McAdams On: The Curse of Instancy

The Internet Age is one of instant reactivity. There’s no need for patience any longer; no need for deliberation. Now we can do things like crash the market with a keystroke and then watch it happen in real time.

It was numbing yesterday to watch the market once again fall off of a cliff. The Dow Jones lost nearly 1,000 points. Something about Greeks apparently receiving the government pensions of great aunts. Once the slide started, money moved en masse from tech stocks to gold, firearms, bottled water and night-vision goggles.

The reactivity phenomenon applies to almost anything on the Internet. Nothing encourages impulse buying like a broadband connection. Proponents of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan endlessly plug its supposed economic beneficence, but who knows how many bankruptcies, mortgage defaults and how much just plain overspending it encourages?

This is not proffered as an argument against the hallowed broadband plan, but come on. Some of those extolled small businesses are the modern-day snake oilers who can now gain direct access into someone’s checking account. They all know most of us are doing at least two or three things simultaneously while we’re online. And that reading fine print typically isn’t one of them. A huge amount of revenue is undoubtedly generated through buried “membership” or “automatic renewal” sign-ups that take an act of God and at least three payments to cancel.

There are laws against false advertising in general, but the ’Net takes it to a new level with these kind of schemes. Instead of going after Comcast for throttling, the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission ought to do something about terms-and-conditions statements. They should all be limited to 400 words by law, though the commission should start at two because it will have to negotiate away the other 398.

Few people have the time and fewer still the law degree to parse terms and conditions. The very nature of the Internet is one of immediacy. Sometimes the immediacy is in opposition to accuracy. We all get the e-mails about rip-offs, exotic cancers, heart-attack symptoms, inaccurate mean-spirited political rants and erroneous slander. We get them because there’s some sort of default in the collective subconscious that if something’s in typeface, it must be true.

Correlatively, if lardcicles were offered for sale in typeface, people would buy them.

I’ve certainly stepped in the goo of inaccuracy in the name of immediacy. Nothing means as much as getting it right--except for getting it out. In my case, however, there’s no one else to blame. It makes “breaking news” into a double entendre.

The traditional form of “breaking news” is an artifact of the days when newspapers were printed in the middle of the night and three TV news operations competed. Breaking news is now more pandemic than breaking. It heads out over the Internet the way stories used to once go out over wire systems. The difference is, wires had a procedure for corrections before something made it into typeface.

The Internet has replaced wire services and given everyone contributory access. Consequently, there’s so much information out there, it’s impossible to fully comprehend all of it. The only thing we can control is our reactivity. Unless we’re heavily invested in tech stocks and short on gold.