Our Utopian Dystopia

Back in a previous life, under this graphic, we would post an occasional item about the utopian silliness of Wired magazine. Our favorite entry ran like this:

“You think Java is important — wait until we have a similar language for storytelling.” —Nicholas Negroponte, Wired, July 1996

FUNCTION Serpent(Gen_3:5) {

   IF (AdamRib == EatFruit) {
      EyeState = Open;
      KnowledgeState = GoodEvil;
      MortalState = SurelyDie;

   } ELSE {
      MortalState = LiveForever;
   }
}

DO SERPENT

Since we posted this to, y’know, a website, it wasn’t like we had a Luddite antagonism to the Internet. It wasn’t even like we weren’t then — and remain now — something of a digital utopian ourself, especially when it comes to the democratizing of mass communication.

But the nature of Wired’s utopian vision was just flat-out hilarious, seeing as it had no grounding in human nature. From the perspective of the Nineties, it was clear that the Internet would accomplish — or, more precisely, allow — Great Things. It wouldn’t, however, turn human beings into something else. Wherever you go in cyberspace, there you are.

It was a mistake then — and also remains a mistake now — to accept Wired’s wacky utopian vision of the Internet as definitive, when it was instead the Nineties intellectual equivalent of Eighties fashion, right down to big hair and padded shoulders. Yet that is precisely what Evgeny Morozov goes about doing in his new essay for Prospect magazine:

Perhaps the mismatch between digital ideals and reality can be ascribed to the naivety of the technology pundits. But the real problem was that the internet’s early visionaries never translated their aspirations for a shared cyberspace into a set of concrete principles on which online regulation could be constructed. It’s as if they wanted to build an exemplary city on the hill, but never bothered to spell out how to keep it exemplary once it started growing.

Morozov doesn’t make the comparison, but what he seeks in Wired and finds lacking is an Internet equivalent of the Federalist Papers, which took a utopian vision of democratic self-governance and grounded it in the messy reality of human avarice. Since we’re greedy beasts at heart, the Papers writers argued for a form of government that accounts for our base nature by decentralizing the centralized power it would wield. It was designed to be the Committee from Hell, since that’s the only way it would work — work, that is, to prevent the very tyranny it was intended to escape.

Instead, Morozov pulls a Wired himself, choosing to employ a misleading metaphor in pursuit of his argument:

What the internet badly needed in its first two decades of existence, and what it needs still, is a book akin to Jane Jacob’s 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities which attacked the practices and attitudes of 1950s US urban planners and proved hugely influential. The structure of online space requires a similar critique.

What makes this as equally hilarious as Wired’s utopian vision is that it’s a wacky dystopian vision, starting with the notion that there’s any “online space” to structure, much less critique. The Internet is a blooming, buzzing confusion — just like its participants! — and bears no relation to an unavoidable double-decker highway that destroys the waterfront. Google and Facebook are monoliths only insofar as they accomplish their functions better than their predecessors, and could easily be superseded in turn.

Remember MySpace? Friendster? GeoCities? AltaVista? HotBot? Yahoo? AOL? When an Internet edifice disappears, it’s not like we’re stuck dealing with an ugly husk. Instead, we just go somewhere else.

Or, to take a specific example that Morozov addresses: Spam isn’t an unintended consequence of the utopian vision of the creators of email. At the time of email’s codification in 1977 — and even the time of our original participation in 1991 — the Internet was still substantially a closed system, limited to those working on campuses and interested corporations. “Trust” was presumed, because there was no reason not to — even in 1991, the idea of a universally accessible public Internet was something of a stretch. We were still living pre-Jetsons.

Nor is spam even original to email, or digital communication in general. Anyone living before answering machines, or even cordless phones, knew the absolute fucking annoyance of getting a phone call at dinner, only to learn it was some idiot selling insurance. And nobody accused Ma Bell of utopian pretensions.

But we agree that the Internet is not the utopian paradise the Wired crew envisoned, in part because we didn’t buy it at the time. We also agree that any problem you can name — spam, malware, the loss of privacy — really is a problem. But whatever dystopian picture you can paint with the facts at hand, you’re still missing the point.

Because we wrote this, and posted it online, and wherever you are in the world, you’re reading it. If that ain’t utopia, we don’t know what is.

