly, the aforementioned sites are no longer doing everything [legal] that they can in order to get ahead of everyone else; instead, they're working toward seeing demonstrable, practical results of proposed solutions to the world's problems. Users are encouraged not to simply behave themselves, but to actually do work. The dichotomy of user and designer has collapsed; everyone fulfills both roles simultaneously, creating a positive feedback loop of suggestion input and implementation. Everyone involved consumes resources or uses services in order to make other resources and services better, with the latter resources and services doing the same, etc., all to the end of improving society.

So long as problems exist, it should be every major organizational entity's goal to solve them. This goal can be broken into a plethora of sub-goals, of course, but it should nevertheless lie at the foundation of every organization's agenda, no matter the circumstance. Until we stop treating everyone as a source of our own personal satisfaction, though, this will not happen.

So just imagine it for a second. Imagine being able to edit someone else's blog, because you've both agreed beforehand on the direction and goals of the blog. Imagine participating on (and owning) a YouTube channel owned by fifty other people, each capable of uploading and favoriting videos. Imagine being able to, as something like a site moderator or administrator, suggest whether someone should be removed from the group or have their videos deleted, but not being able to actually do those things on your own without the input of the entire group. Imagine being able to alert everyone involved to potential areas of expansion. Imagine a website that exists not to provide people a service, but to get something done. People "get things done" and set goals all the time in their own personal lives, so why shouldn't a website advertise itself for this same purpose? A simple "Calling all interested parties: We need someone to start writing material on X subject. So and so is already working on Y subject, but if you think you have a better way, let so and so know" would suffice.

It would certainly beat what we currently have.

The interesting thing is that most of the above is possible right now on a small scale, but the services provided by the sites that can be used in this manner don't exactly help in any significant way. While it's certainly possible for you to write a blog or book on a topic that is actually important, without promotion from a major organization tailored specifically toward promoting and regulating content like yours, it probably isn't going to matter much.

Oh well. Until progress in this area is made, the alternative should be group YouTube channels, group blogs, wikis, etc.

* Wikipedia is an interesting exception. I'm in support of its method, but not its goals. Modern people tend to conflate method with goals quite often, which is unfortunate, because the technology is fantastic, in this case, and could be used in a more stringent and socially beneficial manner. Instead, Wikipedia contributors are content to delete articles for interesting ideas unfamiliar to the general public, for example, but if something which promotes horrible values is incredibly popular, it's "relevant" to humanity in some skewed way, and thus worthy of an article according to the site.

I'm not against providing or caching information on every conceivable topic, because free information, no matter how trivial, could prove useful to someone in the future. However, even if one concedes this, Wikipedia's only "goal" is to let people learn more about things they've already heard of. Popularity is only one form of relevance; relying on it to demonstrate the benefit of your website to society at large is, like democracy, a form of argumentum ad populum.


  1. This has been on my mind a lot lately. I'm thinking of creating a system that allows serious people to discuss serious things. Among the ideas running through my mind are the following:
    * blurbs of text all the way down
    * comments in the form of blurbs that are linked to the exact (possibly disjoint) parts of the text they are in response to (so instead of doing a long point-by-point response, you do a bunch of short responses)
    * individual ownership of blurbs (but maybe have a wiki-ish area for summarizing or documenting things on which consensus has been reached)
    * no voting (to prevent groupthink)
    * don't show blurb owner (to prevent ad-hominems (e.g. "who the hell wrote this bullshit? oh wait, he's one of the good guys"))
    * everything is versioned, deleted blurbs can still be retrieved (by anyone) if necessary
    * fallacy tags
    * spam/troll flagging by anyone, but with a highly visible area for people to challenge allegedly inappropriate flagging

    Building this is not high on my priority list, but maybe when all of this comes together in my head I will take a stab at it. It's pretty simple as it is. I'd be interested in any concrete ideas you might have.

  2. That last comment was me. Google wouldn't let me post it as myself.

  3. Awesome. I don't know anything about programming or web design, but it would be interesting if someone were to attempt something like what you've described.

    On the blurbs idea, maybe there could be two sections -- one where the site as a whole is presented as anonymously created, and another where people talk to each other about general ideas and the blurbs that you mentioned. So it'd be like the difference between a Wikipedia article and the discussion section for the article -- one would represent the outward agenda of the site to anyone passing by, and the other would be where ideation, sandboxes, debates, and propositions would exist. It looks like you've mentioned something like this above, but I'm curious about what you think.

    I also agree about there being no voting. If people disagree, either some of them are wrong, or they all are. Disagreements should imply that everyone should start over until they get it right, and if that fails, that someone perhaps be identified as harboring a bias.

    On the anonymity issue, I think that would be great for the "main" area, and for any discussion areas as well, but perhaps in the case of the latter, you could have a choice between identifying yourself or not. Alternatively, there could be three areas in total:

    1. The outward face, where "official" ideas get presented anonymously

    2. An area for blurbs and response blurbs posted anonymously

    3. A general purposes discussion area where people know who's who

    I don't know. I've never attempted to flesh out the specifics, so some of this is just off the top of my head.

