The Year in Suck #2: Cyber soreheads
They took the free goodies of tech -- and then bitched it wasn't enough
[This final week of 2022 we’re ringing out the old in five installments. Monday we had #5, in which rightwingers and prestige media cheered for a “red wave” that never arrived, and Tuesday we had #4, about how the “People’s Convoy” showed the limits of bullshit populism; Wednesday’s #3 was about conservatives getting back into homophobia.]
It is amazing to contemplate that, back at the turn of the century, all but the Unabomber Luddites among us were happy to belong to an age of technological wonders — personal computers, mobile phones that did more than phone calls, and most especially the internet.
There were some glitches and hiccups — for example, the hubris cataclysm that was the Dot Com Bust, and various media scares about the threat to privacy via data surveillance by both the government (in the new era of the Patriot Act and “total information awareness”) and from marketers who were just learning how to exploit consumer information, and to decency via “cyberporn” (“Can we protect our kids – and free speech?”).
But over time people stopped worrying about those things, because the benefits of this big, lush alternate universe were found to outweigh the downsides, especially for people who weren’t doing so hot in the non-alternative universe.
Sure, some big players lost their shirts when that first tech bubble burst — ha ha, Pets.com; who’d want to use the internet to buy pet food? — but most of us hadn’t had anything to invest and were OK, and besides, venture capitalists were still getting into tech stuff, surely they’d do it right this time and build big tech empires from which all of us would benefit.
And as to the bugbears, for most of us it was like Scott MacNealy said: We had zero privacy anyway and it was time to get over it. After all, what were we in danger of losing? Our reputations? Most of us didn’t have reputations, not the way rich people and politicians did. And we were hastily assured, not just by tech guys but also by banks, that our financial data was safe — well, maybe not safe from demographic scraping, but from theft as we understood it; that is, nobody was going to drain cash from our bank accounts — and that was all we cared about. Facebook wants my life story? If that’s the price of admission to a world where I can know what my far-flung relatives are up to without actually having to talk to them, it’s worth it. Twitter has terms of service? Who cares, look, I’m telling the Secretary of Defense to his virtual face to suck my dick — this is so much better than letters to the editor!
As for cyberporn, America spoke decisively: Bring it on! Those who had kids could use child-proof thingamabobs to protect them, and if that didn’t work, well, they’d figure it out, and really who cared — look at all that sweet grade-A porn, all free, and one didn’t have to risk being seen by friends ducking in the door of some triple-X joint to look at it. It’s net-nut!
I’m sure you smart people can find reams of critical writing from the past quarter-century about the grave moral problem with the unbounded growth of infotech and the internet — how people were all hunched over their phones instead of turning their faces up to the warm sunshine, and marketers were scavenging our personal information, and the government could geolocate us (though why they’d bother was, for most of us, a mystery), and how porn had made us all sybarites and turned us away from God, and how online life had deadened our senses to the joys of real life…
...which, come to think of it, had never been great for a whole lot of people. The funny/sad truth is, the alleged victims of tech had not been conned into abandoning real life — they just preferred the new simulacrum. Go on and give ‘em the Brave New World speech; for most people soma and feelies are a vast improvement on what they had before, and lectures aren’t going to convince them otherwise.
No, that wasn’t the problem that we find ourselves facing today. That problem is simply this: Having gotten everything they asked for from technology, and having given next to nothing in return, some Americans (mostly Republicans) have nonetheless decided it was a bum deal and are mad about it.
Or, to put it another way, the most demanding and complaining people in America (again, mostly Republicans) feel the contract they signed with the future should be voided because they don’t like the way the future they bargained for turned out.
It’s not the loss of their privacy — which, like the rest of us, they freely signed away — that they’re mad about. Oh, sure, they may bitch about it, and at the prodding of Republican operatives go “yeah, yeah, invasion of my privacy, rhubarb rhubarb” — but it’s not their real complaint. What they’re really mad about is that the people they came online to bitch at have the right to talk back to them.
Sure, they can go online and defend police violence and deride minorities and call for the banning of women’s rights — but the police reformers and minorities and women can pitch it back at them, often in greater numbers, and usually with sharper wit.
Imagine how that must sting! And if these enraged citizens should respond to this insolence with hate speech, death threats, or other shit that violates the terms of service (a phrase that conservatives reflexively block out, like “Civil Rights Act”) of whatever social media platform they’re using and get them thrown out — well, that’s not, as logic and law would suggest, tough titty, that’s censorship, see.
And that’s why they’re pushing for frankly absurd Congressional investigations and laws to fix it so they can say what they want wherever they want to whomever they want, irrespective of any property rights or even personal rights as may be held by the people they disagree with, because to observe such rights is an intolerable infringement. As Adam Serwer recently explained:
Right-wing objections are not about the platforms’ tremendous power, which is a genuine concern with no simple solutions. What the right wants is uninhibited control over platforms where it can influence nonconservatives. If the platforms remained as powerful and influential as they are now, and simply did everything conservatives told them to do, there would be no demands to regulate social media like telegraph wires.
Serwer adds, “Which is why the right celebrated when Elon Musk bought Twitter,” and chronicles that rich buffoon’s whole insane transformation of Twitter into his personal grudge service center under the cover of free speech advocacy. Musk is popular with those people because his folly is their wish fulfillment: He, and they, would rather wreck that platform, and every platform, than see people they hate given an even shake on it, because they know if their nemeses were given such a shake, and they themselves were to be judged by their merits, they might never rise above the status of rag-picker.
Though the arena of their bitchery is modern, the people who go for it — the weird Elon nerds, the Gab and Truth Social and other rightwing social media soreheads who are mad they can’t dominate liberals in every part if the internet they choose to occupy and want their dominance written into law, the rightwing propagandists who know that the best way to rile their base is with resentment and if that resentment is unjustified so much the better — are of an ancient and depressingly common species of American shitheel, the online heirs of Flem Snopes and Pap Finn: People who got what they paid for but think they deserve more just because they are who they are — people whom, as Wilhoit’s Law dictates (and it keeps proving true), the law protects but does not bind.