The Internet That Was (and Still Could Be)

As corporations like Facebook gain control over more and more online activities, the web's core values are at stake.

Asharkyu / Shutterstock

It is not enough for the Internet to succeed. It must succeed inevitably.

Or so many of us Internet Triumphalists in the mid-1990s thought. For, if the march of the Internet’s new values were not unstoppable, then it would surely be stopped by our age-old inclinations and power structures. The Net, as we called it then, would become just another venue for the familiar patterns of marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and ignorance.

Now I’m afraid the argument for inevitability that kept me, and others, hopeful for 20 years no longer holds.

It’s a simple argument that we can all the Argument from Architecture:

  1. The Internet’s architecture is highly unusual.

  2. The Internet’s architecture reflects certain values.

  3. Our use of the Net, based on that architecture, strongly encourages the adoption of those values.

  4. Therefore, the Internet tends to transform us and our institutions in ways that reflect those values.

  5. And that’s a good thing.

Premise No. 1 makes me a cyber-exceptionalist. Premise No. 3 assumes there’s weak causality at work, making me some flavor of technodeterminist. The sweep of the transformations promised in Premise No. 4 results from the cyber-exceptionalism of Premise No. 1. Because I like the values referred to in No. 2, Premise No. 5 asserts my cyber-utopianism.

I still believe the Net’s architecture is exceptional and reflects values that Western liberals like me take as fundamental. That architecture moves packets of information around without any central management or control. It moves them without favoritism based on content, sender, recipient, or type of application. It enables us to connect with one another and with what we create for each other without asking permission. The Internet’s architecture therefore values open access to information, the democratic and permission-free ability to read and to post, an open market of ideas and businesses, and provides a framework for bottom-up collaboration among equals.

In the past I would have said that so long as this architecture endures, so will the transfer of values from that architecture to the systems that run on top of it. But while the Internet’s architecture is still in place, the values transfer may actually be stifled by the many layers that have been built on top of it.

In short, my fear is that the Internet has been paved. You can spend an entire lifetime on the Internet and never feel its loam between your toes.

* * *

Technodeterminism is the belief—more often a mere assumption—that technology shapes our thought and behavior. Taken at its crudest, it says that technology shapes us the way a falling safe shapes anyone underneath it: We’re powerless to resist what it does to us, and it does the same thing to all people.

Most technodeterminists aren’t absolutists, except perhaps for the people who maintain that using the Internet affects your brain—shortening your attention span, diminishing your ability to build larger thoughts from smaller ones, etc. I have been a softer technodeterminist, thinking that the Internet affects us more like a library than a falling safe: Being inside a library can influence your ideas about what’s of value, how things go together, and what sort of behavior is optimal.

In the past, though, I have believed that there is a certain inevitability to these soft effects: Even if you use a hemmed-in version of the Internet in a repressive regime, I thought, you’d still learn some beneficial lessons from that experience. But, “using the Internet” can entail anything from blogging to bullying to doing piece work for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. If I adjust my Nest thermostat, I’m using the Internet, but does anyone think that that encourages me to adopt so-called Internet values? The case is stronger if we talk about the web instead of the Internet, but in the Age of Apps, the web is in decline.

Technodeterminism in its stronger versions is much derided, but we need something like it if we want to be able to carry on discussions about what the Internet is doing to us and our institutions. The nature of that “doing to us” needs a sensible explanation, though. Even if it’s more like a library than safe, how can a mere tool affect how we understand the world?

The media scholar Nancy Baym talks about “social shaping” as a  middle way between technology being our master and us being its master. As Roger Silverstone and Leslie Haddon wrote in 1996, there’s a play between how a technology is designed and how its users “domesticate” it. As a result, by the time most people are introduced to something like the Internet, the early adopters have already understood it one way or another. That understanding usually reflects the uses for which the tech was designed, but it may not. So, when someone first showed you the Internet, they told you what it was for, loaded up a page or an app, and implicitly or explicitly told you want they think is important about it. That shaped your understanding of it. This accords with Eleanor Rosch’s “prototype theory” that says that humans don’t understand things in terms of neat, clean definitions, but through examples we take as clear and of the essence.

