I come from the internet. For close to 25 years it’s been where I’ve gotten a lot of my entertainment and done a lot of my communicating. For about the past 10 years it’s where I’ve made my living. I have a vested personal interest in how it’s regulated, or isn’t. As a result, I pay attention whenever changes get proposed and have put a lot of thought into a given proposal’s potential effects.
It’s political season! Well, considering the American news cycle, political season seems to be perpetual at this point. It seems like politicians are campaigning at all times these days. It’s a presidential election year, though, so the ads and discussions are more ubiquitous than normal at the moment. Those “discussions” are inescapable by anyone who uses social media or goes just about anywhere on the internet. Everyone seems to be talking about the longshot party outsiders who are somehow challenging the political machine. They’re all asking how this happened.
It’s not much of a mystery. They made it happen.
The internet has changed the way people get information and the way that information is served to them. It’s changed the way we talk to each other. I’ve touched on this before when I discussed the clicks for cash system the web economy works on. I’ve also talked about the echo chamber effect a little bit. I didn’t really talk much about the way social media and search results can create conversational whirlpools.
I put the word discussions in quotation marks above because most talk is in the form of image macros and news bites with the odd link to a news article or blog post. These are pieces of content that are easily shared, usually with a quickly typed comment along the lines of “this is the worst/best thing ever”. They make their way around the web quickly, showing up in one feed, then another, and another. There’s a reason this sort of content is referred to as viral. It spreads.
I avoid discussion of candidates I dislike because the internet has turned them into Dark Lords. To utter their name is to give them power. I don’t discuss the ones I like (there aren’t many. None of the frontrunners, actually) because the names of the opposition will invariably be brought up. And that will feed The Beast.
There are multiple factors that contribute to this shitstorm. If a lot of users search for a term, or a variation of a term, search engines notice. They’ll start to react by autocompleting users’ searches based on what other people have searched for and clicked on. This will make users more likely to wind up running the same searches and seeing the same results. The number of people who click on and interact with a page (I say interact because no one outside of Google knows exactly how the calculation is done) will have a positive effect on its rank in search results. To simplify — the more people who click on a page in search results, the more people the search engine will show that page to.
But, there’s more to it than that. Social media tailors content to users. Facebook and Twitter, even Google+ for all 37 of its users, serve advertisements to you based on what you write, share, Like, click on, retweet, or just keep on your screen for an especially long time. They’ll also default your feed to display related content posted by people in your network. Talk about tacos and you start seeing ads for Taco Bell and posts about all the time your buddy spent in the bathroom after eating too many burritos at lunch.
Search engines… you know what? Screw it. I keep typing out “search engines” but we all just use Google.
So. Google takes social media into account when serving search results. The number of people talking about a subject will increase its ranking in news results. Links shared on Facebook and Twitter positively effect the pages and sites they point to. Websites can see what’s trending and will then produce content on those subjects.
What we have is a terribly self-perpetuating cycle. Donald Trump announced his candidacy. All the news outlets and blogs wrote pieces on it, usually mockingly. People clicked on those stories, so they ranked above other candidates’ and were more likely to be seen. More people seeing them meant more people shared them. More shares and comments told content producers (at this point I just can’t think of them as news outlets) that people were interested in these stories, so they wrote more of them. Which effected Google results. The more of an asshole he made of himself the more he’s been talked about and the more his opponents’ results have been suppressed.
A similar effect can be seen on the left with Bernie Sanders. There were so many stories about how he had no chance that they increased his exposure to the point that he suddenly had one. The old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has been made even more true in this age of social and search engine news. The internet is, in some ways, the very worst kind of democracy. It reacts to the will of the people, often giving us what we hate or fear, not what we want it to. It’s like Gozer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. By thinking about it we may very well have collectively chosen the form of our destroyer.
*I’ve engaged in quite a bit of hyperbole in writing this post. It was fun! I’ve also simplified some complex stuff. Google’s algorithms take more than what I’ve discussed into account; quality of content, how often the host site is updated, how long the article is, and a ton of other factors. All of those being equal (or close enough to) search results and social media activity can have a very profound effect on what people see.
I planned to apply a more balanced set of memes and take some swipes at multiple candidates. The Trump macros were just so much better I couldn’t help myself. It probably has something to do with art students having a predilection for socialism.
Here’s an unpopular opinion. Please hold on to your torches and pitchforks until the end. I’m not convinced that global warming is a result of human action on the environment. Or that it’s necessarily even a Thing. I’ve seen a considerable amount of data that indicates our planet’s average temperatures are rising, but not enough to convince me it will be a permanent increase. I personally believe that we don’t have nearly enough information over a long enough period to say for sure. I find it to be entirely possible that our inherent humancentric view of the universe is leading us to blame ourselves for what may very well be completely natural.
