The Digital Climate is Changing, Too

And it ain’t lookin’ so pretty.

Forest fire ravaging a hillside

There’s this feeling I’ve been noodling on for a while, but didn’t quite have the words for until now. An unpleasant malaise, I guess you could say, about the state of the internet. About AI, and the future of social media, and the dilapidation of search, and the potential impending irrelevance of the website itself.

Then I saw this tweet earlier, and it all clicked.

Screenshot of the referenced tweet, in which user @nilansaha posts a video of his AI commenting tool and writes, "I have created a monster 🤯” and “engaging has never been easier.”

The tweet, from the maker of a service called Magicreply, features a video of someone scrolling a LinkedIn feed and commenting on a handful of posts. But instead of typing out those replies (as, you know, a normal human is apt to do), the user simply clicks a buttonand an entire, ready-to-post comment appears instantly. 

The tweet also boasts, “I have created a monster 🤯” and “engaging has never been easier.”

Barf.

In case it’s not clear what’s going on here, this tech bro has created a service that uses AI to automatically reply to social media posts for you — no brain cells required. This low-effort, high-volume spam generator is what finally congealed the vaguely gelatinous thoughts sloshing around in my head of late.

Just as our planet is at risk of dying an early death at the hellish hands of humankind, so too is our virtual earth away from Earth — the internet.

My first reaction to the above tweet was a well-deserved eye roll. But then it struck me that the reality is far worse: this is yet another form of toxic digital pollution. A slow but steady drip of poison into an already unclean, but so far still life-sustaining, social media ocean.

It’s a hot topic in the digisphere right now, the slow rot of the “internet as we know it”. Tech-focused outlets like 404 Media and Platformer have been reporting on it extensively, from the spam-driven decay of Google search results to the deepfakes plague threatening our very social contract.

You’ve probably felt it yourself lately — remember Googling something recently, only to find yourself wading through suspiciously-written junk articles devoid of any sign of actual authorship? Did grandma repost that cute puppy image on Facebook that was clearly AI-generated? Have you stopped reading comments on Twitter posts because every reply seems like low-effort reply-guy garbage?

When examined in isolation, these various issues seem annoying at best, and potentially consequential to their respective platforms at worst. But considered as a whole, it’s clear we have a much bigger problem at hand.

Going back to its origins, the very purpose of the internet was connection: near-instantaneous communication between geographically separated people. Slowly expanding beyond its academic and governmental walls, the World Wide Web was born. And with it, a sense of community. Of openness. Of unfettered access to the world’s collective knowledge.

Those roots still permeate today’s web — although we (us, humans, stewards of the internet) seem as hellbent on desecrating it as we do our physical world. The aforementioned auto-comment tool that triggered this whole epiphany is just one small example. Deepfakes, SEO spam, social media bots — they are all symptoms of a larger shift in the digital climate. But what do they have in common? Artificial intelligence.

Bouncing back to the real world, we know today what the fossil fuel companies have known since the 70s: that our carbon emissions are drastically heating our planet and putting our climate at great risk. The same is happening online as we speak, and AI is the petroleum we can’t seem to stop pumping out of the ground. 

At the current rate, the web is destined to turn into a bleak badlands of bots blathering at each other in perpetuity —while authentic, human-made content become valuable relics of the past, buried beneath the sands of time.

We can intervene, of course. We can still save our internet, just as we can still save our planet. But it’s going to take swift and drastic action to stop the onslaught of AI-powered pollution. While I have rudimentary ideas on internet governance and tech regulation and other things that might help alleviate the issue, I won’t pretend I’m smart enough to have any answers here. But I do know that the time to sound the alarm is now.

If we don’t do something to reverse course, I genuinely worry that the World Wide Web as we know it will soon cease to exist. And while I am acutely aware that none of this matters if we can’t reverse actual climate change, I also can’t help but highlight the stark similarities between these two impending human-made disasters.

So, this is as much a personal musing as it is a public SOS. We have to protect the best of humanity, this great digital equalizer, from the worst of humanity (or lack thereof).

Artificial intelligence is the suffocating carbon in our virtual atmosphere, and we have to clean up our act — or there soon won’t be an open internet left for any of us.