Why Should We Apologize for the Internet? CC: @mikerugnetta @inkookang

This tweet (and its linked essay) from Mike Rugnetta was the 2 in an anti-internet 1-2 punch I’d read over the last 24 hours:

The 1-punch had come the night before in the form of an email facetiously titled “the best argument for burning silicon valley down” from my friend, Inkoo. She was referring to the growth of tech/advertising behemoths being responsible for the scientific and technological advances that government used to drive. In particular, she was referring to a startup seeking to create ad-subsidized travel to the moon.

I fired off a hasty response to her, but after reading the article Mike linked to, I wanted to take a little time to put together a more thoughtful response to what feels like a prevailing cynicism about tech and the internet. Let me preface all of this by saying that I am not an expert in tech or public policy and am merely knowledgeable about digital culture. With that out of the way, hot takes away!

The Internet, as we know it, is the result of every negative policy decision we’ve ever made.

The Internet isn’t inherently bad, and the promise that it showed was real, but the reality is a ruin of a dream of the 90s due to poor decisions we made in the 90s. Every 90s: The 1990s, the 1890s, and even the 1790s.

Technological Policy

The most important moment in the development of the Internet was the period in 1993 when Bill Clinton and Al Gore moved into the white house. If there were anyone who understood the potential for the Internet, it was Al Gore, the man who was a driving force behind what was, at the time, called our National Information Infrastructure or, more casually, the internet superhighway. We had, in that moment, an opportunity to have the government shoulder some of the burden for building and maintaining what the internet was to become, but we allowed private businesses all the seats at the table.

We knew the ad-revenue-driven behemoth the Internet had the potential to become, and we knew the implications that would have on privacy, and yet, by the end of the year, the administration had already settled on ceding development and control of the internet-to-come to the private sector. This moment was key because the decisions made in that moment moved the internet from being a good maintained in the public interest to a commodity maintained to further private interests, for which the public good will always be a secondary (at best) consideration.

Fiscal Policy

The internet isn’t being maintained to serve the public – it’s being maintained to serve customers, and that means that most of the benefits of being online are going to accrue to the people who can afford to pay for them, and ad revenue will be subsidize the things that people aren’t asked to pay for, directly.

Unfortunately, our fiscal policy has resulted the depression of wage growth and an increased economic inequality in our society. Is it any wonder that people are reluctant to pay for services online? It’s not because information wants to be free – it’s because we can’t afford for it not to be free.

That means that we have a technological infrastructure that serves private interests whose best features are largely ad-driven, which means it is in our tech companies’ best interests to acquire the largest audiences (and their information) possible, which brings me to the third point.

Social Policy

The promise of the internet was that everyone would be online, that we would build an interconnected world. The problem is we forgot that world we had already built was in pretty bad shape.

From the founding of our country, women had been treated like second-class citizens, only receiving the right to vote in the early 20th century, remaining victims of discrimination through present, with Title IX being a watershed moment in the audacious idea that women should be treated equally.

For black people, native Americans, Hispanic and latinx, LGBTQ, and pretty much any other marginalized group you can name, we allowed generations of legal discrimination against them, resulting in a supremacy of straight white males that would inevitably migrate online as the people who, consciously or not, brought that point-of-view online.

By the beginning of the modern-era of the Internet, we’d built a private-sector, ad-driven, behemoth that required the accumulation of massive user bases to function, which meant the industry required consumers with the most repulsively reactionary views possible as much as it required people with the most positively progressive views in order to function.

Should We Apologize For The Internet?

Whether it’s algorithms reshaping our view of the world, the spread of volumes of hate messaging, or the shopping around of our private information by corporation and hackers, alike, it’s not hard to look around at the way the internet has impacted our lives in ways we never could’ve comprehended and think I can’t believe I was ever in favor of this.

I think we’ve already realized enough of the benefits of the Internet to recognize that the dream of the internet was valid. A teenage, transgender beauty guru gaining an audience of millions would’ve been unimaginable in 1993, but it is passé now. Unfortunately, so is the hate that beauty guru would attract. While, the Internet has allowed us access to each other and information in ways that have transformed society for the better, this increased access to each other and information has revealed just how much farther we have to go in that transformation. I think we need to thank the Internet for that, and we need to take a look at ourselves to ask how we do that.

First, we have to realize that we’re going to have to pay for all of this progress, one way or another, and the more we want things to be free, the more the costs are just going to become invisible, passed on to us by corporations who tell us less and less of what those costs actually are. That means we have a responsibility to fight not just for net neutrality but any regulations that maintain the integrity of the internet and the security of its users. That means doing our part, offline, through the election of officials who will fight for all of these things we need to make our online and offline world better, including advancing social and economic equality.

It’s the shortcomings of the real world that we have to apologize for, and, once we take care of all of that other stuff, we can apologize for any shortcomings the internet may still have.

With all that said, please look forward to my future post: Why you should be utterly afraid of everything tech and the Internet have become because it’s far worse than you think.

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