When cynicism replaces hope - how I look at the internet today
Some time in the mid-80s, I must have been eight or so, I discovered “online”.
My dad’s a professor, and he used to sit me on a computer on the campus of Stirling University, while he got some work done in his office. I played MUDs, discovering that half the characters in that game were other real people around the world (…or maybe just around the university campus, it was the same difference to me at the time). I’m sure they had no idea they were gaming with an eight-year old.
That was the first time, but certainly not the only time, that the idea of technology connecting people has made me excited.
I felt it again as a teenager in the 1990s. I had my incomprehensible Compuserve ID/email address. And a walled garden of shopping and gaming and chatting. I remember a 20-hour overnight download (my parents were away!) to get the graphical proto-metavurse that was WorldsAway.
I was a teenager, or younger, then. Now I’m in my 40s, with “Global Director” in my job title, and two decades working in technology. And most of that hope, optimism, naïveté, has been replaced by a deep sadness and melancholy. I am cynical and upset about how the industry I work in has so twisted and corrupted the promise I saw in my youth.
The internet was supposed to be a new way of doing things. And maybe the most naive thing was believing that to be true. The internet was just virgin territory to be exploited and abused, like new worlds have always been after initial excitement of discover.
Specifically, I mean the societal effects of internet behemoths. The internet is now like the unregulated oil and rail markets of the late 19th and early 20th century. Monopolistic, abusive, exploitative, sucking up riches for the chosen elites and damn the rest.
For Standard Oil back then, see Facebook, Amazon, Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, and so on, today. Too rich, poisonous, and too powerful to be anything other than a malignant influence on the world.
And yet there is no great impetus to change. No societal or governmental movement to say “this is wrong”. And I think that’s because so many of these monopolies are monopolies over the very methods by which we interact. Social media giants can, and do, actively undermine civic discourse. They harm or derail any kind of organizational coherence in what might become opposition to them.
The lack of serious pressure means there is no pressure on legislators or regulators - the government - that creates impetus to regulate. To regulate not just social media, but any internet monopoly. Jeff Bezos plays with multi-billion dollar spacecraft, or explores eternal life, while his homeless employees piss in water bottles to avoid taking an unsanctioned break from the assembly line.
It’s painful to see, and disheartening to live, in that world. I don’t have Facebook any more. We don’t order from Amazon any more. For moral, not practical, reasons. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to live conveniently day-to-day while avoiding some of these interactions.
Standard Oil was broken by governmental regulators. Ma Bell’s phone monopoly was also split. The magnates who owned these concerns remained excruciatingly wealthy. But society benefitted from the break ups of their monopolistic entities. There is talk of an anti-trust movement against some of these internet monopolies now…finally. I can only hope it’s the real thing.
Capitalism and “free markets” are often conflated. But part of the hope of the internet was that its free markets were genuinely “free”; few barriers to entry, near perfect information. And that this would mean a more genuinely open, and competitive, environment.
Instead, the internet’s lack of regular simply left it open to the usual abuses of western capitalism. The creation of monopolies that then move to throw up barriers to new entrants, consolidating their dominant roles, and working deliberately to stifle any and all future innovation. All in order to protect their own position.
We know the tech giants are harmful and manipulative. We know that billionaire owners are parasites on society and the body politic. That is what a quarter of a century of “progress”, from my late teenage excitement over technology to today, has wrought.
I would like some of that innocent optimism back. I would like some confidence that my children might read about the likes of Facebook and Amazon as abusive monopolies that were rightly broken up. I make more choices, even inconvenient choices, to try not to give my time, data, or money, to these companies.
I don’t believe that my hope in the 1990s was only because I was young. I’m trying as hard as I can to think of change that I can bring. Something that might bring that hope back to me, and maybe to others, too.