Have we forgotten, WE are the internet
The internet beast
“What technology wants”, a tellingly title of the most recent book by Kevin Kelly. As if technology is an autonomous living being possessing an own will. Although Kelly is more nuanced than this (for a book review see this post), this view on technology is not very uncommon within public discourse. In popular news media technology is often seen like an ongoing train that is hardly steerable and impossible to stop. Also in talks on this subject I have with people within my own social environment, this view is often reflected. All we seem to be able to do, often even posed as an obligation, is to endeavor to keep up with this ever faster going train.
A similar view on the internet is reflected. Although we’re in the era of web 2.0, where content is user-generated, the internet is often described as something outside ourselves, something we are not part of. Of course for many forums or other social places on the web this is different. Members of these places can feel very connected to a particular social place and show huge loyalties to their fellow member but I think for the internet as a whole, sense of ownership is lost.
This contrasts strongly with views posed by early users in the heydays of the internet. For them the internet was their new medium. They were very optimistic about what it could bring us and felt they were in power to give their internet shape. Exemplary for this sense of belonging can be seen in the 1996 “” by John Perry Barlow. He starts this declaration, which was addressed to existing governments, with strong claims of belonging to this then new cyberspace:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
When did internet users lose their sense of belonging to the internet? Have we forgotten that we, the people, are the internet? The fact that technology is created by and for us people seems to be blurred from view. It seems to be forgotten that we, the people, can decide the pace, direction and nature of technological developments. With our choices and action we decide what the internet is like and in what direction it will be heading.
Grown up internet
It is not my intension to posit definite answers to these questions here, for the scope for this blog post is too small and more thorough empirical research would be required. But I’ll make a few remarks about what I think are key developments. First is that the enormous growth of the internet has obviously led to a feeling where the total cannot be overseen anymore. Only a tiny fraction is knowable for one individual. This creates a feeling that the internet is in any case uncontrollable for the individual.
Furthermore, with the enormous growth of the internet, so grew the different kinds of users or institutions with different kinds of interests. The common ideal for what the internet was about in early days was one of sharing knowledge and information. Nowadays this ideal is overshadows by a complete chaos of different and often contradictory objectives. Within this chaos commercial interests seem to be dominating the internet of today. Since the dot-com bubble in the nineties, commercial services and advertising spread like wildfire and the internet came to be seen by many as an opportunity to make money.
Governments of traditional nation states too, despite John Perry Barlow’s declaration, tried to control what happens on the internet and are constantly attempting to steer the directions in which the internet is developing. Many laws regarding the freedom of speech have been passed in various countries. Recent examples are the proposals of the SOPA and ACTA laws.
While you are reading this post I can imagine you are questioning the empirical truth regarding my statements about the feeling people in general have to technology and the internet in particular. You can, for example, see the massive reactions against the SOPA and ACTA laws as huge sense of ownership in part of individual internet users. I however tend to see these reactions, while very visible, mainly as concern form a small part of internet users.
User reactions like those to SOPA and ACTA though, do make me optimistic about making internet users in general more aware of the fact that the internet is not something that they are not part of and thereby uncontrollable. In this sense I also see huge merit in organizations like Bits of Freedom of Pirate Parties. I think these initiatives can help making people realize they, with their actions and choices, make the internet to what it is and what it will be like in the future.
Also more and more scholars are developing a more critical view on the internet and on technology more generally. In this respect I want to mention Sherry Turkle with her latest book “Alone Together” (for a book review see this post). With this book she wanted to start a conversation about what technology is doing to us. She wanted us to take a pause in the ongoing developments so we can think about in what ways technology is really helping us.
I think this advice by Turkle is of much value. Every internet user should ask themselves what the internet is for her- or himself. This, I think, is important in order to regain a sense of control, in order to remember that WE are the internet.