I was extremely surprised by a blog post from Jerry Holkins (Penny Arcade’s Tycho) several months ago. It was jarring to hear a figure who is regarded as a gaming guru and internet maven seriously conclude, “I’m prepared to call the entire Web a net loss.” [I’m still not sure if the pun was intentional or unavoidable.] This man feeds his family only by the operations and functions of the world wide web, but he has done so while dodging death threats and wading through endless swamps of hate.
Any of us who spend time online see a great deal of hate and ignorance, even if it is not directed at us. The question to ask here is the same one King Théoden posed at the Battle of Helm’s Deep: “What can [we] do against such reckless hate?” While Aragorn’s solution was to “Ride out and meet them,” I see a more appealing option from the words of Coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russel in the 2004 film Miracle): “Play your game.” The recent decision of Renegade’s support player Remilia illustrates exactly how to do that.
However, understanding which answer is better requires recognizing the problem in the speed at which technology appears in our lives.
A recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal argued that the FCC’s increased regulatory measures over internet technologies would ultimately slow and stifle innovation. I disagree that this is entirely true, and to the extent that it is true, I do not think taking time to consider the impacts of new technologies is a categorically bad thing. We have already seen several kinds of unexpected results from recent technological improvements in our lives.
The most apparent set of challenges on the internet comes in the arena of public discourse on the internet. Whatever anyone thinks Gamergate was about, it was certainly characterized by the drama of extreme threats of tremendous violence in place of a public discourse about a social issue. John Oliver featured the problem of death threats and revenge porn on his HBO program, making particular note the difficulty in trying to explain to authorities a problem when they do not understand the medium in which it occurs. This, he observes, is like trying to explain that someone tried to drown you, yet the audience does not know what water is.
In addition to the horrible-tragedy-waiting-to-happen that is “Swatting,” social media has seen cyber-bullying that has led to suicide and the misreporting of information that caused a severe and sudden stock-market dive.
We also run into uncomfortable situations when we allow algorithms and software to take the reins. Flickr has caught flak for software that, as reported by WSJ, “tagged a photo of a black man with the word ‘ape’ and a picture of a concentration camp as a ‘jungle gym.’” Google’s photo-tagging software has encountered similar problems, and other automated processes have led to disparities in targeted advertising for jobs based on gender: “CMU researchers examining Google’s ad-targeting system recently found that male Web users were six times more likely than female users to be shown ads for high paying jobs.”
Other problems are more squarely in the field of economics and law. The Author’s Guild wrote a letter to the Department of Justice this month asking for an official investigation into Amazon.com’s potential antitrust violations, as they maintain the price of books at suspicious (allegedly anti-competitive?) rates. Meanwhile, some states have noticed a decrease in tax revenues as a result of declining sales of physical copies of music, movies, books, and software. Efforts to tax the digital alternatives sought by consumers (e.g., Netflix) have proven unsuccessful, resulting in lower tax revenues overall.
Remilia faces no small amount of adversity for playing professional esports, particularly among a community that has built a reputation for vitriolic hatespeech, even within the context of a society known to offer some, well, sub-par treatment of women in digital spaces. I don’t have a reliable source to explain her decision to continue playing after qualifying for next year’s League Championship Series, but I imagine that at least some part of her decision was based on her desire to simply play the game, as she wants to play it.
Remilia hasn’t shied away from social media- she still streams almost every night-, but she’s making choices in spite of the technology without rejecting the technology itself. She plays the game she wants to play, the way that she wants to play it. There is room for regulation and innovation, the way there is room for discussion and disagreement- but in both cases, an excellent result requires that both sides be excellent. The internet will never be a useful tool for discourse if we learn to use it as a tool for venting frustrations and substituting sloppy assertions in place of careful conclusions. No technology can ever be any better than our use of it. But the bad use of technology by others does not require us to also make poor choices.
Even while on the receiving end of a bad use of technology, Remilia persists in making a better use of it. I imagine that a lot of her victory is attributable to a certain authenticity: she does not play “for wrath, for ruin, and the red dawn”; she just wants to play the game. By being sincere about her goals, she leaves no room for the kind of abuse that characterizes the trolls that would undermine her. If tech companies and innovators were as genuine and dedicated to their goals, I suspect we would all be in a better position to face a lot of the new problems we confront in the digital landscape.
I’d be happy if we started by addressing this problem in the digital landscape, which has apparently plagued humanity since December of 2001: “no-more-sweaty-mouse-hands”