Internet Revolution in Retrospect

The first time i saw a URL was on a TV spot. I was transfixed by the strange string of characters. They were normal letters and punctuation, but their form was not that of “real” words – they had a different, somewhat esoteric meaning which neither i, nor most people were familiar with. In those days personal computing was still a novelty. Computer retail was not dominated by sleek sales-pods, epitomized today by the Mac Store, but warehouses of electronic bric-a-brac, for hobbyists and by hobbyists. I cut my e-teeth in these dusty emporia, first witnessing the functioning of a modem (one of the old coupler modems that connected with a regular telephone receiver, now, too a “retro” technology. It was here that i was told of a revolutionary new mode of communication, which used the hardware of phone lines and PCs to communicate with people from all over the world.

The starry-eyed optimism of those old school geeks was infectious. It must have been 1993 when my family first signed up with an ISP. With the wondrous World-wide Web was at my fingertips I had access to the conversations taking place over BBS, newsgroups and chatrooms. Like many, i was struck by the simultaneous sense of freedom and relative anonymity. On the Internet, no one knew i was a child. I could feel awfully sophisticated as i discussed Clintonian era politics with total strangers. I quickly picked up basic HTML and made various websites on the numerous free hosting sites which then existed. I shared my geeky literary and digital interests with the world, and was exposed to others’ interests in return. Like the vast majority of Americans i was already programmed for a media experience, but unlike TV, the Internet made the screens interactive. There was no advertising and very little prepackaged content; just a bunch of enthusiasts sharing things with one another.

Or so it seemed. The WWW is a product of capitalism (as well as the military and academia), and as the Internet grew in popularity, so too did the businesses that profited from it. I knew that much of what i cherished about this medium was on its way out when I first encountered ads, first the innocuous banner ads that appeared at the very top of some websites, then the notorious pop-ups, quickly followed up by pop-unders which still occasionally manage to circumvent my attempts to block them. The small, local dial-up ISPs disappeared, slowly at first, and then quickly with the appearance of expensive broadband networks, maintained by large centralized companies. The spam in my email inbox from small time scammers became overshadowed by the junk CDs that appeared in the physical mailbox courtesy of AOL. Now that people knew there was the potential to make big money on the Internet, it was sure never to be the same. Naturally, following the recognized pattern of capitalist history, there was a minor boom in the late 90’s followed by a minor bust, now all but forgotten in the Great Recession.

The ratio of signal to noise has dropped pretty considerably over the years. So has the autonomy. “Social media” are now some of the most trafficked websites, yet i feel more disconnected with those around me than i did in the basement nerddom of my youth. When i first used the Internet it was a toy, a hobby-horse. I could pick it up and put it down at will. Now it is ubiquitous and inescapable. I have to use it for work. I am bombarded with intimate details about the lives of people i have scarcely interacted with. I run into people watching hardcore porn everywhere, especially libraries. I am treated as a social outcast for not having a “smart” phone. As the Internet has become increasing integrated into the social fabric, i have become increasing anti-social.

But is it anti-social to be wary of a medium that comes with apparently inherent socially-debilitating qualities? It’s not just the participants in the famously anarchic comments section, the medium itself promotes unaccountable behavior. Social psychologists who have studied this phenomenon call it “online disinhibition”. But it doesn’t take an academic to realize something is amiss. This society was an unhealthy mess before the advent of the Internet, how much worse will it get as “social media” become the default mode of interaction?

Like it or not, the Internet is not going away, so long as the industrial technological system remains intact. As with any civilized technological system, we are not allowed to opt out. Your house must appear on Google Street View, or you will suffer the consequences. Many employers will check the social network profiles of applicants, some even require it to be submitted with the application. Even the US Postal service, going bankrupt thanks to the Internet, no longer offers paper change of address forms. You will be assimilated.

But the Internet has also been leveraged by Iranian and Arab rebels, Wikileakers, Occupistas, anti-authoritarian hackers and flash robbers. Phone-captured videos of police brutality have brought about waves of resistance. The increasing capabilities and sheer success of file sharing networks seem poised to effectively end the legal pretense of intellectual property altogether. The Internet has been and will continue to be used by groups that are roughly “with us” in one or more dimensions of liberation.

My challenge has become to use of this technology more judiciously. Prolonged Internet usage creates information overload. The human processor can only overclock so much. And as with just about anyone on the Internet at one point or another, i have written some things that i have regretted. But i have also experienced the rush of being part of Web-based projects of which have had tangible, real world results. I look forward to furthering the IRL output.

I like many aspects of the Internet, but i also like many aspects of cutting myself off of mass media. In retrospect, the Internet revolution does seem similar to political revolutions, in that it opened up social space outside of the systems of control. Technological innovation generally can create fissures in the social matrix, but the forces of control can easily buy into these channels, once opened. The challenge is to figure out how to create niches in the social space that we can, in time and in place, and to be ready for these breaks when they occur. No particular technology is neutral, and every technology has an embedded ideology. The Internet runs on its own particular logic, but we have some choices on how to approach it. Be smart, be safe.

Go outside.

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