Two decades of the web: a utopia no longer [Prospect, via Sully]
35 Comments

Didn’t the hilarious fiasco of the “self” regulated economy of Second Life give the protolibertardians pause?

I’ve been using the internet about as long as you Nojo. Some 20 years… holy shit… 20 years… whuh?

The intertubes wasn’t porn free then either. I was getting porn in my email within a week of getting my email account activated… Nope, I never sent any, but I had friends who loved to send .gifs for amusement and shock.

@ManchuCandidate: I’ve been online for twenty plus years, which is to say well before I was intellectually capable of understanding what the internet is.

I see that the oneupmanship has begun. My first modem was so slow, Bill Gates walked each bit over to my house.

@Dodgerblue: Ha. I just think it’s interesting that some kids just a few years younger than I am have literally no pre-internet memories.

@mellbell: That is true of my younger daughter, age 23.

@ManchuCandidate: CompuServe.

Who remembers eWorld? I thought not. That truly was heaven on earth.

here’s how old i am: in college i was programming DOS !

@baked: In high school I was programming Basic with punchtape.

My first computer was a Timex-Sinclair ZX81, programmed in Basic, and programs stored/entered into the computer via cassette tapes. I might still have it in the garage. Then I got a Commodore 128, and went online on QuantumLink. Later came the mighty MacSE and Compuserve.

@WaltTrombone: I had a friend who popped a music cassette into a Timex and filmed the result off the TV screen.

@nojo: @baked: I am mulling over whether to mount a challenge to Nojo’s Alpha “Old Geek” claim. I cannot outgeek him, but I think I have a few years on him.

In the meantime, I will note that I have issue 1.1 of Wired (Bruce Sterling cover story “The Future of War”), which I purchased at a newsstand on a business trip in 1993. I must not have been too impressed since the next issue in my collection was the first anniversary issue. OTOH, I kept it.

In fact, I have most of the issues from years 2-4. I don’t know why I kept them. Possibly because I liked the way the fluorescent colors and horizontal black stripes looked on the book shelf.

@libertarian tool: I cannot outgeek him, but I think I have a few years on him.

TTY with punchtape connected via dedicated phone line to district’s HP-2020, South Eugene High School, 1974.

Your move.

@nojo: Summer school, July 1972, William Hall High School, Intro to Computers: I learned to program in Basic and XBasic, with a similar punchtape/dedicated phone line system.

My finest accomplishment was a Roulette program with a random number generator synched to a clock function. That way you didn’t always get the same sequence of numbers everytime you ran the program. The payouts were consistent with Las Vegas protocols.

On the other hand the graphics were weak (i.e. non-existent).

Basic (II?) in middle school. Dial up at home through college network (convinced them to give me a professor password), MUDs, and then NETSCAPE! Eventually the college kicked me off, and I had some AOL disk thing. Boo! First email program: Pine (I think). Then Eudora Light.

Pine! Still using it. And it’s called Alpine now. Still controlled by University of Washington but with the new name.

Anyone else here have an account on DOCKMASTER?

@nojo: Your move.

It was a slow start – Niles West High School, 1970. I vaguely recall a tour of our school’s new computer system in Mr. Field’s math class. No idea what it was, but I recall sitting at a keyboard at a device that spit out punch cards. We were invited to join the nascent Computer Club. I declined.

University of Colorado – 1975. I took my first and only computer programming course – A semester of FORTRAN IV. I wrote a program to calculate planetary orbits for a physics class (my major). Code was typed onto a green screen which then spit out punch cards. You carried the program ( a deck of cards) in a shoe box to the computer operator who stacked the deck into a reader behind other programs in the que. Some minutes later, you got a stack of green bar paper which was the output of your program. An infinite loop could destroy an entire forest in minutes, earn you glaring looks from the operator and a delay in stacking your next run. This course was instrumental in confirming that If I was to have a future in the computing business, it would more likely be in sales and not in programming.

1977 – First job selling medical electronics for HP, I learned how to destroy a punchtape while trying to load the OS for an obsolete HP mini-computer that was being re-purposed as a dedicated computer at the heart of a cardiac cath lab.

1979 – Inspired by Ted Nelson’s “Computer Lib” (I think I still have a copy somewhere) – I decided that personal computers were the future and quit HP to work for one of the first computer retailers in KC, selling Apple II’s, Commodore Pets, and TRS-80’s. Failed to understand that selling $1,000 devices to people who did not understand what they did and cost $900 to manufacture did not leave a lot of money to pay salesmen.

