Yesterday, when I spotted a little rant by a New Republic writer, I couldn’t help but feel compelled to put in my own rant in response to its skepticism of technology, utopianism, and misplaced nostalgia for the way it was.
And I think that Jacob Silverman was right to raise the issue, even if I find myself a little disagreeable on the premise.
The problem is this: It can be really easy to fall into the trap of looking at the internet of 30 years ago and thinking that early on, it felt like a utopia that could change culture for the better. But such a utopian belief is sort of a higher-level claim of the kind often made by academics and observers, rather than people who are actually using the internet. It was an idea sold by publishers, futurists, and technology giants, not people who were grinding away at long comment threads on Usenet in 1993.
This is kind of the point Silverman was getting at—at some point our science-fiction futurism merged with the actual phenomenon and altered our view of the way we thought about technology back in the day. He referred to it as a Mandela Effect of sorts.
To me, as someone who actually has spent years digging up internet history, one of the things that I think this argument misses is the fact that people were complete jerks on the early internet, just as they are now—and it was never a secret.
The reason the Eternal September existed, at a higher level, was not out of any individualist desire, but a sort of resistance to anyone of a lower class or a lower level of knowledge playing in the same sandbox as the existing communities of engineers, computer scientists, and college students that were already there. That doesn’t sound very utopian to me, yet it’s an important part of early-internet lore.
But on the other hand, the utopianism was definitely there. As I flagged a while ago, some of the earliest work in building out digital connections outside of the Western world happened thanks to charity funding directly received from a Peter Gabriel concert. While the cyberpunk stuff probably gets overplayed in the modern day, the truth is that the Electronic Frontier Foundation came to life with many of these utopian ideals in mind—as it should have, given that one of its founders was literally a songwriter for The Grateful Dead.
But we’ll never find utopia over the internet because the internet is made by humans, and humans are complicated. We complain a lot and we screw one another over all the time. And this was definitely true of the early digital era—figures like like PKWare founder Phil Katz, the guy who created the zip file format and caused a major BBS turf war in the process, paint complicated images that undercut easy high-level explanation. But at the same time, it’s not like we can ignore the fascinating work of early digital architects like Jon Postel or Vinton Cerf, either.
To claim that the old internet was better than the current one is ultimately futile—in part because real life is not very much like a science fiction novel. What we need to do instead is better protect this culture so that it can be researched in aggregate and at scale, so that our vision of the internet doesn’t have a rose-colored tint to it, so we can understand it at the level in which it happened.
We threw out a lot of stuff from the early internet—much of the content from the formative years of the ’net, from 1992 to 1996, is largely gone. The Internet Archive wasn’t a thing at that time, and much of this information was hosted on pre-Web services like Usenet, Gopher, and IRC. While I was there during a portion of that time, I think it’s too complicated to say that we understand it.
Let’s avoid the broad brush of saying that anything is utopian or not utopian. Let’s approach this as good historians, and admit that every era has its complexities and needs to be better understood in full—whether digital or not.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: 4 seconds