How I use the “modern” internet

One of the challenging side effects of the current culture war going on in the US is that as the big-d-democrats and big-r-republicans become more and more extreme, the general political discourse becomes more toxic. I’ve often thought the last few years seemed far more polarized than even ten years ago, and it turns out I’m right:

I tend to be pretty middle of the road, and in the past have tended to tune into things that I disagree with, just to get the counter perspective. The logic being that if you read both sides of an issue, then you can figure out for yourself what a balanced view is, and proceed accordingly. However, especially in the last year, both sides have effectively turned into propaganda machines, completely misrepresenting even the most basic facts as they push agendas. My traditional approach results in whiplash, and my conclusion is that the only way to stay sane is to tune it all out and focus on other things until the storm passes.

Turning off the internet really isn’t an option, but there are ways to modify how I view it that help me manage. I don’t have a Facebook account, which means I already have a huge advantage over a lot of people. I’ve recently all-but-disconnected my Twitter account, so while a link to this post will appear there via an automated sharing process, I no longer “use” it as such. Why I’ve stopped using Twitter is probably worthy of an entire post in itself, but a short version is that every time I logged in, within 10 seconds of looking at my timeline, I’d be upset about something; I decided that’s not a way I want to live.

The next thing is websites I visit. Whenever I hear about some important news thing, by habit I go to places like CNN and The New York Times, because even though I rationally know they have long ceased to be places of balanced news, I have this strange instinctual trust in their ability to be an authority, probably remnant from years where they were moderately reliable. It’s true that they put out some choice falsities that (for example) helped the US invade Iraq, but until recently I was able to chalk that up to a few bad reporters. Now it seems like every reporter has an agenda. I found a browser plugin called “Website Blocker” and have added them and a slew of other sites, such as Breitbart, Fox News, The Guardian, and others into the list. What’s nice about this is that it doesn’t work in “incognito” mode, so if there’s a news story you want to track, you can open it in a new window and follow it there. I’ve found this to be really effective, because if I click a link and the red “it’s blocked” page comes up, it gives me a moment to reflect on if this is something I care about, or if it’s clickbait and I’m being reactionary. I’m sad to say that I’m being reactionary about 90% of the time, but at least I know this.

The other big thing is Youtube. I am a huge fan of Youtube, largely because many universities have started posting their college lectures there, and I find it a really valuable resource. However, the Adpocalypse that’s going on has caused a flurry of spam videos with horrible titles designed to get a quick click. There are other allegations regarding what videos they promote (since Youtube has a clear agenda in the culture war), but I’m more concerned about these stupid video titles. They are normally branded with choice key words designed to catch your attention, such as “cries”, “destroys”, “wrecks”, “obliterates”, “crushes”, and so on. A common example you might have seen during the election might be “Hillary supporter DESTROYS Trumper,” but this is by no means limited to politics. I found a great plugin called “Video Blocker” that lets you enter keywords such as those I’ve listed, and removes those videos from the Youtube page when you visit the site. What’s interesting is that it seems to just block them from appearing to you, so instead of getting another video, you get a blank spot. I’ve found that sometimes my recommended feeds are so empty they look like a toothless jaw, which tells me a lot about Youtube’s crap algorithms and how people are abusing it.

These plugins are in addition to other things, such as ad blockers and an HTML5 autoplay disabler. Although if a news website is autoplaying a video without asking, the chance is that I’ve already blocked it in Website Blocker.

In conclusion, while these things won’t prevent the culture wars, and won’t fix all the problems going on with the Internet in general, they will at least help you to stay somewhat sane as it wages on. Other suggestions are to have a day where you don’t use a computer at all and go to the park, or focus on doing cool projects that are also not related to awful clickbait. A word of warning, be prepared for the intense rage of people when you re-engage after one of these little retreats, and remember that it’s not about you.

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An ode to AIM

After a 20 year run, AIM is being shut down in December. I’ve had my AIM account since May 14, 1998, so this makes me sad for a number of reasons. But I think it’s also worth reflecting both on the consequences of AIM dying, as well as the general state of technology.

I used AIM a *lot* in the late 90s, before moving to ICQ. Back then, there was sort of a holy war between AIM and ICQ, and the more serious computer users (read, an hour of internet time a day) seemed to use ICQ. From my personal experience, I stopped using ICQ in 2000 when a new version (I think it was 2000b) was released that was so buggy it was unusable on Windows 98. The community I was around all sort of migrated to AIM, and have used it ever since.

So long before what is now called “social media”, AIM served as a way to keep friends together, but not incessantly. I have my chat client logged into AIM right now, and even though I haven’t used it in years, I have a whole list of people who are also still logged in. It’s sort of like an active rolodex. In many ways, the buddy list now serves as a communication channel to people who I have no other way to contact anymore. Some might be stale, but the possibility is there. Until December.

I’m not sure why AOL wants to discontinue it. One of AIM’s main problems is that it’s centralized, through a protocol called OSCAR. I have no idea how difficult it is to maintain an AIM server. I have run jabber servers before, and they are usually pretty low maintenance. I wonder if there is some bureaucratic issue going on. Maybe AOL has to pay someone a license to keep it running, and now they’ve decided it is too expensive. Maybe there are a lot of security issues with the protocol, and they want to get rid of their security team that deals with it.

I wish they were more transparent about it. I wish they would do something for the AIM community– maybe set up a small nonprofit whose sole purpose is to collect donation money to keep the AIM servers running. Or make it all totally free software so someone could patch it to be decentralized, and keep it all still running. But again, this is all speculation, I have no idea. The one thing I do know is it makes me sad.

I’ve also become disillusioned with this new generation of technology. I’m a huge fan of personal liberty, using technology to empower individuals, and using computers to make cool projects and maybe even solve complex problems. But technology now seems to be about agreeing to 40 page EULAs you can’t possibly understand, and about companies taking more and more control over your life.

I recall a conversation I had with someone years ago, complaining about the then-new Windows product activation. IMO, if you pay for software, you own it, and the idea that you have to continually justify it to the company is the worst kind of leash possible. Their response was that there would be a lot of complaining, and eventually people would just go along with it and it would become part of an accepted norm. And it seems that now, the strange idea is not that you would need to get permission to run software you purchased, but that you would run software locally at all, because it’s all in the cloud (aka someone else’s computer).

Beyond that, I’m a big believer in respect for tradition, something that has been completely abandoned in the modern era. A less laudable version of this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It seems that there is a rush to throw out the old in favor of the new. The problem with this is that we continually redefine the old in shorter and shorter lifespans, and we also redefine the criteria by which we judge “new is better.” This leads to making the same painful mistakes over and over again.

That was a long winded way of saying I’m going to miss AIM, I’m going to miss all the friends I’ll never be able to chat with again, and I’m sad with the general state of what is called technology.