I have a couple moves left in reserve. What else you got?

Wow. This is geeking as staged by Michael Bennet.

@Walking Still: @libertarian tool: I went all in that last round, so I consider myself trumped.

And after that year of early exposure, I waited more than a dozen before dealing with it again. To a 1974 15-year-old, the digital future looked bleak — not that there weren’t jobs and such, but the serious geeks ahead of me in the program frightened the shit out of me. The last thing I wanted was to turn out like them.

And in current news, the federal government’s facilities management software for tribal schools nationwide run or funded by the Bureau of Indian Education does not run on PCs running Windows 7. My suggestion: keep an XP machine around for the while until the federales catch up.

The speakers on my new Dell handle Slayer pretty well. Really clear with good separation of instruments.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvuO2EvCTAE

Blame the gays:

Bear upends governor’s trash cans

A bear that made a nighttime visit to the governor’s residence on Santa Fe’s north side didn’t do any harm, but Gov. Susana Martinez says it should serve as reminder to area residents that wildlife has been displaced by drought conditions and fires.

The Governor’s Office released surveillance-camera video Monday of a bear that strolled past trash cans on the grounds of the north Santa Fe home over the weekend. Although the video doesn’t show the action, the bear reportedly overturned two other trash cans, apparently in search of food.

http://www.santafenewmexican.com/Local%20News/Local-news-in-brief-07192011

@libertarian tool: Wait, you were a physics major? I wouldn’t have guessed that.

@nojo:

Since that bit of unpleasantness has been settled, I want to circle back to your post. Enjoyed your perspective and thought I’d ruminate on it a bit.

Agree the Morozov piece is a waste of ink and/or – in Negroponte terms – bits. I really cannot even understand or imagine what it is that Morozov thinks his “utopian” internet is supposed to be in any practical incarnation. Example:

“The logical end of this ever-increasing personalisation is of each user having his or her own online experience. This is a far cry from the early vision of the internet as a communal space… It is not the only deviation. For many internet users, empowerment was an illusion. They may think they enjoy free access to cool services, but in reality, they are paying for that access with their privacy.”

It is just absurd for him to deny the clearly communal experience enabled by the internet. As you point out, this very site is an example of a real community that can only exist because of the internet. But to go on from there and lament any personalization or individual experience on the tubes is just bizarre. What is he really saying? That the internet has failed because it did not spontaneously begat the selfless “New Internet Man”? And exactly who is supposed to determine what constitutes an acceptable communal experience?

I don’t know how to read what he is saying except as a denial of individuality and any notion of individuals being responsible for making their own decisions. Including whether and how to make the privacy/convenience/personalization tradeoff for themselves while on the tubes. Embracing individuality certainly does not preclude choosing to enjoy sharing a communal experience. Again this little community is good example. Some here share more about themselves in a public forum that I would be comfortable with, but everyone makes their own call and it seems to work. I don’t know – I just don’t get whatever it is that Morozov is trying to say.

In any case- I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the Scott McNeely dictum “There is no privacy. Get over it.”

As regards Wired, I never considered their editorial perspective to be particularly utopian anyway. Frequent outbreaks of batshit insane pollyannish optimism? Yeah. But not utopian.

@Benedick HRH KFC:

Heh. Speaking of utopian dreamers, I cannot think of any of the early computing/internet visionaries who would be a more fitting tragicomic protagonist for a Benet operetta/musical than Ted Nelson – as profiled in Wired.

@SanFranLefty:
Hmmm. This goes to my point of being careful about what one reveals in a public forum.

@libertarian tool: @libertarian tool: I might try to read it later.

Like you I’m a great believer in online discretion.

@libertarian tool: I would have gone there, but this was long enough as it is.

But let’s go there now. First, in passing, digital oversharing is the fascinating premise of the late, lamented Caprica — the notion that you could, in effect, reconstruct a personality from what’s available online. I think it’s safe to say that people have never before so exhaustively documented themselves.

But the point I was going to make was that if you’re that concerned with your privacy, ditch your credit cards and grocery cards now, because every transaction you make adds to a corporate profile being assembled somewhere, and is actively being harvested.

Or, to invoke the ever-invokable Kesey: You’re either on the Grid or off.

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