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
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
, 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.