The Internet Is A Postmodern Dystopia Our Parents Are Unwittingly Trapped In
You’ve all heard of child-lock and were probably subject to technology training wheels at some point in your life, especially if you still had considerable growing up to do in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. You probably grew up with phrases like “always on the internet/phone,” “chatting chatting chatting,” “doesn’t listen to a word I say when he/she is texting” and other parent-isms, but did you ever imagine the day would come when the democratisation of the internet and smartphones would lead to a turn in tables?
Statistics claim that as the years go by, computer literacy among our parents’ generation is gradually but surely increasing. According to the Department of Statistics, for 2015, computer literacy among 40 – 49 year olds is 17.2% (15.3% in 2014), while 10.5% of 50 -59 year olds (9.6% in 2014) and 6.1 % of 60 – 69 year olds (5.2 % in 2014) are computer literate. Mobile subscriptions, meanwhile, according to Sri Lanka’s Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC), have increased from 91,359 in 2009 to 3,461,044 in June 2016, while fixed broadband and narrowband connection subscriptions, too, have seen an increase in growth, albeit at a slower pace. Within 20 years, from 1996 – 2016, the number of fixed internet connections has increased from 2,504 to 771,247.
While these figures look promising, the truth is that internet penetration in Sri Lanka is quite low, with only 20% of the population having access to the Internet.
Things aren’t as bleak if you focus solely on the urban population, with 27.6% of Colombo’s household population accessing the internet during the first 6 months of 2015. While the rest of the country has yet to catch up, a small portion of this 27.6% (possibly more now) include our parents, who were once custodians of all things technology.
Now it’s difficult to think of a time when your mother didn’t share life hacks videos on social media and your father didn’t send the modern day equivalent of chain-mail or forwards via Whatsapp. It’s probably been a strange few years for those who have watched their parents zealously embrace the technology they were initially sceptical of, and subscribe to the same habits we were constantly accused of (and even punished for) when we were younger. And while we desperately try to talk to our parents over the blare of music coming from their phones/tabs, as they spend considerable hours watching every single video on their timelines, we’ve probably wished someone would develop a ‘parent-lock’ software.
Try approaching your parents with the word “moderation” and you’ll probably get a lecture reminiscent of the ones you were regaled with as a teen. The irony and role reversal is hard to miss. Suddenly we’re doing the educating as we explain to them the concept of data charges and the difference between Facebook and Twitter. We’ve probably also tried to explain the difference between a public and a private post, that giving out personal details like addresses and telephone numbers is a bad idea, that a little discrimination when it comes to adding people on Facebook would be wise. Introducing your parents to the concept of a troll and the world of internet memes is comparatively easy, however, to the Herculean task of explaining to those born in the generation of the immutable written word that not everything they read on the internet, not every forward they receive on Whatsapp, not every video that they watch, not every fact shared on Facebook is true. Telling them that the internet is a largely editable, extremely democratic, non-discriminating void would be like expecting a textbook to update itself just by staring at it. It’s exciting that we can now share our lives shaped by the internet with our parents, but we also need to make sure that we act as the Minotaur by guiding them through the maze of the www. The internet is a post-modern dystopia our parents have no idea they are trapped in because they possibly lack the critical tools to deal with the idea of an extremely subjective reality where everyone has an opinion but not everyone has heard of a fact checker.
There are days where your parents will start resembling, well, you, when you first discovered a forum and the existence of an opinion (which wasn’t always well-informed). But the difference is that you most likely are acquainted with a few rules of the internet: that there is little or no censorship or need for citations or validation and that the concept of publishing and authorship is a lot more fluid than in the world of print.
Having to parent your parents on the Internet is a novel experience most 80’s and 90’s kids seem to deal with daily, without even realising it. You are the mentor when your father unwittingly allows a Facebook app to make changes to his profile, which posts videos and articles that conflict with his often more conservative worldview, convincing him that his account has been hacked. You explain to them that downloading every video sent on Whatsapp eats up space, leading to storage issues, and while you thumb through their phones, selecting various videos that need deleting, you may come across videos of a questionable nature in which the thumbnails almost always feature nudes, making you suddenly aware of the other side of the internet which your parents may have stumbled upon, or gone in search of. Your thoughts are probably similar to what they would have entertained when usage of the www first exploded into the mainstream and into your then teenage life: how do you protect them from the boundless internet, do they need protecting, do they realise what they are doing or are they unwitting spectators? You start to see them in a different light, perhaps.
Maybe you’ve also had to explain the concept of private property and public property in a world where property isn’t a physical manifestation. They seem insistent that you read a condemnation someone has written and forwarded, which in turn was forwarded ad infinitum, until the original author loses all control of the dissemination. It is based on a video someone shot during a wedding ceremony. The source of the video is unknown and untraceable. The condemnation is about the ceremony and how the video shows the flouting of traditional values and embracing customs from other cultures. The condemnation isn’t a well-thought out, balanced piece of writing. It’s vitriol condemning the modern world and multiculturalism, blaming the West and technology for altering traditional values: all of this disseminated through technology pioneered by other cultures. The irony is lost on all the participants. The concept of lifting someone else’s video and sharing it without permission doesn’t make any of them uncomfortable. Because an opinion has been typed out and shared, because the name of God has been invoked in the message, it has been swallowed whole and endorsed in the modern day sense of “sharing”.
