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Neal Stephenson on class & Internet savvy

Last night bastette_joyce and serenejournal and I were talking about how Sarah Palin's Yahoo account got hacked (either by accident or on purpose, depending on how Machiavellian you think she and her handlers are). We went on to discuss the urban-legend e-mails that many people send around.

I found an interview with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson on Goodreads.com and it included the some thoughts about such things, which I find very compelling.
GR: Snow Crash is lauded for its anticipation of (or influence over) later creations in software and gaming, such as Second Life. Where do you see the Internet going in five to ten years? Any predictions or trends you have observed?

NS: I see this as more and more of a social class issue. I'm remembering the advent of late '60s/early '70s drug culture when I was a kid. Authority figures would try to scare us away from drugs, and whether or not we were actually using drugs, we would just laugh at them because their threats and warnings seemed so overwrought. We all knew people who used various kinds of drugs but managed to stay healthy and out of trouble. Much later, it became obvious to me that the middle-class kids I tended to hang out with were cushioned from possible negative effects of drugs by their intellectual, financial, and social capital. Their parents and friends and neighbors kept an eye on them; Dad was always there to bail them out; they knew lawyers and doctors who could get them out of trouble. But that wasn't true of lower-class drug users. Poor people and communities really did suffer terrible effects from drugs because they lacked that cushion.

How does this apply to the Internet? Well, a few years ago we heard (and we still sometimes hear) dire warnings about the possible negative effects of the Internet, but we've gotten into the habit of laughing them off. We all know how to discern spam from legitimate email; we self-police on Wikipedia; we develop a sixth sense for knowing when a web page was put up by a crackpot. So I'm pretty complacent and pretty positive about the Internet as long as I'm hanging out with technically savvy Internet users. But when I come into contact with users who aren't so technically savvy, I'm shocked by how gullible they are and how effectively they are being manipulated by bad actors who know how to exploit that gullibility. There is a huge political campaign being waged right now in the form of E-mail smears that are being forwarded around the Internet like chain letters. They are obviously coming out of campaign boiler rooms somewhere, but they are sent around from person to person in social networks that fly way under the radar of MySpace, Facebook, etc., and many of the recipients are just unbelievably naive about them — they'll believe any kind of accusation against a candidate, so long as it's contained in one of these E-mails. That's only one example of how technically non-savvy people are being gulled and used on the Internet. I think we are headed for a situation in which we have a distinct intellectual/information underclass, created and perpetuated by bad Internet memes, and that the vector for those memes is going to be E-mail rather than Web pages.
I would add that this sort of thing is happening not just on the Internet but also in more traditional media. If you watch Fox News you get one version of reality, if you watch some other channel, you get another version. It is by no means new that different people/organization/media outlets have different outlooks, emphasize different aspects of an event, and so on, of course. But it feels like the quality of these conversations has changed from "We have different views about what happened" to "We are going to clog the channels with so many conflicting claims that it will be impossible to discuss what happened at all." (That doesn't describe my perception of the quality change very well, but I'm not coming up with a better description.)


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 19th, 2008 06:56 pm (UTC)
But it feels like the quality of these conversations has changed from "We have different views about what happened" to "We are going to clog the channels with so many conflicting claims that it will be impossible to discuss what happened at all."

YES! I feel this way a lot.
Sep. 19th, 2008 07:07 pm (UTC)
Wow! I will go look at the article. My genealogy hobby puts me in touch with extended family who send me those junk emails all the time. I send them the snopes.com link, but it doesn't seem to make a difference.

It's the *tone* of the email, the writing style, that sets off my bullsh*t detector and has me running to Snopes for confirmation. Why isn't this the case with the extended family?

On the gullibility topic, did you see this?
Sep. 19th, 2008 07:11 pm (UTC)
I send them the snopes.com link, but it doesn't seem to make a difference.


Yes, I saw about the thieving broker. That's one for the irony files, all right.
Sep. 19th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)
Interesting. It reminds me of helping a coworker get the spyware and crap off her computer. I was wondering how she managed to get so much stuff on her machine, when out of the blue she mentioned that she was disappointed that the "Free gas card" website she'd been to hadn't worked out how she'd hoped. She'd clicked on the blinking ad, filled out a bunch of personal information, but she never got the free gas they promised. I have to admit, it never even occurred to me that someone would actually click on one of those ads on purpose. Apparently I was wrong.
Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the OH was horrified that his sister sent around one of those hoax "warning, send this to everyone!" e-mails -- because he assumed that because his sister was smart, she would know not to do that. But it's not just smarts a person needs, it's enough knowledge to apply the smarts to this particular kind of thing.
Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:49 pm (UTC)
True. Some of it must just be experience. Or maybe some of us are more skeptical of things that sound too good to be true. I'm willing to excuse someone who sends me one or two of those things as just being a newbie. More than that and I start losing respect for them.

Another person on my flist, who's French (although she lives in the US) was just complaining that one of her uncles has recently gotten email and he keeps sending her this exact sort of stuff (including right-wing anti-immigrant propaganda). While I'm sad to hear this (sad that she has to get those stupid emails, sad that her uncle is such a jerk, and sad that the rest of the world is no better than we are), part of me is glad that it's not just Americans who are this stupid. Or at least I find it interesting that people are foolish in similar ways in other parts of the world, if that makes any sense.
Sep. 19th, 2008 11:23 pm (UTC)
That's really interesting.

I would add that this sort of thing is happening not just on the Internet but also in more traditional media.

That ties in with another idea, how The Powers That Be™ are bending over backwards to make us think of the internet like a souped up fancy version of television. To pay for content with advertising is the only conceivable way of maintaining the infrastructure, in their model. In talking to people who've only lately learned to use the web, they notice the spam a lot more than they notice the nifty. Internet savvy users can be drowned out with enough commercialism, if you follow the older model.

The only way I can see Fox news maintaining an audience, is with viewers who don't really grok any alternative. Changing the channel isn't really going to get you an alternative at this point, but changing the appliance can.
Sep. 22nd, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
I've noticed a lot of this both through my relatives getting online and through the less net-savvy people at work. I try to do some education when I can. (Instead of saying, "This is a hoax [link]," I'll try to say, "This is a hoax [link], and here's how you can tell when you're looking at a hoax of this sort in general.") I don't always have the energy for it, but I try to do it, and when I can't, at least do the other thing. I feel like as someone who knows a bit more about the net and who is part of the group that has been transferring so many services to the net such that other people have to follow, I have some responsiblity to try to help.
Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. Do you get the sense that the education helps? When I do it, I find it helps a little, but some people seem to have the knack to spot a hoax and some don't -- some of them don't fall for that type of hoax any more, but do fall for other kinds.

The scary thing is that my parents used to have the knack to spot a hoax or a scam (not an Internet one per se, but in general), but they're losing it. I don't want to lose that!
Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:42 pm (UTC)
I know that some people are trying to do it because when I explained the technique of hovering your mouse pointer over a link to see if the address it will take you to is the same as the address as shown (Outlook uses this hover technique, and everyone at work uses Outlook), I fielded about half a dozen questions about it not working (because it only does it on HTML mail). I don't know whether they continued to try to do it after the first couple of days, but hopefully they at least now understand that the feature is there and what they're looking for.
Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, I did actually have a couple of users take up the "check it out on snopes" torch themselves, where sometimes people will forward things around and other users will reply with the snopes URL before I do. That was kind of cool.
Sep. 22nd, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC)
Also, people really credit Snow Crash with envisioning Second Life? What about all the pre-Snow Crash novels that contain almost identical visions of online virtual realities?
Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
I know. I was not very impressed with that part of the question.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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