From innocent idealism to pragmatic fixes: two decades of internet culture
Like many people of the Internet Generation – those of us who became seriously involved online in the mid to late '90s – I was caught up in the wave of idealistic euphoria that surrounded the first communities to come together on the web. It's easy to see why we saw the cyber world through rose-tinted mirror shades. We were a self-selecting group of tech-savvy nerds who were able to enjoy connecting with people just like us, sometimes for the very first time.
We were able to build communities around the things we cared about and make discussion of them part of our daily routine for the very first time.
The internet was clearly making our lives better. Connections and relationships were bringing us together in a way that made geography irrelevant. If we brought this to the whole world, surely everything would get better.
We were, perhaps, the first victims of digital bubbles. We were trapped in our own little sphere of self-selecting early adopters. We hadn't yet realised how homogenous that group was, or how different things would become when all the rest of humanity followed us into cyberspace.
To be young and a part of a passionate, idealistic crowd is a great feeling. Everyone should experience it – for a while at least. But we also need to grow up at some point and realise that the world might be more complicated than our evangelism allowed. We're far from the first generation to be disillusioned, either; two decades before the internet, people dreamed that music would bring the world together.
Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, has given us another taste of that. He recently described how he realised that Luke's journey in the most recent movie, The Last Jedi, reflects his own journey from idealism to disillusionment:
It is tragic. I'm not a method actor, but one of the techniques a method actor will use is to try and use real-life experiences to relate to whatever fictional scenario he's involved in. The only thing I could think of, given the screenplay that I read, was that I was of the Beatles generation – 'All You Need Is Love', 'peace and love'.
I thought at that time, when I was a teenager: 'By the time we get in power, there will be no more war, there will be no racial discrimination, and pot will be legal.' So I'm one for three. When you think about it, [my generation is] a failure. The world is unquestionably worse now than it was then.
Those of us who followed a couple of decades later found their idealism not in protest songs and hippie idealism, but in the utopian worlds we were creating for ourselves in the nascent internet. And there is a link between the two sets of dreamers. Many of those who built the early internet were products of the hippie generation.
Idealism is a wonderful thing. But it needs to be tinged with caution. At NEXT, throughout our exploration of the dichotomy of DIGITAL SUCKS and DIGITAL FIX over the last couple of years, the phrase I keep coming back to is "hope for the best, plan for the worst". My generation of internet folks were so busy doing the first that we forgot about the latter. And so a new generation of internet people moved in, more driven by money and cynicism, but dreadful to ape the language of the early dreamers. They're "connecting the world" and "making the world's information accessible", but they fail to mention the whole "building data profiles on you so you can be manipulated for political and commercial gain" part of the equation.
It's worth remembering that not all of the songs The Beatles wrote were idealistic. As Martin Recke is fond of pointing out, Happiness is a Warm Gun is a Beatles song. And for all its apparent drugs allusions, it's actually about the horror of gun advertising. That's according to John Lennon, whose enthusiasm for drugs was well- known and not something he tried to hide, so we can probably believe him.
The ability to see the worst in everything
The rather homogenous nature of many digital entrepreneurs – wealthy, white, male and straight – may well have contributed to the problems we now face. As Mike Monteiro's scathing piece on the structural problems with Twitter put it:
Their goal was giving everyone a voice. They were so obsessed with giving everyone a voice that they never stopped to wonder what would happen when everyone got one. And they never asked themselves what everyone meant. That's Twitter's original sin. Like Oppenheimer, Twitter was so obsessed with splitting the atom they never stopped to think what we'd do with it.
Giving people a voice is a noble aim, but you need to account for people who would use that to make other people's life worse. The fact that so many founders had never been on the receiving end of abuse – be it racial, sexual or otherwise – meant that they were ill- equipped to think through the problems:
Twitter, which was conceived and built by a room of privileged white boys (some of them my friends!), never considered the possibility that they were building a bomb.
Well, those bombs have gone off in a series of explosions around the world. We've seen greater polarisation in our politics and the rise of self-righteous lynch mobs on social media, so caught up in their conviction they're doing good that they can't see the harm they're doing. We've seen our lives reduced to data, used to target our psychological weaknesses.
