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The internet has devolved into fast food for the soul

The internet has devolved into fast food for the soul

The internet today is similar to a Big Gulp: a huge cup of colorized water that can come in any flavor you want, with an infinite slurp of sugary dopamine hits.

After I woke up from the sugar coma, where did I go? Is there an exit door in this Wonka nightmare factory? Does Hotel California serve something else besides fentanyl-laced feedback loops of identity politics? I tried to escape, and the last thing I remember is that I was running through the tabs, as I had to find that post back on the page I was on before. "Relax," said the night man, "we are programmed to receive great targeted ads. You can check out your cookies any time you like, but you can never leave."

And we don't have to build places to be "non-addictive." I'm asking if we could have something that isn't one giant high-fructose corn syrup fountain. The question is whether there is the possibility we can have a nice wine instead of a world in which there's only soda.

For instance, can we build dating apps that don't cater to our base impulses with successions of one-night stands? Is there a way to reconfigure the whole format toward long-term monogamy?

French fries are a great example of addicting food – they hit all the sensors on your tongue. They're soft on the inside, fried on the outside; though mostly salty, with the proper dipping sauce, whether ketchup or a Wendy's Frosty, they can also be sweet. This is one of the formulas to make a product addictive – hit as many sensors as you can. When talking about digital products, many savvy entrepreneurs would ignore the idea of making non-addictive products because you would lose all user retention. Here, I'm not advocating for discontinuing all addictive digital products in favor of non-addictive ones. What I'm saying is that all we have in the digital realm is french fries; we don't have the wine equivalent, which can be very addictive as well, and a great business, but it is at least more rarified. This is a matter of high culture against low culture; software developers are not building products that could achieve high culture.

Digital calories

For instance, can we build dating apps that don't cater to our base impulses with successions of one-night stands? Is there a way to reconfigure the whole format toward long-term monogamy? An app so improved would not let you chat with more than one match at a time. The filters for a user's preferences would make room for nuance and realistic expectations as opposed to aspirational platitudes. Swiping can become a habit, like rushing through a lurid wax museum. Few apps seem intent on breaking that habit and letting their users find the one person they can build a life with.

Social media apps generally rely too much on documentation. Users attend a concert with phones ready for the right moment to take ownership of what should be a collective experience. What if we could use social media to regain that original intention? Let's say someone designs a party event app that lets people in a given area and with shared interests meet in person, so much so that they forget the very device that brought them together in the first place. Some of the most interesting innovations come from dissatisfaction with rather than an appreciation for a medium. I believe we'll see founders that hate social media so much that they will start party apps with the intention that people throw the best parties and get a bunch of different people to have a great time – all so people stop staring at their phones.

We have seen hardware products for reading books and taking notes that embody this approach, and in the realm of software tools for thought, apps are carrying out this ethos. But I think there's the possibility of rethinking and redesigning most of our software to have digital monuments.

Can we build platforms for data infrastructure and feel confident that they'll be looked at with the amazement with which today we look at the aqueducts from ancient Rome? Can we build streaming channels that channel glory like the Colosseum? The answer is uncertain. Modern architecture has taken on a sameness that software developers would do well to avoid. Glass slabs and black monoliths have taken over the financial districts in Frankfurt, São Paulo, Mexico City, Shanghai, and London. Indeed, their resemblance to the black glass monolith we carry in our pockets, which consumes much of our waking life, seems hardly coincidental.

A worldwide cultural wasteland

It would be a tragedy to have a unilingual internet, a world in which all local traditional clothing gets washed away and every meal is the same generic recipe as everywhere else. It would be tragic to see all the digital content go toward the same direction of being candied. Even if our deep-fried digital content became the finest of wines, it would still be tragic. But still more tragic, the digital world is a great distance away from the vineyard and subsists entirely on Big Gulps.

There are some signs of hope, such as long-form podcasting. Yet even here, the podcasts have to be promoted through these sugary clips to entice you to listen to the whole thing. When was the last time you were sold a wine by taking a shot of a sugar-laced version of the product? This illustrates how the current market is so oversaturated with sugary mediums that you must engage in it to pull people into a long-form medium that doesn't destroy your attention span.

The new paradigms of computing, virtual reality, and audio assistants offer entirely different options. One is a completely encapsulating medium strapped to your face, maybe with headphones or even a sensory deprivation tank, all to set up walls against the intrusions of external stimuli. On the other hand, the audio assistants offer a technology that completely fades into the background to the point of formless ambience. The sounds are more humane and non-intrusive, enabling relaxation and focus, even as privacy implications lurk beneath the noise.

Maybe there's a third, narrower way out. Perhaps we don't submerge ourselves into the experience machine, theorized by Robert Nozick, floating around aimlessly for the rest of our lives, but instead use virtual reality to augment certain areas of our remote work. Maybe we don't bug all our rooms with intelligent devices that listen to us every waking hour (both smart speakers and smartphones), but we have devices with removable microphones and cameras to be plugged in when needed. Maybe we can have private keys to our locally encrypted smart speakers that don't need to connect to the internet but to a locally stored memory. Perhaps that way, we can have this medium without total loss of privacy – that would be closer to the idea Vannevar Bush thought of back in 1945:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Maybe we can figure out a way to build beautiful places, both in the real world and the digital realm, that resist the cold uniformity of our financial districts. Consider a digital realm that breaks from base habits, isolation, and empty calories and engenders more stable behaviors akin to the contemplation felt when walking into a museum or a church that is more human and less remote. Maybe we can build places online that serve content that doesn't feel like fast food and finally enjoy the equivalent of a glass of wine in our digital-content diet.

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