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Tech Nerds Who Predicted an Internet Utopia Are Sorry For Being So Wrong

Image: From the cover of the book The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog
Image: From the cover of the book The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog

You probably remember those tantalizing tech predictions from the 1990s. The world wide web was going to become a paradise for access to information and civil discourse. The internet would allow people of different cultures to come together and learn from each other. The information superhighway was supposed to make our lives so much easier. It was all going to make us, dare I say, happy.

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It’s all pretty laughable now. One of the hottest topics on social media is what to do about all the literal Nazis. But these were the earnest predictions of tech nerds from the 1990s, not to mention the decades well before that, like when J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor wrote about the human side of networked computing in 1968. But they were all wrong, from the 1960s to today.

And some of those techno-utopians are beginning to reckon with their naive predictions of yesteryear. One such person is Rick Webb, who just published an interesting essay titled, “My Internet Mea Culpa.”

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“I don’t think anyone saw coming that we’d have to actually be explaining to American children why racism and fascism are bad in the 21st century,” Webb writes. “Our digital prophets certainly left that bit out.”

Webb not only describes what he thinks he got wrong about his utopian idea for the internet in the 1990s, he also lays out why he thinks we have many years to go before the internet becomes less terrible for so much of society.

From the essay:

It’s quite easy to see the differences between the internet world we live in and the utopia we were promised. And a fair measure of that is because we didn’t actually make it to the utopia. The solution, then, the argument goes, is to keep at it. To keep taking our medicine even as the patient gets more sick, on the faith that we will one day reach that future state of total-information-freedom and equality of voices.

This isn’t an unreasonable position, but I think it would have been worth thinking about beforehand. There is a difference between Advil and chemotherapy. If you’re not dying of cancer, the benefits of something like chemotherapy are dubious. A better metaphor might be back pain. I have back pain. I could get surgery for my back pain. But the surgery is hugely debilitating, with only moderate chances of success. It is not unreasonable for me to say “nah, not worth it.”

If I had known in 1994 that this whole internet thing would have brought generations — generations — of pain before the solution came, it would have been a totally different decision process for me to help it out.

But I thought it would be a couple of decades. I was wrong.

Webb concedes that the internet has provided plenty of good things as well, but for some reason, our technological prognosticators have largely been blind to the bad.

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You can read the entire essay over on Medium. You can also hear me talk with Dr. Bradley Fidler about this exact topic on a November 2017 episode of the Loose History podcast.

[Medium]

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Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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DISCUSSION

I like this essay a lot, but I especially enjoy this moment wherein a tech person admits that “soft” sciences are useful.

And if you stop and think about it, how surprising is it that it’s wrong? We are biological organisms with thousands of years of evolution geared towards villages of 100, 150 people. What on earth made us think that in the span of a single generation, after a couple generations in cities with lots of people around us but wherein we still didn’t actually know that many people, that we could suddenly jump to a global community? If you think about it, it’s insanity. Is there any evidence our brains and hearts can handle it? Has anyone studied it at all?

It’s quite possible that the premise is completely false. And I’m not sure we ever considered for a moment that it could be wrong.

Because there is no evidence at all that humans (or any primate, really) can just keep being placed into larger and larger social circles without wanting to create hierarchies (or “pecking orders”, if you prefer that term) of who gets to lead, who has to follow, who gets to be included, and who “has” to be excluded. 9 times out of 10, an angry person with the Internet doesn’t become a less angry person, they become an angry person who can now blog (or podcast, or tweet) their anger.