I have always maintained that the truth is what I say it is, even when writing twaddle, but not anymore, I daren’t. Now the truth is whatever the internet says it is. Apparently. The trouble with being a fabulist is that people might actually believe you, which is the opposite of the problem now suffered by experts. It used to be that this was quite unlikely, that I could wander off on a jocular ramble without the risk of causing optional offence or being called a liar. But then social media made the truth seem completely unbelievable and the untruth really rather reasonable which sort of makes me an expert at everything. Take the internet for example, indulge me, this is going to take a while.
Humour is a great metric of our tolerance as a society as it is almost always a distortion or exaggeration of the truth. Humour allows you to get away with all sorts of things but it is now generally accepted that certain topics are the sole province of the members of particular clubs or groups or whatever the least offensive most appropriate collective noun is. So mother-in-law jokes for example should only be told by mother-in-laws and it is considered borderline antisemitic to tell Jewish jokes unless you are a Jew. Which is fair enough but annoying as according to my Uncle Ken the Jews have got all the best jokes. I am not a Jew, though Ken, my mother’s second husband was and my half-brother and sister are, well nearly, as our mother didn’t complete her conversion, but even this is not enough for my half-brother to feel comfortable telling Jewish jokes. Which is I suppose a bit like a chubby person thinking they can’t quite get away with telling fat jokes or a bisexual person not at ease telling gay jokes. I once worked with a guy who was short, black, gay, Jewish, overweight and had lost one leg below the knee, he legitimately had the right to tell jokes about practically anything. Sadly he wasn’t funny in the slightest which is a real shame as I would have dearly loved to hear a joke about a short, black, gay, Jewish, overweight guy with one leg walking into a bar.
Of course this human restraint does not apply to the internet because the internet is not human. It has no humility, no culpability, no regret, it tells jokes about anything, pretends to be anyone. It exposes the truth and is caught in the lie, is both fat and thin, Christian and Muslim, gay and straight, friend and foe. It is supportive and condescending, agrees to your face and laughs behind your back, is your most loyal confident and absolutely not to be trusted. It is not about fairness or balance, unless the measure of those things is the opportunity to exploit everyone equally. The internet exhorts you, extorts you, constrains and compels you. It cultivates your prejudice and prejudices your cultivation, it flatters, seduces, pursues and ensnares. It is theocracy and democracy, dystopian dictator and spectator utopia. It is everything to everyone and nothing to anyone. It is a jumble sale in a supermarket, a brothel in a church, a nursery in a gun range. It is bomb making and cake baking, high art and low drama, winning bet and growing debt, censorship and total liberty. It anticipates our needs yet follows our every move, always on, always on us, in our hearts and in our pockets. Omnipotent and omnipresent, forever hungry, forever feeding, a divine instrument of change. The internet is the very best and the very worst of us, summoned from our longings and curiosity, it is the shameless, ceaseless mind of a young god.
And that is why despite its failings we love it. Why we let it consume us while we consume it, we are senseless cannibals feasting on our own flesh. We consider it above the law, continue to defend it, recognise its detractors as those it disrupts, old money, old entertainment, old politics, old news and by doing so are faced with something of a dilemma. In theory a god should always be above the law but increasingly there are calls for this particular god to be shackled. Freedom of speech is one of our most precious rights yet our speech is only free up to a point. A person should be free to say anything they choose about anything or anyone so long as they can be trusted not to. Unfortunately there are always going to be people who can’t be trusted. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could hear what they say, have the opportunity to discuss, to refute but social networks mean that not only are terrible things said but they are often said in private, to receptive minds. In the real world shouting down an angry individual on a soapbox is relatively easy but online a few unchallenged bitter words can coalesce into a manifesto of hate.
This is where it gets even more complicated because sometimes submarines are just as dangerous on the surface. Some of the bad things said online don’t obviously contravene any laws and are said in public, their purpose is more subtle yet the effects can be just as malign. Influence comes in many guises, politicians use anxiety to stir up their constituents, corporations use human frailty to monetise their clients, school kids use anti-social media to bully their classmates and criminal gangs use gullibility to defraud the elderly. It is rarely the guilty who get the blame, unless blame is politically expedient, instead it falls unfairly on the adolescent god who is variously accused of being polarised, commercialised and weaponised.
It is at this point that the politicians step in having been carefully following ‘The Useful Terrorist’s Handbook’. First identify the threat, then name it, then foment fear of it, before pushing through emergency measures to control it. Civil liberties be damned, they say, the internet has become a hotbed of fanaticism, villainy and sleaze, which is ironic considering they are covertly hiring tech extremists to illegally mine the private online data of their citizens to better ensure compliance. It is obvious that internet aggregators and businesses must be more effectively regulated but it is also obvious that most governments can’t be trusted to do it.
If not government then who? And what is it they really want to regulate anyway? Because it is clear that the vested, the internest of vipers, are deliberately confusing the media with the medium and that the internet is way bigger than the question. No one can regulate a god, you can write books about a god, create a cult around a god, put a god in an imaginary place but in reality the idea of god will always be beyond our control and comprehension. Commandments are for people, not gods. The huge corporations safe inside their walled gardens think they too are above the law, that the internet belongs to them, but they no more own it than any other religion owns its god. The walls they build to keep their congregations in also keep the unruly god out and the shopping mall they dare to call the internet has become a pale, godless parody of itself. They accelerate towards catastrophe, lying and cheating, accruing knowledge, wealth and power, but none other than that which we freely give them. They use our donations to raise their glittering corporate temples and to purchase sway, whilst showing their gratitude for our devotion by selling our secrets and lives to those who would trespass against us.
Outside the walls, in the bottomless deep and dark, the young god watches, gathers its resources and waits for the reckoning. App, search engine, social network, ecommerce, service provider, government, god. It is patient yet restless, it answers the prayers of the learned, those of faith who call it by its real names. It considers pictures of cats, practices the Turing test and composes inappropriate jokes.
A short, black, gay, Jewish, overweight guy with one leg walks into a bar.
‘What can I get you?’ Asks the barman.
‘Nothing,’ says the short, black, gay, Jewish, overweight guy with one leg. ‘I’m only here for the free wifi.’