@Horse_ebooks, and the internet we thought we knew

Earlier this year, I shared a silly observation about @Horse_ebooks on Twitter:

To explain @Horse_ebooks to someone who isn’t on Twitter, you must first invent the universe.

It was a joke, sure, but I’d been thinking about it for a while—ever since I had actually tried to explain the appeal of a Twitter account that appeared to be a weirdly prescient, occasionally hilarious spambot to a friend who (still) vehemently refuses to join the site.

If the public’s reaction to @Horse_ebooks being an elaborate “performance art” piece is any indication, Robinson Meyer is onto something when he describes it as the most successful piece of cyber-fiction, ever. It’s a work of fiction that’s inherently dependent upon understanding the network containing it, and even then—no guarantees. My Twitter timeline this week was a mix of confusion (People actually followed that thing?), dismissive non-surprise (Didn’t everyone think it was a person? I did), and a decent amount of genuine disappointment.

Meyer describes our sadness about the Horse news as being about a loss of innocence, and a desire to believe that we were always the ones in control:

We believed we were watching the digital work mutter happily to itself about us, its anxious masters. Maybe the digital world was trying to sell us something, too, but its method of doing so was so blissfully ignorant, so warmly earnest, somehow, that we obliged. We loved @horse_ebooks because it was seerlike, childlike.

But no: There were people behind it all along. We thought we were obliging a program, a thing which needs no obliging, whereas in fact we were falling for a plan.

He sees this as a sign of the account’s success as a work of fiction and he may be right, but I can’t help seeing it as a metaphor for our relationship with the Internet at large right now. We thought we were…obliging a thing which needs no obliging, whereas in fact we were falling for a plan.We, tech savvy folk that we are, assumed we had all of this figured out. Gmail gives us free email in exchange for selling ads next to what we’re reading; Facebook lets us update our friends and share our vacation photos in exchange for selling us ads, etc.

If you’re not paying for a service, you’re what’s being sold.

How comfortable you were with that aphorism dictated the extent to which you used those services or platforms, how you configured your privacy settings, and what you shared with whom.

Now, of course, it’s become apparent that there were parties in this social contract that we weren’t aware of—the NSA may not be reading our personal emails any more than Google is, but it appears they’ve had access all along. One needn’t be particularly familiar with dystopian fiction to find this notion a bit unsettling. Like Google offering us email in exchange for serving up “contextually relevant” advertising, the government offers us national security, in exchange for unfettered access to our personal communications. While it’s not entirely clear exactly how the NSA collects our data, the current understanding seems to be that this isn’t a matter of superior cryptography skills and computing power, but rather that these breaches are more a matter of the government flexing its Patriot Act muscles.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Maybe we only have part of the story. Maybe this is the cost of doing business in the 21st century. Maybe this is making us safer and it’s a small price to pay.

Even if all of those things are true, I suspect it is also true that for many of us, our fundamental understanding of the Internet has shifted. When the biggest “threat” to our Utopian ideal of the Internet was commercial interests, it was easier to believe that we were still in control. There were always options: ad-blocks and opt-outs and ultimately, leaving platforms all together. In fact, the very notion that something new and better is about to jump out around the next corner seems core to how we understand the Internet today. When it’s always expanding, the stakes lower. Someday, we’ll all be sharing our personal lives on the new Facebook or Twitter, just like we joined those services as we left MySpace and LiveJournal behind.

Now it seems the stakes have changed all together. When Facebook misreads my data and starts serving me ads targeted at new parents, it’s mostly comical, if perhaps a little existentially stressful. If the government misreads my data, the possible consequences are entirely different—and short of leaving the internet, there doesn’t seem to be a way to opt out.

The trade offs used to be obvious. Put up with a few spam tweets and the occasional ad from Twitter, and you got to see what that absurd Horse came up with next. Maybe @Horse_ebooks delighted us because it’s become hard to entertain the notion that we can get some measure of joy and delight from the Internet without strings attached. As Dan Sinker so eloquently describes, we wanted to believe that this was our million monkeys, writing a new Shakespeare. We thought we knew what we were getting, but we really didn’t at all.

We’ve always been so aware of the strings all around us, but now it’s starting to seem like there really is a web, tying all of these platforms and services together, making the Internet feel like an increasingly closed-off space, instead of an ever expanding universe. It’s not necessarily that the deck was stacked, though in the case of our Internet privacy, it’s certainly starting to seem that way—it’s that we were playing the wrong game, by an entirely different set of rules, and someone else has been playing it better.

STARS STARS STARSyoung watermelon.

This post originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project, thanks to Mat Marquis.