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The internet, which was once a vast expanse of possibility, home-brewed programs and web-pages, is now akin to a digital suburban network. Just as citizens fled cities, which were crowded with opportunities for interaction and expression, for the systemically spread out and commercialized relative safety of suburbs, so too have users fled from the wildness of Apple II to the sterility of the iPhone. The average person’s interaction with the internet is now through producticized devices and applications. As the internet has transformed from a “generative” network to a more “applianced” network, the fears and threat of bad faith actors leveraging the power of the internet have changed significantly (Zittrain, pg. 8).
Now, this isn’t to say that the “appification” of the internet is entirely horrible. Mobile computing, even though through proprietary, appified interfaces, has enabled more people to reliably, safely engage in computationally mediated work and socialization. Without the admittedly sterile, commercialized modern internet, the internet might not have penetrated as deeply into our society. The plausible network power accessible to those online becomes greater and greater as more users partake in an internet-mediated existence. However, as I mentioned earlier, the fears and threats of an appified internet are just as present, if not more potentially devastating, than the wild-west version of the early generative internet.
When I was growing up, in the early ages of the internet, the monster that stood as a manifestation of the fears of being online was a shady hacker in his mom’s basement who was out to steal my identity. I could code my own profiles and web pages as a key component to my online experience on even commercial sites such as Neopets and MySpace, but this freedom was at the cost of having to remain vigilant of this ever-present hacker, just out of sight, who wanted to steal my information. As a result of this consensus of fear of viruses and hackers, internet and tech corporations began creating user interfaces with the internet that were more secure at the cost of less generative freedom and increased surveillance (Zittrain, pg. 4-5). More users began to interact with the internet as it became safer, but in reality, they were just transferring potential power to corporations and governments. While users feel safer from rogue hackers and identity fraud, they are at a greater threat from surveillance and subtle capitalistic manipulation.
People, or at least people engaged in meme-culture, are aware of this power trade-off. The omnipotent surveillance that the appified internet affords has led to the popular emergence of the “your government agent” meme, a meme in which users lovingly refer to the imagined government agent assigned to surveil them online as an ever-present, engaged companion.
Zittrain, J. (2008). The future of the Internet and how to stop it. New Haven, [Conn.]: Yale University Press.