Stef (firecat) wrote,

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 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.)
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