Modern-day search engines and social media platforms have strayed from the ideas that originally made the internet, its content, and the people that saw it as a medium, so great. To understand the internet as a medium you must think about art. When we think of mediums we are thinking of modes of expression. Paint, dance, photography; these are all modes of expression. They are other things as well but it is undeniable that despite the utilitarian aspects of paint, and photography they still remain mediums.
What makes something a medium for artistic expression? Generally, something becomes a medium when it is used at any point for the purpose of this expression. Paint can be used to preserve the exterior of metals and buildings, photography can document information and events reliable and accurately. However, they are often used as ways of communicating the inner life of an individual or communicating the out world through the lens of humanity.
How is the internet a medium? The internet is a medium with almost limitless utilitarian applications. It has the same Biblical scope as the Tower of Babel. In the story of the Tower of Babel, God observes all of civilization coming together and deciding that they will build a tower so high that it might reach heaven. This is not a direct call to war against God but it is an attempt to subvert the natural order of things. It was a moment in humanity where once again we were declaring we did not need God we would build our own path to heaven despite him.
It is questionable whether or not this is or was possible. What is clear is that God saw in their work something that would lead them away from an obvious dependency on him. So to stop the work he confused the languages of the world forcing those that spoke the same language to gather together effectively reducing our collaborative powers.
The tower of babel just in scope and concept would most assuredly have been a work of art. Stone and architecture were the medium in this case and the expression was one of rebellion against the divine and worship of human effort. In their base sets, there is nothing wrong or even remotely evil in stone and architecture. These can be used to craft things of monumental beauty that turn our eyes towards God or they can fill the world with the imaginary of darkness.
They are also very utilitarian. Forts, important locations, and functional buildings owe their importance and usefulness to architecture and the more utilitarian engineering. Why draw this correlation? The internet has these aspects of mediums turned up to the mythical eleven. Nothing has ever allowed us to express ourselves to more people, collaborate more easily and over longer distances, or provided us a tool so useful few of us in the first world go to the bathroom without it.
The Drug of Choice
One of the utilitarian parts of the internet is the ability to serve information, content, and entertainment. I do draw a distinction between these though I acknowledge this is more of a spectrum rather than hard fast categories. Information is data or what we might refer to as data though this can also be data that has been compiled down to insights or correlations.
Content is information but disseminated in a very useful way. It makes use of language, culture, and humanity to present facts and opinions. This is usually news but also could be an essay, informative book, or documentary.
Entertainment is probably the most prevalent. This is the arts, movies, music, memes, games, and the entertaining side of what might be found on the internet.
In this spectrum, I have not included the narrative or motives that something might be presented because the content the raw stuff found online is not the problem but the symptom. An advertisement is not evil in its own right. What is arguably evil is the Babylonian way in which we have decided to present these things. We have sought to make the “getting” of this as addicting as possible, for when something is addictive money will flow freely from it. Even more so when we ignore moral sentiments. Because of these ideas that tickle and delight are working towards bringing about yet again the last refrain of the “The Gods of The Copy Book Headings”
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
Enter The Discovery Engine
How would a Discovery Engine differ from these exploitative business models and algorithms? The first way to overcome the harmful effects of the attention economy and unknowable algorithms is first to be transparent and if an algorithm or search engine does not publish freely the inner workings of the systems that we are relying on to present content then as a collective people we should reject them.
Next, a project should be started to map the values of people in an unbiased and under the assumption that no single person will fall cleanly into any value system. An example of this might be in mapping the values of a self-identified Christian it could be assumed that modesty would be a value that they hold dear. It should also be assumed that people will and do actively value things while not practicing them consistently. The reason for this is that values often underly an internal goal or an ideal that one would strive to live up to.
Once value mapping has reached a level of usefulness as a data set then we should then allow individuals to identify themselves on the value map. This information should be encrypted and only ever available to the individual. This would keep companies and governments from knowing the values of individuals. Once this is done the stage will be set for discovery engines.
A discovery engine is less a search or suggestion algorithm and more of a values-based discovery system. If someone gets on a discovery system then a user before they begin a search can issue an intent. Some example intents might be I want to be challenged, I want to be informed, I want to be entertained. In the case of “I want to be challenged” would take into account values, you hold dear say liberty and show you information and articles that might challenge the extent to which liberty should be allowed to go.
In this way what we are doing is giving the users the ability to dial in their search and suggestion preferences. By doing this we will be able to get individuals out of echo chambers by showing them the door and offering them an opportunity to see what is on the other side. Additionally, this kind of system would allow for more discovery of new information and content. Sure the advertisers would take a hit which is why this will never come about but at least the idea is out there now.