Can we stop pretending that there ever was a golden age of the Internet? Even better, can we stop pretending that “something went wrong” with the Internet? Maybe, just maybe, it was always a little messed up.
I was one of those people who really believed that the explosive growth of the Internet and computer technology in the late 80s and early 90s was going to usher in a new form of public engagement and discourse. I saw technology as a way to connect us to one another. I envisioned it as part of an effort to breakdown the cultural barriers that had developed and, in many cases, ossified into our society.
I was wrong.
I was young, stupid, and far too full of my own perspective to look beyond my own nose and glasses 1. It was easy to see a utopia when I went online. After all, the people I was talking to were a lot like me. They all had a level of know-how and access provided to them by the very same barriers they imagined they were breaking down. My “utopia” was nothing more than a form of narcissism 2. Whenever I hear people pine for the “good old days of the Internet,” I remind myself that they were only good for those who had access.
So too, when I hear that the supposed “dream” of that early Internet was lost, I find myself rolling my eyes. We’ve mythologized our technology. This true for academics and technology specialists just as much as it is for the rest of society. We want to believe so desperately that this is all new that we raise digital technology up as a sort of mythological force or a modern day titan.
Depending on the day and who is talking, it is possible to believe that we have created our own salvation or written the very code of our destruction.
“It’s a revolution,” we say. “A disruption of the world order.”
But it’s not.
It’s not really new at all. Those problems that we’re (still) dealing with, they’ve been around for very, very, long time.
Digital technology is driven by the very same ideologies that drive the rest of our society. The digital texts and the constructions that these technologies form are then subject to the same rhetorical issues. We make a mistake when we disconnect technology from that broader interconnected context.
Nothing went wrong with the Internet. It is broken because it is part of the broken world in which we live.
You don’t fix the Internet.
You work to fix the world.
Unfortunately, I can say this about far too much of my late teens and twenties. Getting older has offered me a chance for greater wisdom (or so I like to think), but it has also given me many moments of chagrined reflection. ↩
Of course, it could be argued that most “utopias” or “heavens” are just narcissistic fantasies (source: someone who spent far too much of his childhood in a church pew). ↩