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The term “grey goo problem” was coined by nanotechnology pioneer K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation. It supposed a self-replicating nanobot going out of control and in a “sorcerer’s apprentice” way, recognizing NO stopping point for self-duplication. The Earth is left as a lifeless desert of “grey goo”, composed of the bodies of the nanobots.
This scenario joined the library of science fiction plots where it continues to appear. In 2004 he stated, “I wish I had never used the term ‘gray goo’.” He was probably conducting a form of due diligence by considering bad outcomes as well as good. As time has gone by, grey goo has been debunked as a concern in various ways (look it up if you are interested I’m not here to explore all that).
But there are other environments and other bots.
The Internet became a primary human environment at lightning speed, filling up with websites that represented more and more real societal institutions. Initially, they were mostly billboards for providing information. Gradually these online presences became interactive and even took over as the “real world”, the business end of everything. The isolation of solitary individuals running errands on the web protected society up to this point. That collapsed when we embraced social media and were reborn as mobs composed of socially isolated individuals.
This completely new incarnation of humanity had many easily exploited vulnerabilities.
- We were thin-skinned and easy to enrage to an extent that would require a physical attack to equal it in the 3d world. Like dogs in fenced yards, our rage was insane in a way we would instantly scale back if suddenly in the same room as our enemy. The earliest “flame-wars” were observed in email and were often set off by negative interpretations of completely neutral wording.
- In normal life we avoid mobs. In social media, you cannot be anywhere without a mob, it is mob based. Granted, the mob is mostly ditto-heads and 99 percent of social media “preaching” is to the choir.
- Our passion for moral denunciation has always been a human weakness, a shadow joy. Without face to face limits, and when surrounded by a like-minded hive mind, our public expression of contempt became a laser death ray aimed at those we disapproved of. Instantly willing to believe the worst of all opponents we were happy to body surf viral waves with little concern for factuality. We all thrill to being a part of the righteous hammer of justice when it is aimed the right way.
- It turns out that there is a giant, foul troll in the general human heart waiting only for freedom from responsibility and consequences. The horrible meanness we see monkeys commit against each other right out in the open is held in check in us by social inhibitions and social consequences. On the internet, Mr. Hyde is everywhere joyfully devouring the misery of strangers.
- I think there is an echo of this troll in our “morally superior outrage”. For sure, it is dressed in the clothing of morality and social good but it isn’t hard to spot Madame Defarge from “A Tale of Two Cities” knitting smugly beside the guillotine the names of people to be killed. The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, like Naziism, was not a freakish exception to human nature but a predictable outcome of certain conditions. Something as bad is always possible.
- The social media internet was already divisive simply by pandering to our opinions and concocting filter bubbles of social and political homogeneity, virtual “good neighborhoods” to live in full of “good neighbors”. These neighborhoods had enemies though, who threatened to believe and want different things. Before any bad intentions entered the scene you can imagine all this sorting by type as a way to prevent to whole structure from self-destructing in fury. I’ve often thought that a simple “Dislike” thumbs down button would swiftly destroy Facebook. We already knew that flame wars respected no social conventions or moderation. It’s no wonder the developers avoided direct conflict where possible. Yet the core of the business model was the human appetite for conflict. While appearing socially responsible, Facebook (and the other big SNs) became monsters, eating our outrage. Wild falsehoods were encouraged because they increased clicks. Responsibility was avoided because…MONEY.
Our political system as Americans was absurdly easy to take advantage of, we were primed to collapse. The addition of Russian war bots injecting poison everywhere throughout our system of information and communication became the grey goo death of trust and respect. That system of information became hostile to democracy itself, an impossible substrate for cooperation and forbearance. An electorate of trolls elected a troll king and exulted in his trollish victories.
To escape this we must not indulge every short term trollish pleasure. “The Character Issue”, long used as a measure of presidential candidates is mangled into nonsense and useless against troll voters. They laugh at good intentions. We must shoulder the character issue personally and resist the worst in ourselves hour by hour for months to come. It doesn’t mean stand down. It means we make every right decision required to win and then cross the finish line committed to destroying the profit model of social media. We can’t return to the past, it burns to ashes behind every step. We will need to innovate social media that is easy and rewarding but healthy, sustainable, and responsible. The easiest metaphor for the current system is a factory whose product, (not byproduct) is pollution itself, and the more toxic, the better.
The oldest wisdom about fighting trolls on the internet is “Don’t feed them”. They want you to believe that fighting with them will profit you. Ignoring them serves you because they gain power from conflict. I was right on the brink of a round of insults with some MAGA dude on Twitter the other day but just messaged him: “Don’t we both have better stuff to do today?” We all do.