    By the way, I do find wikis to be of potential use in the future, but I'm not sure what they'd be used for just yet. Also, Blogger permissions allow for multiple users to edit one blog, so there could be a group blog on this site at some point, if anyone turns out to be interested. Of course, if an independent site were to actually be created, I don't think that would necessarily entail that we'd no longer update a blog or wiki as provided by someone else; multiple fronts could possibly mean more people. Some potential topics for consideration for any of the above:

    - Rationality, logic, fallacies, how to spot bias
    - Antinatalism
    - Negative utilitarianism
    - Social movements (the Venus Project)
    - Relevant scientific breakthroughs (stuff that makes living less of a burden, like synthetic organs)
    - Miscellaneous innovations (e.g. seasteading)
    - How to live autonomously in a secluded area free from all these insane people around us

    I currently don't have any special reason to push for a site, because meeting interesting people who agree with me -- or are at least capable of bringing ideas to the table that I've never considered before -- doesn't happen all that often. But yes, it's something to think about.

  4. Yes, I had in mind separate areas for discussion and consensus. Actually they could be entirely separate systems. A wiki might be good enough for the consensus area.

    I'm not sure what value there would be in allowing people to sign their blurbs. The downside I see is that people of high status might use this in the hopes that some of their status might rub off on what they're saying. Of course the real problem is that people should not have status and that readers should not pay attention to the messenger. It is hard to enforce such a thing automatedly (authors can sometimes be identified by writing style if nothing else), but I'd like to try anyway.

    I'd also like to try to undercut other fallacies. Of course, this could be done as we go along and recognize the prevalence of some fallacy and ways to avoid it through interface and software changes.

    The topics you provide are things I'd love to see discussed in such a system, but the system does not have a goal other than to provide the medium.

    The part I have yet to flesh out is how to connect everything. I want the system to know some relations between blurbs. It should be easy to find the justification for a blurb all the way down. If a blurb and its basis have not been successfully challenged or unchallengedly tagged as fallacious or contradicting some other consensus, it should be considered consensus (but this might be too simple). People would have an incentive to provide the system with this metadata because it helps the proposition they are defending.

    Perhaps some branch of challenges leads to the discovery of an implicit assumption. This assumption should then be represented by a blurb in its own right and added to the basis of the original blurb. The branch of challenges would become irrelevant and the original arguer can now get to work on defending the new assumption.

    I hope that this will allow us to move on after some proposition has been proven satisfactorily. If someone comes up with a challenge that is not new, it can just be marked a duplicate of some already existing challenge. If he disagrees, he has to show why it is not a duplicate, i.e., where it relevantly differs from the original challenge. If he can do this, the proposition that the challenge is a duplicate is successfully challenged and no longer consensus. Additionally, the challenged blurb loses consensus status until the challenge is successfully challenged.

    Of course, the consensus status of blurbs will probably oscillate a lot, but I think this will smooth out in the long run. There's only so many relevant and relevantly unique challenges that can be made to any proposition.

    I foresee three kinds of conversation going on in this system:
    * discussions on how to improve the system to help us undercut some fallacy or to make it easier to manage this giant syllogism tree
    * discussions on whether something was appropriately flagged as fallacious or contradictory
    * discussions of the world out there (like the topics you provided)

  5. In the example of the challenge marked duplicate, I wrote that "he" has to do this or that. I should clarify: anyone would be able to do this. Anyone can challenge anything. Anyone can show anything.

  6. "I'm not sure what value there would be in allowing people to sign their blurbs. The downside I see is that people of high status might use this in the hopes that some of their status might rub off on what they're saying."

    I suppose part of this comes down to: By what criteria are users of the system selected, and how did they find the system in the first place? As you pointed out, if everyone understood that paying attention to potential status is a bad thing, then we wouldn't have any problems. This could be ensured by a careful selection process for users that would weed out any potentially difficult people.

    On the other hand, providing your name may have no immediate benefit or purpose. The issue, then, is whether it's more important to:

    1. Disable all nonessential functionality, thereby reducing risk

    2. Provide a more flexible system in case anyone else can discover ways of taking advantage of certain functionality, or there is evidence that getting to know one another confers some benefit

    2. doesn't seem terribly important to me, so I'd opt for 1., but if it were to ever come to it at some point in the future, there could be an experiment run to determine whether allowing people to reveal themselves would have some kind of motivational benefit, or whether the community would collapse upon itself from the weight of the personal enmity. In other words, there could be a preliminary test community set up to see whether identities have either a benefit or a detrimental effect -- though I would certainly hope that everyone involved would understand not to make presumptions about a person's character based on their past mistakes, etc. I don't yet have a preference regarding anonymity, because I don't really know which is the better option right now; I doubt that having the capability to sign blurbs would be very helpful, but I don't know whether it would really be hurtful, either. Also, choosing one way or the other may ultimately depend on how far into the future the site's goals would reach.

    As for the topics that I brought up, I was mostly talking about my ideal system implementation and not the raw system design, which, yes, could be used for all sorts of things.