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​The 90s: Game Boys, dungarees, and techno-utopianism

​The 90s: Game Boys, dungarees, and techno-utopianism Gateway Skegness, Roger Cornfoot, 1992 (CC BY-SA)

The Nineties are back! Actually, they've been back for a while. In fact, they've been back so many times over the last few years that it's starting to feel like they never left. From Dad shoes and dungarees to bike shorts and bodycon, my wardrobe looks like a turn-of-the-century time capsule. 

It's not just the fashion industry that's gone nuts for the nineties. Had yourself a Friends marathon lately? Still arguing about whether Leo could have fit on the floating door? Treated your shower head to a flawless Backstreet Boys performance?

Like a boyband pin-up covered in lipstick prints, we're a generation obsessed. We admire it, covet it, fetishise it. Forget the Rwandan genocide, the death of Diana and the Clinton sex scandal; this is the decade that can do no wrong. Simpler times, we say.

So, why exactly are we so obsessed with this decade in particular? Of course, it could be purely romantic – looking back with rose-coloured glasses at a decade of indestructible Nokias and Saved by the Bell. When Donald Trump was just some guy in real estate, and your biggest challenge of the day was keeping your Tamagotchi alive. The consumer Internet was taking its first shaky steps, characterised by AOL and terrible GIFs.

But in a world of Twitter storms, fake news and an increasing sense of nihilism, it's possible what we feel for the nineties is more than just fond memories.

The 1990s were a decade of huge technological change. Following the advent of the World Wide Web in 1989, the world was waking up to the seemingly endless possibilities of instant information – or near-instant, given the long load times. And with the growing ubiquity of personal computers, more people were logging on than ever before.

Suddenly, you didn't have to rely on politicians and journalists to relay information. You could access alternative sources and learn about things not represented in mainstream media. Of course, you could always do this anyway, but it required huge chunks of time and several trips to the library.

These possibilities gave rise to a new, glimmering ideology: techno-utopianism.

Although not exactly brand new – techno-utopian ideas have been championed in varying degrees since the 19th century – the Internet sparked a new wave of technological utopianism, promoted by those who had the most to gain. Emanating from the start-ups littering Silicon Valley, the Californian ideology refers to a belief that shifts in digital technology can revolutionise society, with Ronald Reagan predicting that "the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip." They believed, quite literally, that the Internet would give power to the people.

The idea that invention incites change is nothing new. Throughout history, advancements in technology have been a catalyst for reform. From the invention of the printing press in 1476 to the introduction of passenger flights in 1914, technology has long held the power to break down the barriers between the rich and the poor, the elite and the working class. The Internet was no exception.

In many ways, the internet seemed like the ultimate anti-authoritarian tool. Never before had the democratisation of knowledge been so instantaneous. Much like Karl Marx in the 19th century, techno-utopians believed that this advancement would reduce the authority's power over everyday people. For Marx, that authority was the monarchy and the Christian Church. For techno-utopians, it was the government. The only difference was that one movement was founded by an educated philosopher, and the other by ambitious twenty-somethings in Silicon Valley – entrepreneurs with nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

By the late nineties, spurred along by the dot-com boom, techno-utopianism had flourished. In some ways, the nineties were a golden time for the internet. Sure, there was no Netflix or YouTube, and you were screwed if someone in your house needed to use the phone. But there was also no social media, digital detox camps or cyberbullying. And your mobile, if you had one, was mostly used to play Snake.

Despite the dot-com crash in the early 2000s, techno-utopianism remained a widely held belief in the West Coast. These blindly optimistic beliefs led to the advent of the thing that would irrevocably change the course of the Internet: social media.

It hardly needs saying that social media was a huge leap forward for the internet, at least technologically. Despite nineties' internet allowing for the freedom of information, that information was still controlled by gatekeepers, subject to the whim of whoever owned the website. In order to put your thoughts out into the world, you needed to know how to build a site – or at least pay someone to do it for you. But once social media was introduced, all you needed was a username.

Although each created by different entrepreneurs – or, in the case of 4chan, a bored 15-year-old boy – the founders of early social media platforms all invariably believed in content neutrality, meaning they wouldn't interfere with the content published on their sites. Suddenly, there were no gatekeepers. What's more, because the technology and business models were so new, no one understood them. There were no precedents set, no regulations in place, no governing body. Social media users, and the people behind them, were free to do whatever they wanted. When asked, they called it progress. A leap forward for the freedom of speech.

It wasn't long before those scales started to tilt.

As early users will know, 4chan quickly became a dumping ground for the worst that humanity has to offer. Although all the early social media platforms had a commitment to free speech, there was one key difference that turned 4chan into a thriving cesspool: it was anonymous. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, child pornography, neo-nazism, terrorism – anything that couldn't find a home anywhere else on the internet flourished behind the digital walls of 4chan. Even Christopher Poole, the platform's founder, realised things were getting out of control. Soon, Poole started banning the more horrifying posts – such as those involving paedophilia – causing outrage amongst the platform's users. In response, Fredrick Brennan, a previous 4chan user, created 8chan in 2013, following Poole's original idea for an entirely free, anonymous space to post content.

And, just like 4chan, 8chan quickly spiralled, evolving into a horror that made 4chan look like a Christian blog. By 2016, Brennan had resigned from 8chan, already disillusioned with what the platform had become, and handed the reins over to another developer. After receiving complaints about the publication of child pornography, the site moved domains, successfully avoiding closure – for a while.

Soon, the violence and hate existing on 8chan's server started to bleed – literally – into the real world. In 2019 alone, three separate 8chan users committed mass shootings in New Zealand, California and Texas, with a cumulative death toll of 85. Each shooter had used the platform to share radical manifestos and encourage other users to take up arms. After the shooting in El Paso, Texas – the third attack linked to 8chan that year – the site was finally taken down (although it quickly relaunched as 8kun, now only accessible through the dark web).

Even with more regulated platforms like Facebook, things eventually started to turn sour. From Russia's hand in the 2016 election to the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, what was originally positioned to be an anti-authoritarian tool has become a way for governments to manipulate the very people it was supposed to liberate. Founders that had once pledged content neutrality issued letters of apology and justification, quickly setting up bodies to monitor and regulate their platforms.

All of this is a scratch on the Internet's surface, and doesn't even begin to consider the myriad of other issues the internet faces in 2020 – cancel culture, cyberbullying, mental health, teenage suicide, data hacking, fast fashion, even screen addition and bizarre selfie-related deaths. It's no wonder that our attitudes towards social media have shifted, with people regularly taking 'digital detoxes' or removing themselves from the platforms entirely for the sake of their mental wellbeing. We've seen the dark side. We don't want to read any more of Trump's Tweets.

The increase of these pejorative attitudes towards social media forms a neat correlation with the comeback of nineties culture. While it's easy to gloss over our seemingly insatiable addiction to this decade as simply a nostalgic dive into a world of jelly shoes and Game Boys, it's also important to hold the techno-utopianism ideals of the nineties in tandem with today's pessimism about online culture. Maybe, in part, there's a wish to reconnect to the sunny optimism we once had for the internet.

Maybe, just maybe, we want to dial up like it's 1999.

​This article first appeared in issue 5 of Imperica Magazine.

Web Curios 10/07/20
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