It all seems a very far cry from the days when we could pop online and discuss Doctor Who or role-playing games without some moron popping up to call us a "SJW" or "libtard cuck", being deliberately demeaning to engage us in conversation. Back then, if we were in chat rooms, we used the phrase "AFK" to indicate when we were away from the keyboard. That's become an anachronism already, because the idea that we can be away from a keyboard – we carry a digital one on our phones at all times – is unimaginable. That's only added to the pressure.
We're trying to keep up with technology, but we can't. The internet can effectively transfer information instantly, but human beings can't process it with that same speed. Keeping up with the machines is a mug's game, yet it's one we've been playing for over a decade now. Just as the fast food revolution eventually birthed a slow food movement, the real-time internet is begging for a slow web movement, and, indeed, there already is one. And fixing the mistakes of the past requires longer, slower, more deliberate choices and thoughts.
On a more pragmatic note, the consolidation of power on the internet into a handful of platforms isn't the situation most businesses would enjoy. There's what the journalism world calls the "duopoly" – Google and Facebook – who maintain a stranglehold on the vast majority of advertising revenue between them. Amazon has become most of the world's de facto shopfront. It's the first place, and often the only place, we shop. We've been trained not to comparison-shop and are now unknowingly paying higher prices for goods.
But hang on, you say, this is DIGITAL SUCKS, Adam, not DIGITAL FIX. And you'd be quite right. But here's the thing: DIGITAL SUCKS was a prerequisite for the DIGITAL FIX. To deal with this problem, you have to do what so much of the digital industry has been denying: acknowledge that there are problems. Moving fast and breaking things sometimes just leads to broken things. Not all disruption is good, and for every winner there is often a loser.
Things need fixing and new directions need to be found because technology cannot be uninvented. We have to move forwards with what we've got. Digital detoxes or withdrawal are no solution. To return to Star Wars and The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker's withdrawal from the galaxy into exile manifestly made the galaxy worse, and while we should be grateful for that, as it was the plot trigger for the conflict in the new wave of films, I'd rather not see the gains of the last few years overturned in the real world.
Many of the idealists of the early internet saw the internet itself as almost a supra- national community – and us as citizens of the internet.
As the late John Perry Barlow wrote in the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace:
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Oh, for the halcyon days when it was government interference we feared most, rather than corporate irresponsibility.
And to be fair, some of the blame for this fall is ours. We failed to live up to our civic duty by failing to police ourselves and the companies who would "serve" us. We've let these abusive, monopolistic companies arise, and we've failed to be appropriately sceptical in what we read online.
But any such regulation needs to be careful, realistic and light-touch. For all the complaints about GDPR, I actually think the EU has done a pretty good job with it; it has protected the consumer and moved the onus on to businesses to behave better and more honestly. I've had more than one conversation in recent weeks with people who are suddenly enjoying their email again, simply because there's so much less junky marketing material in there. The GDPR-driven winnowing process has improved their information landscape.
On the other hand, amongst the many ridiculous projects that the current UK government is engaged in (and you know what I'm talking about here), the move to build software backdoors into end-to-end encrypted messaging services shows a profound misunderstanding of encryption, mathematics, computing and security. That won't make life better for anyone but government and criminals, which is a really uneasy combination, whatever your position of the political spectrum.
There's lots to be said for the power of constraints to induce creativity. A more user- centric set of sensible, practical legislative constraints might actually trigger greater innovation, as some of the easier paths close down to new tech businesses, forcing them to think harder about their new products.
So-called business innovation has pretty much descended into "build an app, find users, sell to a bigger company or make money through advertising". For a business that claims to be all about innovation, well, this isn't really innovation, is it? It's repeating the same basic process again and again in different flavours.
Sometimes the fact that you keep claiming something means that you are not actually that thing. It's true of innovation, just as it's true of airports (Nobody talks about Heathrow International Airport, do they? It's just Heathrow. Hamburg doesn't feel the need to append "international", because it's self-evident ...)
If you're building a digital business, or even a digital product, you're going to have to accept that it will be much harder than it was even five years ago. You have greater government oversight and regulation to contend with, alongside significant bottlenecks in terms of the internet giants who act as gatekeepers on how people access your product: the Google, Amazon and Facebook monoliths.
