My Internet Mea Culpa


I’m sorry I was wrong. We all were.*

Last night, as I was falling asleep after a lovely Christmas, a thought popped into my head. I was thinking how lovely the holiday had been, and part of that was because I’d not been on the internet most of the day. Furthermore, most people hadn’t been on the internet all day. And it really made for a better day. I had recently lost an eBay auction on a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog — I’ve been thinking about how influential it was, and realized copies were still relatively affordable and it’d be fun to add a few issues to my old magazines collection.

These two lines of thinking merged together, and I wondered something to myself. And as I was going to sleep at the new-parent hour of 8:30 PM, I tweeted that thought:

And my friend Rex had a lovely rejoinder:

And you know what? No. No we haven’t. Regretful tweets here and there, but nothing formal, nothing serious. We’ve done the “my bad” as we bump someone holding a beer in a bar. We haven’t stopped and said “I’m sorry.”

I am not alone. In 2015 I got into a Twitter argument-slash-discussion with Alexis Ohanian about racism on Twitter. It was back when you could have civil arguments on Twitter. One that ended with me saying “I like you and you’re a good guy” and him saying “congrats on the book.” Here is all of it. Here is some of it:

Alexis is like me. He realized he was wrong about this, and has been doing great work to fix it. And it’s been working. Did Alexis ever say “sorry I was wrong?” I don’t know. But I didn’t. So here I am.

For the last twenty years, I believed the internet prophets of old. I worshipped at the altar of Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly. I believed that the world would be a better place if everyone had a voice. I believed that the world would be a better place if we all had no secrets.

But so far, the evidence points to an escapable conclusion: we were all wrong.

Or, to be generous, if we weren’t wrong, we were so far off on time scale that those who bought into the vision were mislead into thinking that the benefits would come in their lifetime. They aren’t going to.

Either way, I am sorry.

How did we get here and what went wrong? I see three possibilities. None are particularly promising for the people living on the planet right now.

What we’re living in now is not the state the prophets proposed

Being generous to the prophets Brand and Kelly et al, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that this version of a global village is not what they proposed or envisioned. Minorities are still denied equal voices on the internet — harassed off of it, or still unable to even get online. Massive amounts of data is still hidden behind firewalls or not online at all. Projects to bring more information online (such as Google Books) have foundered due to institutional obstruction or a change of priorities in those undertaking them. Governments still have secrets. Organizations such as Wikileaks that showed early promise in this regard have been re-cast as political tools through some mix of their own hubris and the adversarial efforts of the governments they seek to expose.

It’s quite easy to see the differences between the internet world we live in and the utopia we were promised. And a fair measure of that is because we didn’t actually make it to the utopia. The solution, then, the argument goes, is to keep at it. To keep taking our medicine even as the patient gets more sick, on the faith that we will one day reach that future state of total-information-freedom and equality of voices.

This isn’t an unreasonable position, but I think it would have been worth thinking about beforehand. There is a difference between Advil and chemotherapy. If you’re not dying of cancer, the benefits of something like chemotherapy are dubious. A better metaphor might be back pain. I have back pain. I could get surgery for my back pain. But the surgery is hugely debilitating, with only moderate chances of success. It is not unreasonable for me to say “nah, not worth it.”

If I had known in 1994 that this whole internet thing would have brought generations — generations — of pain before the solution came, it would have been a totally different decision process for me to help it out.

But I thought it would be a couple of decades. I was wrong.

We forgot to account for a period of adjustment

A slightly different, but related argument. Whereas the previous explanation is about the medicine taking longer to work, this is about the recovery taking longer. Perhaps society is bedridden in the recovery room right now. Perhaps we thought it would be an outpatient procedure and instead it’s going to take a week in the recovery room. Perhaps all this newfound knowledge is too much for us to absorb quickly, and before we get to our peaceful utopia a million racial, ethnic, tribal, personal, and political rivalries need to flame up before they flame out. Perhaps everyone on the planet needs to learn how to use all of this new power responsibly, and to do so every institution on the planet from our newspapers to our governments to our schools need to adapt. And before they can adapt, perhaps we need to figure out as a society how they should adapt. Perhaps until a new generation has arrived — one raised and educated to be responsible with their new power — we will continue to hurt ourselves with it. We are the superhero learning to use their powers, and right now we are in that tense scene in the comic where you’re worried they’re going to blow themselves up before they gain control.

And, again, perhaps it will take generations.

One could also argue — not without reason — that we have seen some of the good of this revolution. A lonely transgender person in rural America who may have felt completely isolated before can now find a community of support. One could argue that the internet has hastened political progress, and helped topple oppressive regimes. This is all true. What we didn’t expect — what we weren’t told by our prophets — is that for all of this progress, there could well be a diametrically opposed force hindering progress, or even forcing its retreat on other fronts. I don’t think anyone saw coming that we’d have to actually be explaining to American children why racism and fascism are bad in the 21st century. Our digital prophets certainly left that bit out.