Now, here’s the thing. I don’t think it matters. If there’s a possibility that our actions are causing our entire planet to heat up, why wouldn’t we take action? Especially if those actions make sense for our long-term welfare.
The most widely recognized cause of global warming is energy production through the burning of fossil fuels. Predictive models have indicated that our atmosphere will absorb the byproducts of all that burnt fuel and, effectively, cook the planet. Personally, I believe that there are far more variables than we could possibly account for and any predictions generated are incomplete. The closest we have to a solution is to find alternative energy sources.
Whether carbon emissions will have an enduring effect on global climate or not, we should be searching for new ways to generate power. The burning of oil, coal, and natural gasses is dirty. So is their collection, literally poisoning the ground and water where they are mined or tapped. Were we able to come up with a way to extract them from the ground in a 100% safe way there would still be the problem of the limited supplies. These things occur in nature, and we can’t create more for use in power generation. Creating synthetic versions requires energy, which needs to come from somewhere.
When I was a kid, nuclear fission was going to power the World of Tomorrow, at least until we figured out how to sustain a fusion reaction. But, thanks to a few disasters (who could have predicted that building a nuclear power facility in one of the most seismically active areas of the world could end poorly?) public sentiment has turned pretty strongly against the nuclear option.
The other option we heard a lot about was hydro-electric power generation. The problems with this have a lot to do with viability being based on local conditions; you need consistent running water to make it work. Large projects were commissioned and more than a few dams were built, causing new and exciting unforeseen ecological disasters. They’re also extremely expensive both to build and maintain. Anything that’s constantly exposed to water tends to be difficult to construct and rarely lasts very long.
Nowadays we’re hearing almost exclusively about solar and wind as the power sources of the future. Both generate “clean” energy. I use quotes, because the manufacture of the systems, and necessary power storage units, are anything but clean. Batteries wear out. What will our landfills look like in 50 years with half a century’s worth of spent batteries that powered our homes and vehicles buried in the ground? I struggle to think that they’ll be anything but toxic deadlands.
All this negative stuff I’m writing about shouldn’t lead you to believe I support continuing down the path we’re on. Far from it. I just get concerned when I hear people talk about these things like they’re solutions. They’re really not. They’re new stopgaps that will gain us more time to find truly sustainable methods of harvesting power.
Why bring up my doubts about global warming? Because, though I personally feel that current scientific leanings toward carbon emissions being a factor in climate change are correct, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the case. While I remain unconvinced, the greatest reason to move to something other than fossil fuels is the simplest. We’ll eventually run out. If you look at your refrigerator and see you’re running out of food, you don’t wait until it’s empty before going to the supermarket. At least you don’t if you’re a capable adult.
Our economic reliance on fuel, oil in particular, is not to be discounted. An overnight shift to an alternative energy source would shatter the world’s economy into a billion tiny pieces. Make no mistake. That’s not an argument against moving, it’s an argument to plan for that move. It’s an argument to wean ourselves off the teat.
It’s time to change what we’re doing. It’s time to pick up the pace. It’s time to stop arguing about the effects of our current energy usage on the environment and face up to the fact that even if burning oil cured leukemia and smelled like flowers WE DON’T HAVE AN INFINITE SUPPLY. It makes no difference if there’s a 10 year supply, 100 year supply, or 1000 year supply. It’s finite. We are going to run out. Reducing dependence will help, but it’s untenable. Particularly since we use oil for more than just fuel.
Petroleum distillates are used in a variety of applications as solvents and lubricants. In the United States, natural gas is used in the production of plastics instead of oil. The device I’m writing this on and the one you’re reading this on are both made largely of components that contain oil or natural gas. The wires carrying the data from my device to yours were coated in it. Hell, if you’re not concerned about pollution, or think we should wait to find an alternative way to power our world until after we’ve actually run out of our current fuel choices, just think about all the stuff you’ll be missing out on!
“But, gas prices are going down!” you cry, oh hypothetical reader. That has very little to do with how much oil is available in the ground. Actually, it has next to nothing to do with it. Oil prices have to do with how much is available right now along with current production levels, versus how much is being consumed. It doesn’t account for tapped out wells, because it can’t. We don’t know a well’s capacity until it stops producing, and by then it’s a little late. The professionals just make educated guesses, and the good guessers are paid very handsomely. (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, but I’ve gone 1000 words without being overly hyperbolic. Cut me some slack.) For all we know, every single oil well on the planet could run dry within 5 years. That’s remarkably unlikely (like, holy crap is that unlikely) but possible.
Can we please stop arguing about whether burning oil is effecting the environment? Please? We all admit that it’ll eventually run out. We all know it’s messy and destructive when we pull it out of the ground. No one wants to live next to a power plant and none of us like the smog produced by automobiles. So, let’s just table the human-caused climate change debate. Because it doesn’t matter. We’ve got enough reasons to move on.