I think this pretty well captures how technodeterminism works. Some folks invented the Internet for some set of purposes. They gave it a name, pointed to some prototypical examples—sharing scientific papers and engaging in email about them—shaping the way the early adopters domesticated it.

But over time, the Internet escaped from its creators’ intentions. It became a way to communicate person-to-person via email and many-to-many via Usenet. The web came along and the prototypical example became home pages. Social networking came along and the prototype became Facebook. Mobile came along and the prototype became apps—although I’m not convinced that this last step has actually happened.

Keep in mind that a prototype is simply what is taken to be a clear, unambiguous example of something. It leaves plenty of room for less clear examples. At this point it’d be weird if you asked someone, “What’s this Internet that people are so excited about?” and that person pointed to a Nest thermostat. No, the person is far more likely to load Facebook or Snapchat on a mobile phone, and then might point to Nest as an extended example, saying something like, “Even that thermostat is part of the Internet.”

And it’s not just what we point at. The values conveyed by the prototype depend on how we explain it. If Facebook is the prototype, it’ll be one thing if our guide says, “See how you can stay in touch with your friends?” and another if she says, “See this never-ending stream of gossip and chatter from people you barely even remember? GET OUT OF MY HEAD FACEBOOK DEVILS!!!” (Did you spot the difference there?) As always with humans, there’s no separating prototypes from values.

I don’t think technodeterminism is any more mysterious or mystical than that.

* * *

If you had asked me in 1986 what the prototypical use of the Internet was, I would have said UseNet. I used email much more than UseNet, but email seemed too much like real mail, and too much like the text-based terminal-to-terminal systems I’d seen but not used in the 1970s. But UseNet was new: a discussion forum where strangers could talk about whatever they wanted. The different topical forums had even evolved their own forms of rhetoric and governance. Social and emergent. Most excellent!

If you ask me now to give you a prototypical example of the Internet, I’ll point to the web. I can explain this but not defend it. (Prototype Theory entails that arguments over what is the “right” prototype are futile except insofar as you’re trying to characterize some culture’s idea.) The web became my prototype of the Internet pretty much as soon as I first saw a first browser in the early 1990s. At last I wasn’t using an interface based on all the grandeur and typographic sophistication of a terminal window. Before my eyes was a page that looked like it came from a word processor. And it had links that you could click. It was clear: This was how the Internet was going to spread beyond the scientific and technical communities.

The web also enabled the development of social forms that seemed to me to be essential to us as humans: the collaborative, iterative generation of a linked infrastructure of ideas and meaning; permission-free contributions and access; lowered economic barriers to participation; manifestations of bottom-up power; self-creation of a personal presence within a social network formed free of some of the usual irrational hindrances; connections across cultures and differences. The Internet enabled those values. I like those values. So I hoped that we would seize upon the opportunity to throw off the old limitations on connection and creativity, and would flourish in peculiarly human ways.

* * *

That hope was not a mere dream. In the early days of the web, much more of what we encountered was home-made by people who shared those values and that vision. The technodeterminist argument that has guided me was backed by my own lived experience.

For example, when blogging first blossomed, it was seen by its early enthusiasts not merely as a form of publishing but as a type of community-building. Our blog sites were our personal presence on the web, and we viewed ourselves as social. That’s why the “blogroll” was standard equipment on the early blogs; it was a list of blogs that constituted your bloggy neighborhood. You read those blogs, you commented on them, and they did the same to you. We supported one another emotionally, intellectually, and sometimes in the physical world.

The blogosphere did not scale. I believe that problem could have been solved. But then Facebook happened.

In many ways, Facebook fulfilled the dream of blogging. It was fully social, came with sophisticated social-network maintenance tools, and was inviting even to those who didn’t like writing, didn’t have the free time to devote to it, and didn’t enjoy the self-assertion a daily blog requires. But my delight about Facebook is at best mixed for one crucial reason. We built the blogosphere ourselves. We wrote the posts, we linked to others, and what emerged was ours. At the time it stood in contrast to the content coming from the professional media. That content was written by them for us to consume. Blogs were ours.

