Further Down the Road towards a Less Human Web

I guess what I’m saying is: thanks, I hate it. Give me context; give me nuance; give me the ability to think for myself. We built the world’s most incredible communication and knowledge-sharing medium, rich with diverse perspectives and alternative ideas; let’s not sanitize it through a banal filter that is designed to strip it of its humanity.

--Ben Werdmuller, "Stripping the web of its humanity"

Not long ago at work, I made a passing comment to my teammates that the internet was humanity's best idea, but that we have been actively mucking it up for the last two decades or so. That was a bit of an overstatement on my part (after all, humanity did just fine without the web for thousands of years). But I do think the web, at its core, is still a great idea. As a tool, it enables knowledge sharing, especially for those who would historically have been less privileged; it bolsters the global economy and has helped us to grow in ways we could only dream of a century ago; it allows for an openness to the experience of others outside our immediate communities.

So, humanity's best idea? Probably not, but I still think it's up there in terms of potential.

My concern, however, is that we genuinely are mucking it up, and two new forms of technology -- one software, one hardware -- were released last week that only serve to confirm my feelings.

The first is Arc Search. Arc is a new-ish internet browser company that really is doing new and interesting things for browsing the web. I haven't incorporated the Arc browser into my life much because my work life revolves so much around Chrome. But when I use Arc I find it pretty interesting and fun.

The idea behind Arc Search, however, is disappointing. Arc says of Arc Search:

Browses for you. For any search, tapping Browse for Me will scour the web, read multiple pages, and build you the perfect tab - already a fan favorite.

I can't even read those words without feeling bummed. In my mind, that's not what the web or search on the web is for. This is inevitable given the incorporation of LLMs in other search engines. But I don't want a search for something to result in a machine browsing for me and creating a bespoke web page for me that reduces the possible pages I might come across into a single, condensed page. The fun of surfing in the early aughts was stumbling upon things that you weren't necessarily looking for. And this whole concept of AI search not only relegates the fun part of search to a machine, you also don't get to choose where that condensed information is even coming from. It's chosen for you, and it's not even curated by a human being!

The second is the new Apple Vision Pro. I'm not a reviewer of this product. I haven't touched one in person. I have seen several videos, watched the keynote, seen the product's capabilities, etc. Listen, it looks like a very interesting technological leap forward. Or as Marques Brownlee puts it in his video, it's tomorrow's technology with today's hardware. And honestly, this is the technology that Marvel (Tony Stark) and Minority report somewhat predicted in the last two decades.

But watching and reading reviews, where the people using the Vision Pro are immersed in a digital world is also, well, a bummer. Many folks are predicting that the headset will continue to get smaller and smaller over the next decade so as to be more discrete. The fact that this model is a "Pro" implies a non-pro, less expensive option is in the works. So it will be more widely available in the near future.

But practically, what does this mean? Well, we know what it means, because we already have a model from smartphones on how we progress in our use of it. First it will be sparse, then more and more folks will use it until it's ubiquitous -- a "necessity" for work, then we won't be able to imagine entertainment without it either.

But at the end of this, we'll see that our interactions with this technology remove or degrade social bonds, because the underlying premise is that I am immersing myself in this digital world, separate from my family and friends and the people around me. I am in some sense escaping (or at least augmenting) actual, objective reality because actual, objective reality is no longer enough.

I don't want to be a doomer about all this. My career currently requires a lively internet, and probably will flourish under this new technological landscape if I stick to digital marketing.

But damn if it isn't sad. These were the two top stories last week. AI has been on our societal brain for the last couple of years. We knew Apple was working on this for a while, and it came out and there is tons of hype.

And all I can see is a bleaker, less human web.

Tagged: technology, open web, EST,