It’s worth a brief aside here about corporations as humans. Even if you give them that distinction (which I believe is a dubious proposition), it’s important to remember that corporations have much longer lifespans than humans. The rational decisions of someone living another 100 years are different than the rational decisions of someone living another 1000. These corporations might live to see the benefits of a long-term project. I will not. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t agree to the 1000 year project for the good of humanity and as an act of self-sacrifice. But that is a different decision. One we didn’t make. We were lead to believe that we would see these benefits in our lifetime. Now, it appears that we probably won’t.

Futurists, I suppose, are more like corporations. They love humanity, they love the long arc of it, and they work for a world that will be better a thousand years after they died. That’s just great. I applaud them for it. But if I’m going to help them, I’d like to know I’m helping for something I’ll never see. I am not opposed to multi-generational projects. I think that, back when I was a young impressionable Gen Xer 25 years ago, if someone had said “it will take three generations to get there, but it is humanity’s destiny, and the moral thing to do is to help it get there,” I may still have signed on. But I doubt it, because we have bigger problems within a single generation — global warming, social justice — that I thought the internet would help with. But it isn’t.

With both of these explanations for what went wrong, there is still a strong argument to keep at it. If we knew, 100%, that eventually the internet would pay off, even if it wasn’t in our lifetimes, we should, if we are moral people, keep working on it. But not to the detriment of other projects, and with the understanding that it isn’t going to help — and might even hurt in the meantime — other projects such as global warming and social justice.

But there is another possibility to consider:

What if we were fundamentally wrong?

Silicon Valley likes to think of itself as a bastion of rationality. But if you think about it, Silicon Valley, like virtually every other organization or entity, has a set of core beliefs at the bottom of its philosophical pyramid that are just that: core beliefs. They extend beyond rationality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” our declaration of independence begins. Every good philosophical treatise starts with these. Every debate starts with the polite agreement about defintions.

What if Silicon Valley’s core beliefs — even the benign ones — are wrong?

What if we were never meant to be a global species? What if Zuck’s wrong when he says “Our greatest opportunities are now global.”?

What if information doesn’t want to be free?

In 1996, I was so smitten with radical transparency I spent about a week going around telling everyone the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If they looked bad that day, I told them. If I thought their marriage was a sham, I told them. When someone asked me “how are you?” I told them: honestly and extensively.

It probably doesn’t surprise anyone to hear that at the end of a couple weeks I had alienated almost every friend I had. I had gotten into a couple big fights. Twenty five years later, there are still people mad at me about it. I was saved only when my best friend Annie, who was sympathetic to the experiment said, with marvelous tact and patience after I had said something offensive to her, “I don’t think this experiment is working and you better stop before you’ve irreparably damaged every friendship you have.”

I really, really, really want the world to be globally connected. I’ve never liked the idea of nations. I have always believed that particular core tenet of Silicon Valley. But it would be irresponsible, at this point, to not consider that it’s wrong.

And if you stop and think about it, how surprising is it that it’s wrong? We are biological organisms with thousands of years of evolution geared towards villages of 100, 150 people. What on earth made us think that in the span of a single generation, after a couple generations in cities with lots of people around us but wherein we still didn’t actually know that many people, that we could suddenly jump to a global community? If you think about it, it’s insanity. Is there any evidence our brains and hearts can handle it? Has anyone studied it at all?

It’s quite possible that the premise is completely false. And I’m not sure we ever considered for a moment that it could be wrong.

I would like every one that sold me — and everyone else — this bag of goods to address these possibilities. Failing that, I’d like them to offer other explanations for where we’re at now, and how we get to the promised land.

I don’t belong to the generation that built these beliefs. Kevin Kelly is 65. Stewart Brand is 79. What I belong to is the generation that took their beliefs and ran with them and built the vast bulk of the internet. Most of the early internet behemoths were built by Gen X’ers, and for the first 30 years of the internet’s life the vast, vast majority of the people working at these tech companies were Gen Xers. Some of us did it for money, some of us did it for idealism. Most of us did it for both. Speaking for myself, I used to speak of “style points” in pursuing wealth — it was coolest to make money as a rock star or artist, it was least cool to do it on Wall Street. The Internet was way, way, over on the artist side of things back then. Or it appeared that way. We were wrong. I was wrong. I am sorry.

*Update: “We” is a poor word choice here. Of course there were people — many people — who saw this coming. Some, I read. Some, I didn’t read. But I didn’t listen. Or believe them. I thought everything would “work out fine.” When I say “we” here, I don’t mean everyone. I mean those of us who bought into the view of the future I describe here.

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