A 1990s cyber enthusiast considers whether he’s to blame for our digital woes
As someone who celebrated the potential for digital technology to unleash entirely new dimensions of collective human potential, I can’t help but feel a little culpability for our predicament. After my talks these days, people regularly ask me if I feel “sorry” for having written books like Cyberia and Playing the Future, which attempted to frame emerging digital society as a “renaissance.” Back in 1992, I told everybody to come on in, the water is fine! Do I now accept any of the blame for today’s combined plagues of disinformation, economic inequality, automation, and weaponized memetics?
Maybe. Maybe we just weren’t ready.
Steve Jobs as much as told us we were making a pact with the devil. He knew perfectly well what he was doing when he named his company Apple: He was giving people access to the forbidden fruit—the tree of knowledge—and fully disclosing that fact. Thanks to computers and, soon after, the internet, regular people everywhere would have access to everyone and everything.
And we bit into that apple. Why not? It looked like newfound power for the masses, a voice for the counterculture, an adventure for explorers, and creative fun for makers. Computers were the tools that would upscale humanity. But maybe humanity simply wasn’t developed enough to handle the abilities potentiated by digital technologies distributed so widely and rapidly. At least not the sector of humanity that ended up being responsible for developing this stuff.
Many of us knew that digital connectivity could end up overwhelming a society accustomed to privacy, a limited number of social contacts, and news edited by experts from above. We understood that recording everything one said or did into a permanent database would pose moral, legal, and reputational challenges. We even suspected that just the effort to engineer a collective global brain like the internet could challenge our primitive understandings of identity and individuality. We understood we were moving into a world where thinking would no longer be a personal activity but a collective one.
Many of us knew the opportunity was bigger than we could handle — it may even have represented a leap forward in human evolution — and so we turned to the shamans for advice. This is why the pages of early internet magazines and websites were as likely to feature an interview with ethnobotanist Terence McKenna or hypertext visionary Ted Nelson as with engineer Douglas Engelbart or internet inventor Vint Cerf.
The World Wide Web of personal homepages gave way to Facebook’s consumer profiles.
But the Fortune 500 crowd and venture capitalists saw a different sort of destabilization ahead: a growing population of new media users who would soon be out of their control. The traditional tools and platforms for engineering compliance and directing consumer behavior were being replaced by ones that appeared to promote novel ideas, unprofitable social fun, and — worst of all — unpredictability. They turned to Wired magazine and business consultants to figure out how to make the digital revolution about money. They invested billions in surveillance and behavioral control experiments — from Google to Facebook — in the hope that the internet would amplify capitalism instead of Gaia.
The seemingly God-like abilities offered by the net were productized. The World Wide Web of personal homepages gave way to Facebook’s consumer profiles. Intelligent agents through which users were to gather information became the algorithms that monitor and modify our behavior. The internet went from town hall to shopping mall. As a result, instead of seizing the interactive potentials of digital technology, most people engaged with this stuff as if we were still in our previous roles as consumers of media.
But we weren’t. We aren’t. We are each at the helm of a combined newsroom, library, media archive, TV studio, wire service, propaganda platform, and social network with more capabilities than most governments had just 20 years ago. No matter our current perceptions of our lowly place in the order of things, we are not still in the land of passive television consumption and limited knowledge, taking actions that somehow recede into the past and fade away. No matter how stupid and powerless we have been led to think of ourselves, we have at our fingertips — in our pockets, even — access to the near-totality of human knowledge and capacity.
It’s not too late to rise to this occasion. Omniscience requires good filtering. We may have gotten access to every piece of real and fake information ever produced but without the ability to discriminate between them. We got the intimacy of universal connectivity but without social skills to navigate it. We got perfect memory but without the necessary corresponding compassion for one another’s past missteps and failures.
This is why the internet has yielded such mixed results and could reasonably be blamed for the increasing probability of fascism or civil war in America and widespread confusion and hostility wherever these technologies grow unchecked.
Were those of us who extolled the virtues of digital technology wrong? Did we doom civilization by promoting something we simply weren’t ready for? I’m willing to admit some responsibility for underestimating capitalism’s ability to redirect the internet toward anti-human, anti-social agendas and maybe over-estimating our society’s moral, social, and mental health.
But looking back, I’m thinking the answer wouldn’t have been to talk less about the power and potential of the net, but more. These technologies would have risen with or without those of us who saw in them the chance to connect humanity and unleash our species’ true potentials. The net could have as easily stalled humanity’s rush toward suicide and extinction as it has accelerated it — had only we made a better case for the less commercial, more “open source” reality we had envisioned.
Whichever the case may be, it’s a bit too late now to pretend it didn’t happen. We bit the Apple, we’re banned from the garden, and we’re starting to see things as they really are. It’s time to stop acting like children, accept our roles as adults, and use all this power to make things right.
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