You may have muted all extended family WhatsApp groups, which ping incessantly with long posts punctuated by emoticons; dubious announcements about Government initiatives; WhatsApp shutting your account unless you pass this message on to ten others; inspiring stories typed in epileptic grammar; a good morning picture, good afternoon picture, good evening picture, and good night picture, a different picture for a different day. Health tips with no verifiable source; tips on how to maintain your spirituality; rules of religion which someone may well have invented for all you know: but because it has been passed on it must be true. The written word worldview, that everything printed is sacred, true and absolutely real, is applied to the world of our screens unblinkingly: that there have been post-structuralist theorists out there refuting the idea of language as a stable receptacle representing the real, that there is a real, that our history books are biased, that the Sepoy Mutiny was actually a rebellion for those who rewrote history from the margins has little credence. The internet is the singular truth, not the post-modern Hydra of many truths, half-truths, opinion, bias and untruths.
You ask yourself over morning coffee, trying to hear yourself think over the sound coming from your mother’s phone, whether there is anything you can do to effectively explain the Internet to them. Short of sending them to a specialised educational course, you realise there is no systematic way of dealing with it. You may also feel guilty for indulging in the same habits, clicking “share” just because something sounds plausible and touts itself as a “fact” when it is most probably anything but; rolling your eyes at BuzzFeed quizzes and then playing another; realising certain issues exist only because they are trending; stalking Kylie Jenner on the Internet out of pure scorn and strengthening her search histories and therefore popularity; borrowing your feminism from Facebook and unpunctuated Tumblr rants; replacing orthodox religion with good vibes, the universe, David Avocado Wolfe and Deepak Chopra (random word generated) quotes, yoga which you never practiced, a Western-trying-to-be-Eastern-and-failing awe for life, karma, yin and yang, contorted versions of pagan goddess worship, kale and other trending superfoods, filling the void left by a lack of religion with yet another arbitrary system of belief. Your relationship with the internet is no less abusive. On the surface, you may seem more savvy and literate, but how many times have you googled something and clicked and believed the first post ever that verifies and validates your worldview? If Snapchat or Instagram was God, you’re already a devotee without even knowing it.
We check in on Facebook proclaiming to the world that we’re here, we have money to burn even if we don’t, here’s my generic food picture #foodporn #aesthetic #insertanotherpointlesshashtag. We flood our walls with endless selfies, flower filter, balloon face filter, pout filter, and so on, shouting out to the world that we exist, we are important, we’re witty and funny and unique and beautiful and smart while we Google inspirational quotes to accompany our oversaturated self-portraits. Our profiles, quite possibly, resemble the worst stream-of-consciousness experiment written by a hack writer with a vocabulary of 300 words (the word “grammar” or its usage not included). If anyone wanted to track you down, steal your identity, stalk you or harass you, you’ve already given them ammunition. And here we are, an internet abusive generation, trying to explain the uses of the internet to the older generation.
Can you then imagine trying to explain its abuses to them? Imagine trying to explain the concept of identity theft, of fake profiles, of hate speech on social media. Imagine trying to explain photoshop. Imagine telling them that no, this is not you, someone has stolen your pictures and edited them, that body is not yours, those are not your nudes. Imagine trying to explain the concept of revenge porn, telling them that your seemingly nice ex-boyfriend has decided to share your nudes with the rest of the world. Imagine trying to explain to them what your picture is doing on some random Facebook page with an abusive caption proclaiming that you’re a no good, big mouthed *insert your favourite four letter word*. If they understand that it’s not you, it’s an impersonator, a fake profile, then they may urge you to go the police, to report the abuse to the authorities, little knowing that even the authorities have yet to grasp the idea of borderless crimes, that even the President’s website can get and has been hacked. And since you’re not the President, it would seem that the authorities can do little. Based on anecdotal information from people who have faced various forms of abuse on the Internet, including continual identity theft despite contacting the authorities, it’s clear that the Internet, its ecosystem and its strange ways stump even those on top. The www should actually stand for the Wild Wild West, not World Wide Web; it is especially so in countries like Sri Lanka where the laws and authorities, just like the rest of the population, has yet to catch up with the internet phenomena. It is undoubtedly a dystopia, where people make their own laws, are governed by their own sense of justice, where there is no policing or monitoring body, where we are all at the mercy of others. Imagine telling your mother, who is 65 and has only known a society of structure, that the arm of the law in the www is indeed short, that you’re on your own and you have to fend for yourself with the little skills you have acquired informally through continued usage of the internet.
At the heart of it, we don’t understand the internet either. We don’t understand the urges people have to spew hate and verbal bile. We cannot comprehend just how forbidding the internet really is, and yet here we are, trying to teach them how to navigate the darkness of the Internet when we ourselves are lost.
Featured image courtesy askideas.com