Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Internet: Idealism And Unintend Consequences

Evgeny Morozov gives a history lesson of the Web and declares that it is "a utopia no longer."

The people who "founded" or "created" the internet fell into two camps:  engineers and cheerleaders.  The engineers seem to combine hippie and communitarian streams of thought.  They may have been a bit naive.
But studying the history of the internet is impossible without studying the ideas, biases, and desires of its early cheerleaders, a group distinct from the engineers. This included Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow, and the crowd that coalesced around Wired magazine after its launch in 1993. They were male, California-based, and had fond memories of the tumultuous hedonism of the 1960s.
These men emphasised the importance of community and shared experiences; they viewed humans as essentially good, influenced by rational deliberation, and tending towards co-operation. Anti-Hobbesian at heart, they viewed the state and its institutions as an obstacle to be overcome—and what better way to transcend them than via cyberspace? Their values had profound effects on the mechanics of the internet, not all of them positive. The proliferation of spam and cybercrime is, in part, the consequence of their failure to predict what might happen as a result of the internet’s open infrastructure. The first spam message dates back to 1978; now, 85 per cent of all email traffic in the world is spam. [emphasis mine]
 As the last sentence in the prior quotation illustrates, freedom has some unintended consequences.  There were of course others.
While we are being empowered as consumers, we are simultaneously being disempowered as citizens, something that the cyber-libertarian digital prophets didn’t foresee. “Electronic town halls” never took off either. When Barack Obama tried to hold one shortly after being elected president, the most popular question posed to him concerned the legalisation of mari-juana. The internet does not and cannot replace politics—it augments and amplifies it. The Tea Party in the US does not limit its activism to social media, but uses it as part of a broader political campaign. Politics is still primary and technology secondary.
However, one set of intermediaries may well be on the decline—print media—which has been quickly jettisoned by the younger generation. Search engines and social networking sites hold as much power today as newspapers and radio stations did three decades ago. The fact that they prefer to disguise their editorial practices in the form of nominally objective algorithms doesn’t make them any less political and influential. [emphasis mine.]
As with almost any situation, the second generation must determine how to proceed.
The founding fathers of the internet had laudable instincts: the utopian vision of the internet as a shared space to maximise communal welfare is a good template to work from. But they got co-opted by big money, and became trapped in the self-empowerment discourse that was just an ideological ruse to conceal the interests of big companies and minimise government intervention.
The current state of affairs is not irreversible. We still have some privacy left and internet companies can still be swayed by smart regulation. But we need to stop thinking of the internet as a marketplace first and a public forum second. What is long overdue is a fundamental reconsideration of the primacy of the internet’s civic and aesthetic dimensions. It’s time to decide whether we want the internet to look like a private mall or a public square. [emphasis mine]

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