Ben Hammersley is a futurist, author and editor-at-large of UK’s Wired magazine. He coined the word “podcast” while working as an internet reporter and later became a war correspondent. His latest book, 64 Things You Need to Know Now for Then, is a guide to understanding the internet in an age when the digital world is changing the way we live. Hammersley also works as the digital ambassador for David Cameron and is a member of the European Commission High Level Expert Group on Media Freedom. Lisa Luxx talked to him about the politics of the web.
LISA LUXX When did your love affair with technology begin?
BEN HAMMERSLEY I had my first computer, a ZX Spectrum, when I was 10 years old and around the same time my father was working in the computer industry so we had an IBM PC which had a modem. This enabled me to get online – not on the web, of course, but on to bulletin boards. The web wasn’t turned on until Christmas Day, 1990. In my late twenties I spent some time as a war correspondent so a few years ago I was one of the few people who knew about both the internet and terrorism or national security. I spend most of my time translating between two generations; the digital generation and the baby boomers who are in charge. I’m 36 so I’m a member of the generation in the middle who are digitally savvy but also speak Old Person. 64 Things You Need to Know is about demonstrating the digital age to people who have their emails printed out for them.
LL But even young people are getting lost in translation?
BH Well, I have this situation where I say things on Twitter that are in-jokes between me and my girlfriend, or my friends. Or it’ll be a reference to a fact that I’m in a room with 30 other people who I know and we all follow each other on Twitter and we’re all watching the same thing and we’re being sarcastic to each other. Now, many times I will say something slightly obscure that only makes sense to the people who are in on the joke and I will get a call in an hour from my father who follows me on Twitter asking me to explain what I just said. Of course, I can’t because he wasn’t the intended audience of that remark and for people to understand that with online speech you are not always the intended audience. Society needs to understand that saying something online is like saying something in public: if I put a silly in-joke on Twitter and people don’t get it then it’s not my problem, but if I say something massively offensive then it is my problem; people have to own their words. It’s a major issue.
LL But so much is open to interpretation – where do we draw the line?
BH That’s something we need to be aware of before we publish something online. We should be less ambiguous. I think in most cases people who say offensive things online aren’t saying things that are misconstrued; they’re saying things because they’re arseholes. This is where the online disinhibition effect comes in, which is a symptom of when you’re having an argument with someone online and you can’t see their face or body language. You say things which escalate in a way that wouldn’t happen in an argument with someone in a pub, because you can tell by the way they react to you and by their tone of voice that you might have said something a bit naughty and so you back off. But online you’re completely disinhibited because you don’t have the natural feedback.
LL In the past couple of years people have been caught and prosecuted for posting anti-establishment comments online. It’s like the internet hasn’t always been an
BH It has, because before the web we had online bulletin boards. There was a moment called the “Eternal September”, where basically for a couple of weeks every year in the early ’90s the internet would get a bit rubbish in September when the new students came online and they would fill up the newsgroups for a bit and be rude to everyone. Then, in the next couple of weeks, they would learn what was acceptable and what wasn’t and then it calmed down and became a nice free web again. It was like someone coming into a quiet dinner party and being a bit loud. Then, in September 1993, AOL users were allowed to access the wider net – they took down the paywall which meant all these AOL users flooded in. It was full of what we called newbies who didn’t know netiquette.
LL So was that when cyber-utopianism came to an end?
BH No, it’s not come to an end, it’s just become a little scarred. The original idea of cyber-utopianism was that you’d get everybody online, no matter who they were. It was just a meeting of pure intellect and, through this meeting of pure intellect, we’d be able to solve the world’s problems because we’d be unaffected by all that additional information that makes you discount opinion. In some ways I guess it’s still the case because you don’t have to be at Harvard to access a Harvard-level debate or at Westminster to talk about politics. No matter what you want to discuss, even if you’re one in a million that means there’s 2000 of you. So, on the one hand, there’s cyber-utopianism in the sense of bringing people together. But the idea that everyone is lovely to each other, like they’re part of some Californian Burning Man-style commune, that turned out not to be true of course.
LL I can’t see how the internet will remain positive if the communications data bill is made effective. What’s your take on that?
BH Disastrous. I don’t trust future governments. The successors of the politicians who put this in place might not be trustworthy. As a society, it would be stupid to build the infrastructure that could be used to oppress us. It just never works out well, because even if you’re using it for good stuff now, the fact that we don’t know who is going to be in charge in ten years’ time means that we shouldn’t give them free toys to play with.
LL The whole thing makes me feel like even the good people are being treated like bad people.
BH Yes, that’s a very subtle point about it; the thing with digital communication is that it doesn’t forget things. As young people, we undoubtedly said really stupid political things that we might not agree with now, but it doesn’t matter because it was never recorded. In the digital world, if you say something really stupid on Twitter, even if you delete it, it’s still there and always findable – especially if the government is recording it all. What that means from a national security point of view is that it’s basically impossible to change your mind. You could be incredibly radical when you’re 19 and calling for a revolution but never blow anything up. But if that goes down in some database somewhere, even if you change your mind and become an incredibly law-abiding citizen, and a glorious member of the society we live in, as far as that database is concerned, you’re still suspect. If you can never surrender then people who are genuinely radical have no way out of a situation they’ve signed themselves up to; the only way is to get more radical. It means that huge amounts of severity could be dealt out to people who have done something that is not yet illegal. Marijuana now is basically tolerated, but in ten years’ time they might turn completely against it because of some moral crisis and so they will say “Let’s find everyone who smokes dope and find their friends too”, and using keywords they would find anyone who has ever spoken about it online.
LL That’s a scary thought.
BH It is, but it’s still very early days for most people with technology. Most people have been online for less than 500 weekends. We’re just coming to a point where we’re beginning to understand how it works, and that’s the thing that gives me hope about this. That we will be able to understand and if we can understand stuff then we will be able to make better decisions.