Posted on 2024-03-02

Read Time: 4 minutes | 688 words

Dialogues between Imaginaries

Early imaginaries in Internet culture often reflected a sort of liberatory, quasi-libertarian, ideal. The idea that computers and the Internet could be used to empower individuals outside of a reliance on governments or corporations. We see this reflected in many of the early manifestos and rants against government engagement and involvement in these nascent spaces. These ideas reflect the severe disconnect between those engaged in this space in the 1980s and 1990s and the rest of the world. They posit a world in which privileged access is the norm and where a small minority can appear, in an online context, as a majority simply by fueling their own echo chamber via that level of privilege. Despite these issues and the glaring fact that the only reason the technology existed was because of government involvement and support (at least in the early stages of development), this ideal was deceptively attractive to many people.

More importantly, it set the stage for future perceptions of technology. Enter AI. The more I watch the hype around AI, the more convinced I am that it is a symptom of a much deeper problem. We have reached a point where one dominant technological imaginary celebrates hollow regurgitation more than actual learning, reading, growth, and understanding. It in an imaginary in which our loneliness is so absolute and our self-absorption so complete that a random set of words or figures chosen by an algorithm carry more value than actual people. In one sense, this is an inversion of the above ideal. In another, it is the inevitable outcome of a libertarian ideal in which liberation and freedom are only available for a select chosen few and no one else.

The statement above, of course, is also an abstraction and true only for a very specific subset people who carry far too much influence in technological imaginaries. The rejection of their technology is the rejection of this imaginary and the technology born from this imaginary. I embrace that. The antidote, however, is not anti-technology. Rather, I would argue the best response is a tactical, re-appropriation (a la de Certeau), of the earlier imaginary. The fear that those in power have is that that liberatory lie was also half true. Technologies can be developed and utilized to empower individuals without serving larger corporate or ruling-class interests. Returning to an actualized imaginary in which technology continues to be a tool of the people utilized to to overthrow the wealthy and the powerful whose efforts are aimed, almost universally, at keeping people under foot and under control would seem to be a laudable idea.

What we forget about the 1980s and 1990s was that the Internet subculture was just that, a subculture. Even then, it was fragmented and disparate. Now, with the vast majority of people online, there is no such thing as an Internet subculture. The subcultures that do exist are dividing and that is a good thing. At the end of the day, those calling for a tearing down of the wall between different groups and communities are calling for erasure and surveillance. The movement away from public social media as a primary means of communication is a major start. There should be no such thing as an Internet monolith. When something tries to be a monolith (be it Google, Amazon, OpenAI, or whatever monstrosity comes next), it should be shunned.

There is a growing movement of people imagining and building technology driven by and for the people. In some cases, it is a bit strange. In others, it is really cool. That is the point, though. You don’t have to participate in the dominant culture, at least not completely. You can find your place and, despite all of its challenges, the Internet is still good for that. It requires action and choice, though. You have to move and make a decision. You have to decide to step out of the dominant mindset. I will refer, once again, to Melville’s Bartleby or to Ellison’s Harlequin. It begins with you saying to those driving this modern almost nihilistic imaginary, “I prefer not to” or, more colloquially, “Get stuffed.”

Tags: #sociotechnical-imaginaries  #academia  #ai  #internet_culture 

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