on 21 October 2013
Untangling the Web is a timely and detailed account of how the internet is changing us, and what we can do about it.
The book makes very good points about the different identities we have online, and also about the way things are changing as the anonymity of the early days of the web gets eroded, and past identities become harder to erase. It's great on the privacy implications of the web, how much people share online and how much other information can easily be discovered. And there's also a good discussion of the way the internet filters what you see based on the information that companies are building up based on your past usage:
"The commercial services that dominate the digital world - the Googles and the Facebooks - are trying to keep us brand-loyal by delivering services that meet our needs, so they confirm our biases by telling us things that we already want to hear."
This is a fascinating area, covered in more detail by Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble. If you and I both Google "climate change", we'll get different results, and the results we see will likely reinforce our existing opinions. While it makes sense for the search companies to try to make our results more relevant, you can see the dangers of such an approach. As Krotoski puts it, "The vast ocean of information online is increasingly navigated by packs of like-minded people who really only see a little slice of what is available on the web." I'm not sure what a slice of an ocean looks like, but you get the point.
Krotoski returns to the point in a later chapter looking at extremism. The effect of what she calls "cyberbalkanization" is often pluralistic ignorance - the belief that everyone else thinks as we do. This is reinforced by the tribes of self-reinforcing believers that spring up, and can lead to more extreme views, as you are influenced by those around you.
The main strength of Untangling the Web is that it presents very serious, sometimes terrifying information, but never becomes hysterical or deliberately ratchets up the fear. Instead, she usually presents us with something we can do about it, or a reason why it doesn't matter so much. Krotoski wants to show us the effects of the internet, not to scare us with a doomsday scenario, but to enable us to take control of it and make it better.
For example, she tells us about "cyberchondria", the tendency for people to self-diagnose on the internet and make a headache into a brain tumour. Then she gives the more disturbing example of online support communities normalising self-destructive behaviour, such as the pro-ana community which "exacerbates the eating disorder anorexia nervosa by giving its members a place to share anything from tips and tricks for hiding weight loss from loved ones or doctors to `thinspiration' photos of emaciated women." But then she balances this out with an account of some of the positive effects of providing more trusted health information on the internet.
For a book that professes to untangle the web, the organisation is not always very easy to follow. The overall four-section structure makes sense: "Untangling Me" is about our own minds and bodies, "Untangling Us" looks at family and friendship, "Untangling Society" examines the larger social implications, and "Untangling the Future" is about future directions. But the trouble is that there's a lot of overlap in these categories - it's hard to separate out . The result is that things sometimes get a bit tangled. I should confess, though, that it might be me - I read this book on Kindle, and have noticed that I've had similar trouble with a few non-fiction e-books lately. No idea why, but it seems harder to keep track of the structure than it is with paper books.
The other problem I had with the book was the occasional use of the "straw man" technique, presenting breathless newspaper headlines as the representative of criticisms or fears over the web's influence, and then arguing that things are not that bad. For example:
"A headline you read on the front page screaming "Internet `terror breeding ground'" is actually terrifying. It implies that the web eradicates morality. But how real is this threat? Or is it just tapping into a public fear in order to sell copies?"
To me, this misses the point. Yes, of course tabloid headlines are sensationalist and over-hyped, but what about more intelligent critiques? Wouldn't it be more interesting to engage with them?
A similar thing happens sometimes with books, for example Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, in which apparently "he says we're using our minds less than ever before because it's so easy to find information". That wasn't the book I remember reading at all - I thought he was saying that the way we use our minds on the internet is different, and leads to different patterns of thought - more attuned to finding information quickly, and less attuned to deep reading and contemplation. Things like that chipped away at my trust of the author's judgement, and made me question whether the representations of other books or arguments were accurate.
Despite these reservations, though, I'd definitely recommend reading Untangling the Web. It's a lively and interesting introduction to the huge range of changes that are happening as we shift from a predominantly private to an increasingly public way of life. Despite the way the cover shouts "What the internet is doing to YOU", the author presents a balanced view and never subscribes to hyperbole or fear-mongering. Her ultimate philosophy is that we shouldn't be scared of the internet, but should be aware of what is going on and take control of it ourselves:
"The problem we're grappling with is that we are too tangled up in the web, experiencing the social and psychological evolutions as they happen. We're so fearful of what it will do to us and our institutions, that we forget that we have the power to shape it ourselves."