Facebook is not ours. It’s theirs for us to use. Facebook is now a far better Roschian prototype of the Internet than old-fashioned blogs are. The fact that I resist that fact makes me a prototype of a sad old man.

Go ahead. Point and laugh.

* * *

If the new prototype of the Internet is not the Blogosphere but Facebook, then the argument that’s maintained me for 20 years has fallen apart. If users don’t come into contact with the Internet’s architecture, that architecture can’t shape them. If they instead deal almost exclusively with Facebook,  then the conclusion of the Argument from Architecture ought to be that Facebook is shaping the values of its users. And Facebook’s values are not much like the Net’s.

My faith in my argument was shaken hard by an article by Christian Sandvig, “The Internet as the Anti-Television” [pdf]. Sandvig is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, and a friend. He’s also wicked smart. His paper shows how, over time, the architecture of the Internet has been overlaid by technology dedicated to solving particular problems, particularly the transmission of high definition television at a mass scale. If video is your business, and if your business is big enough, it has probably bought space on a system of Content Delivery Network (CDN) servers housed in network hubs spread across the country and the world. These servers let you cache your videos so they have only a short hop to local customers, ensuring rapid and smooth delivery.

This is certainly distressing if you’re a small business trying to compete with the Big Boys because you’re going to have to pony up enough money to get distributed by a CDN. You might even grumble about this violating Net Neutrality, but a CDN is a layer on top of the Internet, and thus using one is as legit as paying Spotify to make your songs available at a higher bitrate.

It gets worse. Having added a commercial layer to enable one-to-many video streaming may suck for small-time competitors, but at least it has no effect on the rest of us. Except it does. Sandvig writes:

As the medium changed, older Internet patterns of point-to-point or peer communication were made more difficult ... Without access to a CDN, content from a mainstream, well-capitalized media company would load perceptibly faster than what the user offered … In sum, the distribution infrastructure of the Internet has changed to make individuals’ content distribution harder.

So, it’s not just that many of us live in applications like Facebook, and never see the light of the Internet’s One True Architecture. Sandvig’s point means that even if you walk outside of your favorite application, the architecture itself has been distorted by the needs of commercial content creators and their enabling pals. Paradise has been well and truly paved.

* * *

And yet.

I think there are at least three reasons why the Argument from Architecture should still give us hope.

First, the Internet’s architecture still shows through many of the big corporate apps that are the Internet’s new pavement. Even if your only experience of the Internet is of Facebook, you will come away with an understanding that:

  • There is a superabundance of people and content you can connect with if you choose to.

  • You can create your own content that others around the world can see, and—you never know—might actually see.

  • People, ideas, and people’s expressions of their ideas are linked to one another in a vast web.

  • You can post and explore widely without asking anyone’s permission.

  • You can link to the content you find without asking permission.

  • The world contains many things.

  • Not everyone thinks the same way or values the same things.

  • The world is endlessly interesting.

All this is implicit in the Facebook experience because Facebook takes advantage of the architecture of the Internet. The Internet’s architecture shines through the Facebook layer, as it does through virtually all Internet applications.

I am not an extreme technodeterminist about this. It is perfectly possible for a regime to so control Internet access that its citizens learn not a single one of those lessons. Or, if a user genuinely has only ever used one “channel” on the Internet, and that channel is Netflix or some other such service, then the Net looks purely like a version of cable TV. Or, if a user’s only experience of the Internet is setting the temperature on a Nest thermostat, then the Internet won’t magically change that user’s perspective on life.

Still, all but the most limited experiences of the Internet teach something like those implicit lessons about the size, complexity, and connectedness of the web, and our freedom on it. Those lessons of the Internet’s architecture shine through the layers built on top of it. That we have embraced these affordances to such an extent that almost all uses of the Internet manifest them perhaps says something about what we have in common on this hard, shared planet: that we are creatures for whom connection is the natural and original state; that individual things and people emerge from the links that let them be what they are; that we can embrace our overwhelming world better together than alone. Stuff like that.

