When Julius Caesar took Alexandria in 48 BC, the city’s famous library burned to the ground. History isn’t sure if the Library of Alexandria was torched on purpose or if it caught fire during the ensuing pillaging, but regardless, the depository that held one copy of every book in the known world went up in flames. Think about that: all the knowledge in the world gone overnight. What’s even crazier is that right now, in your pocket, purse or hand, you have access to incalculably more knowledge than was lost that night, and yet everything still seems to be going to shit.
Somehow access to all this information isn’t doing much to solve the world’s problems, it’s just giving us better half-truths to bludgeon each other with. The dream of the information super highway has given over to the nightmare of the disinformation monster truck rally. We are angrily finger-banging our keyboards, typo-spewing, caps lock-yelling, at each other over articles that we’ve shared after only reading the headline. We are so perched above our computers, scanning articles for slights to be righteously indignant about, that we ignore the context the author is writing within. Instead we get upset that they used last week’s approved nomenclature instead of this week’s.
I don’t know about you, but just like the Library of Alexandria, I’m burned out. Calculating how many people will call you nasty things, depending on what words you type, is incredibly tiresome. It’s almost enough to make you want to disengage completely and stop using the internet at all.
And it’s not the horrors of the world landing at your feet that’s so exhausting, it’s the fact that every asshole has a barely informed opinion on them. Social media has turned news into a series of Yelp reviews. “John D. says, ‘Not only do I hate Muslims, but the waiter didn’t bring me my water fast enough.’”
The unfortunate flipside is that discourse dies when people are afraid of being ridiculed and called awful things for voicing their concerns or opinions. So the question becomes, how do we create conversations without having trolls? How do we have differing viewpoints without resorting to name calling? How does someone make a stupid mistake or a poorly thought-out joke without having the entire internet bully them? How do we stop the internet from being such a shitty place?
The problem is that we have a glut of information, but it seems we’re lacking the proper tools to sift through it all. It’s like being at a feast full of exquisite food but your mouth is wired shut and you can’t find a blender anywhere.
I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by greed, dragging themselves through the Silicon Valley streets, looking for a quick way to become rich, creating technology to do what their mothers won’t do for them anymore. Using those big brains to create apps that deliver your lunch or get your laundry done are all well and good, but with all the talk we hear about Silicon Valley changing the world, I’m ready to see more of it.
Let’s see more funding for real, independent, investigative journalism. Let’s see technology that makes it harder for people to be anonymous trolls. Let’s figure out an app that shows you how much you have in common with the person you’re arguing with instead of your few differences. Let’s embed widgets into articles that show that they, in fact, are not fake news. Let’s figure out ways to make the internet once again be viewed with the potential to unite humanity through shared knowledge. Let’s make the internet great again.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.