In Neal Stephenson’s newest book, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel, the protagonist Richard “Dodge” Forthrast uses the phrase “The Miasma” to refer to the collection of technology that we commonly call “The Internet.”
When I first came across the phrase, I said out loud, “Brilliant.”
I was poking around on the Miasma this morning looking for a reference to this and found this Slashdot post about an interview with Stephenson from PC Magazine.
Q: How would you describe the current state of the internet? Just in a general sense of its role in our daily lives, and where that concept of the Miasma came from for you.
Neal Stephenson: I ended up having a pretty dark view of it, as you can kind of tell from the book. I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off. We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.
The result is the situation we see today where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint… I sort of was patting myself on the back for really being on top of things and predicting the future. And then I discovered that the future was way ahead of me. I’ve heard remarks in a similar vein from other science-fiction novelists: do we even have a role anymore?
I’ve spent the past year struggling with the Miasma. I’ve deliberately disengaged from some of it through deleting my Facebook account, limiting my Twitter usage to broadcast only, and trying to use LinkedIn in a productive way even though the UX seems to be set up to purposely inhibit you from using it in a way that doesn’t suck you into the LI vortex. I’ve stopped going to websites online proactively, have unsubscribed to everything except for a limited number of technology-oriented newsletters, and only read the articles that I click through to. I get summaries of what is going on daily through Techmeme’s newsletter, have a set of specific search filters set up in Google Alerts, and scan blogs I’ve subscribed to via Feedly. I try to never, ever, go to news.website.com (whenever I am bored and feel like doing this, I do ten situps instead.)
But the Miasma is still – well – the miasma. The relevant definition, if you don’t know it, is:
an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt
a dangerous, foreboding, or deathlike influence or atmosphere
While I was reading Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record, he reflected on the joy of interacting with the Internet of his youth, which was the Internet from the mid-1990s. He remembers it as an idealized thing that has now become completely and totally corrupted.
When I described this to Amy, she responded with a magnificent rant that was something like “this is a romanticized utopian ideal about a thing that was inhabited by socially inhibited, white male nerds who consider themselves too smart to be misogynistic but, well, often are.”
The Miasma is a mess. It’s always been a mess. And it will always be a mess. Figuring out how to find beauty, usefulness, and joy in the mess is the opportunity. I’ve been thinking about that more lately and have a few ideas I’m going to play around with.