Whether the user or regime sees those Internet lessons as divine or satanic is not something that the Internet itself determines.

* * *

The second reason for optimism:

When we turn paradise into a parking lot, the pavement fully covers paradise. When Facebook, Google, Twitter, and their friends pave over the Internet, you can leave all those sites running in tabs in your browser, and be out on the ol’ Internet prairie with a single click. In fact, most of Google’s results send you out there, as do virtually all the links in tweets, and many of the links in Facebook pages. The pavement is well penetrated by the Internet. Maybe “pavement” isn’t an apt metaphor at all. I’m sorry I brought it up.

If you have an idea that would use the Internet as a service for connecting customers or for moving information around, you are as free to build it now as you were 20 years ago.

The economic ecosystem has gotten much more difficult for you if you’re trying to compete against a giant, especially if that giant is supported by network effects the way so many of them are. But it’s by no means unimaginable that someone could start up a search site that becomes viable, or an online bookstore, or even a new social networking site.

For example, the video game industry now turns out blockbusters that can easily cost north of $50 million to create, and several times that to market. It’s going to take a pretty big Kickstarter campaign to raise enough to enable you to turn your swell idea into a big time game. But there is simultaneously a market for indie games that can be created on a shoestring budget, even if that means that instead of photo realistic 3D open worlds, they are 2D or isometric games that make a virtue of using retro graphics. It can be done, sometimes quite successfully both in terms of gameplay and commercially.

Many indie games, including the many free ones, can in fact express some of the original Internet values in their look: They are clearly made by humans like you and me, and are presented to us as gifts.

The Internet is still there for entrepreneurs and generous spirits.

* * *

Third, open culture lives.

There is a cadre of young folks, native to the Internet, who Get It. They are infused with a spirit of play, they assume collaboration, they like to push against edges, and they are aware of the challenges the openness of the Internet faces. I do not believe this culture is going to vanish. In fact, it is thriving in some of the most important sites on the web. For example, Reddit at its best not only takes advantage of the freedom the Internet gives us, it takes it as a topic.

The Internet’s spirit lives in the hackathons and the engineering culture that has come to dominate the mainstream. It even lives at sites like YouTube where, in a fully corporately-owned space, people make things to delight one another.

All is not lost. Not yet.

* * *

We have several tasks before us, though.

The Net is code, and code can be changed or be restricted by laws, as Lawrence Lessig made clear many years ago. We have a responsibility to try to prevent our governments from passing laws that hand the Internet over to the companies that provide access to it, or that remove by fiat what engineers have granted us through software and protocols.

Even then we should be careful what prototypes we give our children. During one of the rounds of politicking about Net Neutrality, someone—I’ve been unable to track down who, but thank you—created a haunting ad from a possible future:

This is all too plausible because it perfectly expresses the access providers’ paradigm of the Internet as content to be packaged. If this becomes our prototype of the Internet, then we lose.

But it doesn’t have to be. For example, it’s easy to imagine the access providers selling an Internet-based “movie channel” to their Internet subscribers that, in some post-Net Neutrality world, is a special service. In fact, this is something that they’ve asked for. That would make me unhappy, but it would not be a disaster for the Internet’s promise overall so long as we don’t take that special service as our prototype of the Internet. As long as we continue to think of the Internet as the place where you can creates sites and services that make other people laugh, argue forever, and encounter ideas they’d never have imagined, then the Internet stays true to the values its architecture embodies.

There’s nothing inevitable about this. As the Internet’s architecture shapes our behavior and values less and less directly, we’re going to have to undertake the propagation of the values embedded in that architecture as an explicit task. We can encourage the development of sites and services that show off the Internet’s eclectic, improvisational skills. We can celebrate the free culture movement. We can embrace those businesses that respect us, and cast a stinkeye on those who just want our data and our cash. We can try to teach the young’uns how the Internet works and remind them of its glory so that it can be as if they were present at the Revelation.

There are lots of things we can do.

We must do them all.