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1:55 AM
> Some say that the medium in which these things happened is like a road, neutral to its uses—but roads are not neutral spaces, and neither is the internet.
[...]
This is not an argument that we should license internet use. It’s pointing out that roads are not nearly as neutral as we all too often pretend. We set much lower speed limits around schools; we paint lines to indicate where passing is permitted and where it is not; we hire police officers and judges to penalize those who disregard the rules. Nothing about a road is neutral except for the raw material itself.
I mostly agree with this; certainly it is true that culture tends to bend around what technology allows, regardless of what purpose it was meant to serve. Indeed, history is full of examples of this, and archaeological evidence suggests countless more examples have been lost to time.
We are fortunate to be in a position not only to build things that have such effects, but to be able to observe their use and adjust their designs to encourage more of what we consider virtuous. And if this is all the author intended, then I wholly agree with the sentiment.
Something in the text gnaws on me though, creeping in throughout the prose but exemplified by the analogy in the second paragraph I quoted. Roads do indeed encourage specific uses over others, and we do indeed have quite a lot of rules for their use and penalties associated with their misuse... But the former does not always follow from the latter.
Take speed limits: on many roads, they are routinely violated; indeed, it is not hard to find roads where anyone driving at or below the speed limit is an outlier and perhaps even a danger to others. The road itself encourages behavior that conflicts with the rules we try to impose on it.
The intent may have been to reduce the danger of driving on them, but rarely is this reflected in the actual construction of the road, and evidence suggests that as we built better roads and better cars we inadvertently encouraged the exact opposite of the behavior our rules purported to.
Aside: lane-markers provide an example of just how hard it is to intentionally design an object to encourage a desired behavior. Although these lines are intended to help drivers avoid colliding with each other, recent evidence suggests that in some cases they may actually encourage behavior that is considerably more dangerous than that which would exist without them: focused only on staying within the lines, drivers tend toward excessive speed and devote less attention to other drivers.
Online communities are merely the latest battleground in the age-old war between the notions of natural law and human law, between the struggle to understand the forces which act upon and within us and the march to impose new constraints to do the same. Of course, our tendency to create the latter may well be an example of the former, and anyone who has been tasked with building machinery to comply with government regulations knows well the folly of ignoring either.
Twitter has made something of a show recently of trying to rein in some of the more vile tendencies that have grown up within their communities, the most visible of these efforts being to penalize certain individuals who've made a name for themselves by attacking others.
But the bigger changes (albeit more subtle) have been to the behavior of the system itself: changes to blocking, highlighting, reporting, even "liking" will all have some (as-yet mostly unknown) effect on the uses that it is put to.
Twitter affords escalation.
The changes to Twitter "law" and its enforcement were a necessary show of good-faith to those who cried out in anger at the blind eye that had been for so long turned toward abuse, but ultimately this is an empty gesture unless the uses the system affords alter to support them; otherwise, like the road-makers who build the wide, smooth, straight road that urges drivers to push their vehicles to the limit, they will find their passive laws unheard and unheeded.
The inventors of the plow could not have foreseen much less direct the grip cultivation would come to have on humanity over the millenia. The architects of lane-markers had no doubt the best of intentions and no reason to suspect their efforts would ever be counter-productive. But once realized, those ideas quickly left the control of their architects, those effects long outlasting their creators' time of influence.
It is our duty to remember that we are not gods, able to bend others to our will; we are not even legislators, commanding an army with a pen... We are mostly (and primarily!) tool-makers, and should strive to make tools that will be put to good use, observing their effects in order to build better replacements when and while we are yet privileged to do so.
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