What Can’t the Internet Do?

Posted Musings

As a rhetorical question, it’s certainly fitting. It feels like the internet can achieve anything. But if you’re really asking, one thing immediately springs to mind: the internet cannot censor itself.The web is a pretty amazing place for discovering info. Between Google search, Wikipedia or simply asking your friends and followers on social media a question, information is readily available.

Ignorance is (occasionally) bliss

But what about when we don’t want to know something?  Info just keeps coming, like a tsunami of knowledge. You have to unplug completely to avoid data, which shouldn’t be necessary. Why should our options be limited to all or nothing?

Facebook’s Newsfeed is trying very hard to anticipate what we’d like to see, but the algorithm needs to put as much emphasis on what isn’t. Imagine if a status update about starting a diet removed all traces of junk food related imagery and copy while showing us a search of healthy eating related content? Google is working towards contextual results: the perfect search results, tailored to the individual. It would be great of this notion of a bespoke online experience extended to more than just search results. You have safe search, which is a form of editing, albeit limited to results of a NSFW variety. But the ability to shape your online experience to avoid things you dislike, permanently or temporarily, is sorely lacking.

Spoiler Alert

What if you haven’t seen the finale of How I met Your Mother and want to avoid any mention of it? What if you’ve just broken up and need a break from anything remotely related to romance and relationships? Maybe you’re dieting and need to resist temptation by reducing exposure to food porn. Or the site of #yetanotherridiculoushashtag is going to make you give up on the human race altogether. Or you’re a Dutch maths teacher threatening an unruly class with revealing the next major character to die on Game of Thrones if they don’t sit down and shut up? There’s a theme here, but these all present unique problems in qualifying criteria and how the internet as whole would go about avoiding them for you, because they could all feasibly be happening simultaneously.

This sort of voluntary head in the sand decision making happens all the time in our analogue lives. People consciously and subconsciously avoid topics every day. Surely our online life should be just as customisable? One burgeoning solution is a service called Rather, a browser plugin that claims it will either mute certain topics from your Facebook and Twitter feeds, or replace them with content more suited to your tastes. So you can swop all those pictures of babies out for Ryan Gosling memes.

That’s a great start, but ideally the solution is more entrenched than browser plugins. If the internet can do anything, knowing what we want to see is as much understanding our  interests as it is the things that we want to avoid.