I know the Internet is real.
In fact, the fact that you’re reading this article right now, on the Internet, is further proof the Internet is real.1
So, when I ask, “is the Internet real?” I’m not asking if it is a thing that exists. I know it exists.
What I’m more interested in is if our perceptions of the Internet align with the way it actually exists. Put another way, does the Internet live up to its own expectations? Or, does the promise of the Internet blind us to its faults? Is the Internet what we think it is, does it behave like we think it ought to behave or give us the information that we think it should?
To frame this conversation, I first want to talk about a different technology: the car. What is the promise of the car?
Well, a car gives you the freedom to travel to a place of your choosing, at a time of your choosing, at a relatively-quick pace, at a relatively-low cost, and in relatively-high comfort.
Even after you factor in the relatively-high cost of owning and maintaining a car, as well as associated fees such as tolls and parking, the promise of the car remains intact.
By now you’ve probably picked up on the fact that whether I say the Internet is “real” or not is dependent on how I frame the conversation, that is, it is dependent on what the “promise” of the Internet actually is.
And, I don’t think I’m alone in asking these kinds of questions. A quick Google search surprised me by revealing that people are already using the exact kind of language I had come up with to try and explain my thoughts, even if they’re using it in a slightly different way.
Here’s a couple of interesting articles I stumbled across:2
- It’s 2016, and the Promise of the Internet is Dead (Thesis: Social Media isn’t fun anymore).
- The Failed Promise of the Internet (Thesis: Google and Facebook control most of the Internet and media publishers have made compromising decisions in order to keep the lights on).
- The Promise of a New Internet (Thesis: The Internet is broken because it has become overly centralized. The solution is to decentralize the Internet via “mesh networking”).
- What Happened to the Promise of the Internet? (Thesis: The Internet bombards us with “Fake News,” reducing our ability to distinguish real from fake).3
- Whatever Happened to the Internet’s Promise? (Thesis: Techno-utopianism may be a dead dream, but there’s a chance we can save it.)
That last article introduced me to the concept of techno-utopianism, which I feel closely matches the concept I’m discussing when using the phrase “promise of the internet.” An early proponent of this view was John Perry Barlow, who wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Even if you follow no other links in this piece, I highly recommend that you give this one a read.
John Perry Barlow’s Wikipedia page describes him as a “cyberlibertarian,” and while the primary purpose of the piece is to encourage governments to stay out of, and not regulate, cyberspace, he does make some interesting claims about the nature of the Internet.
“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”
“We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”
“In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.”
While I’m interpreting what he’s saying, and you’re welcome to disagree with me, I believe he’s describing an Internet with the following features: It is open and free and inhabited by anonymous denizens who feel unrestricted at all times.
So, what’s different today, as opposed to 1996, when this was written?
Lots of things, obviously, but which of them are relevant.
To put this question in context, I want to propose that there are three kinds of website. First, there are knowledge repositories. Think Wikipedia, or Dictionary.com, or this blog. When people compare the Internet to a library, these are the websites that would make up the books.
Second, there are services providers who are replicating services that exist outside the Internet but leveraging the Internet’s unique properties to add extra features and keep prices low. Skype is a telephone service over the Internet, Netflix is TV over the Internet, Amazon is Walmart over the Internet, your email provider is a better postal service. And so on.
Third, there’s Social Media.
Social Media is weird, in part because the “real world” equivalents of these businesses would be impractical or impossible.
Let’s take the Facebook wall, for example. Without using the Internet, imagine compiling pictures, random thoughts, and event attendance commitments from hundreds, if not thousands, of a person’s friends and family, all turned over voluntarily, and then ranked and given to a person in such a manner as to allow them to easily give reactions in the form of emoji-like icons or pithy comments.
With social media, I think we’re seeing the first generation of synthetic Internet content. That is, content that was created on the Internet for consumption on the Internet, with no requirement that the “real world” ever has to be involved.
And, while that’s pretty weird, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. It doesn’t make social media good or bad; it’s totally morally neutral. Nor do I think there’s anything inherently wrong with the content on social media. I’ve long had my suspicions of it, and I think an increasing number of people are also growing wary of it, especially in wake of social media’s role in the divisive 2016 Presidential election.
But, I think these problems are both small and fundamental. You can’t fix them because they’re part of what makes social media, social media. If you try and change them, you break the platform.
What I do think is a problem, however, is that Social Media, at its core, violates one of the fundamental principles of the promise of the internet. I’ll fill you in on what that is in tomorrow’s blog.
- Unless you print it out or something. Weirdo.
- This isn’t relevant, but Spotify got to the end of the playlist it was on and switched to something really sad right as I started reading these articles. It made for an . . . interesting reading experience.
- This particular article seems to treat “Fake News” as a new phenomenon, which in my opinion is decidedly ahistorical. Fake News has always existed, it has always been prevalent, and “Fake News” is merely the term for the phenomenon that is most prevalent right now.