Believe it or not, that's actually a good thing. The increased difficulty will winnow out more weaker players in a burst of digital Darwinism, leaving more territory for those who survive. And those constraints will force you to be more creative in your thinking, and to build something new. We've already seen this at work in both marketing and journalism, as Facebook turning the screws on organic reach has led to greater efforts to reach consumers or readers directly (something the internet does facilitate, however hard some sites have worked to help us forget that). And the rewards in terms of customer loyalty and engagement have been remarkable.
Let's be honest, the reporting around technology has been absolutely awful until recently. It was either entirely gadget-obsessed to the point of pandering to the big manufacturers, or completely sold out to the start-up and venture capital ecosystem.
A decade ago, NEXT18 speaker Andrew Keen, author of such books as The Cult of the Amateur, was one of a very few voices sounding the alarm about the direction we were heading in. I'd add that people like Nicholas Carr were putting out similar messages, but they didn't get the traction they deserved. If anything, they were painted as cyber- heretics and intentional controversialists. With that wonderfully clear 20/20 vision that hindsight brings, they actually look like visionaries. Like Cassandra of Greek legend, they were doomed not to be believed until it was too late. Likewise, Keen is still ahead of the game with a book that proposes some solutions just as the world realises it actually needs solutions.
We have a terrible habit of not listening to people who say difficult things. Researchers like danah boyd who delved deep into the true behaviours of people within online communities slowly faded from the conversation as pundits and entrepreneurs richly equipped with survivorship bias became the default voice, preaching shiny, happy messages of disruption and connection.
If anything, we've now swung the other way. Reporting on companies like Cambridge Analytica is important, and deservedly award-winning. But too many other outlets are taking that narrative and running with "everything digital is evil" as their narrative. That's just another manifestation of moral panic, and is in no way conducive to intelligent, useful conversations about the future we want to build.
The media world – especially the mainstream media world – needs to start treating tech with the seriousness it deserves. It needs to report not just on problems, but also on solutions and fixes to these problems. And it needs to think much more deeply about the social consequences of the latest hotness in the technology space – and its own reporting.
Some outlets were doing some fascinating reporting on the Internet Research Agency, Russia's infamous troll farm, back in 2015, before the vexed US presidential election happened. But it wasn't given nearly the prominence or attention it deserved. How different the story of the past three years could have been if it had.
Possibly the most dangerous phrase in modern life is "Oh, I don't know much about technology myself. Ha ha."
There is a cadre of society that sees their ignorance of tech or the internet as something to be proud of. There is a word for these people: fools. The internet has reached out from the bedrooms of the early geeks and the labs of CERN to intertwine itself into every part of our lives. We can't afford to just blindly use it without some thought to – and discussion of – the consequences. When we choose a WhatsApp chat or a Facebook group to keep conversations going with the fellow parents of our child's class at school, those decisions have consequences. Some of those conversations are exclusionary. What about those parents who have chosen not to use Facebook? My wife doesn't, for example, and so I have to relay all the relevant discussion and planning to her. If she was a single parent, she could easily have been forced into greater social isolation, with consequences for her children. A thousand small, seemingly trivial discussions like that enforce lock-in to the big platforms, and create a societal pressure that benefits the mega-corporations more than it does us.
We are not, as a set of societies, having these conversations enough. We need to start. And we need to keep doing it.
One of the reasons we post on the NEXT blog every week, and have been doing so for a very long time now, is that the conversations that happen at our conference don't exist in isolation. They start in our offices, they develop on our blog, and they spread through social media to our attendees and other members of the community.
You know what? We're not robots. We have free will, and while we are all prone to psychological flaws and weakness which digital products can exploit, we can, with awareness, make different decisions. We can choose to use apps with a business model that doesn't scrape our data. We can choose to minimise our use of abusive sites. We can choose to make better decisions over our time, and we can choose to remember that new tech doesn't completely displace old tech.
We can still build a better digital world. The internet is not finished. But we need to stop treating it as some kind of "other". It is so firmly wrapped around our politics, our businesses, our home lives and our relationships that we can truly say that digital is us. It is our DIGITAL EGO. And we deserve a better one than we're getting right now. Let's get on with building it.
Adam Tinworth is a business journalist and blogger.
"DIGITAL FIX - FIX DIGITAL" is an e-book from NEXT Conference, available to buy soon. For further information and other articles, visit the NEXT Conference blog.