The Eternal October: Bringing Back Tech Optimism, Without The Naivety
from the time for a rethink dept
For many reasons, it seems we’re deep in the mire of the techlash: everywhere you look, there are stories about the evils of technology. And while it is important to explore the risks and downsides of technology — especially after a few decades dominated by boosterism and PR-pretending-to-be-news — there’s a real danger of throwing out all the good (and potential good) while trying to deal with everything bad.
I think it’s time that we bring back recognition of how innovation, and technology such as the open internet, can actually do tremendous good in the world. I’m not talking about a return to unfettered boosterism and unthinking cheerleading — but a new and better-informed understanding of how innovation can create important and useful outcomes. An understanding that recognizes and aims to minimize the potential downsides, taking the lessons of the techlash and looking for ways to create a better, more innovative world.
A little over a decade ago I toyed with the idea of writing a book about the untapped power of the internet. I worked on a book proposal, found an agent, and talked with a few publishers — and what I heard was somewhat disheartening. I was told everyone was already so positive about the internet that no one thought a book about the good of technology would sell. Instead, I was told, the market was really hungering for contrarian books about how terrible the internet was. And indeed there were several such books published around that time, many of which sold quite well. Of course, over the past few years, the general good feelings about the internet have come crashing down in the public narrative, so I began thinking about finally writing a massively updated and expanded version of what I thought my original book would be about — and this time, I would be the contrarian, pointing out that maybe the techlash has gone too far in dismissing the important benefits of innovation. Again I went around and talked with a few people, and the message I got back was… “no one likes the internet any more, so such a book won’t sell.”
I’m beginning to think it might just be that book publishers don’t like the internet, and aren’t all that interested in publishing a book about its incredible potential for good.
Eternal August, September, & October
Internet old-timers probably know the phrase Eternal September, though I always heard it as “the September that never ended.” It comes from the idea that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, every September there would be an influx of newbies on the internet (mostly on Usenet) as incoming freshmen at colleges would get their very first internet access. And those newbies would blunder around, not understanding the customs and norms, and generally be bad tourists until they settled in and learned how things worked. However, in September of 1993 (incidentally my freshman year in college, and my introduction to Usenet), AOL opened its then-massive doors to Usenet as well. Prior to that, AOL had been a walled garden: a proprietary service, separate from the open internet. However, seeing the writing on the wall, AOL tore down its own walls and sent its massive userbase careening all over the open internet. And thus the bad behavior of my cohort of college freshmen was completely dwarfed by the sheer nonsense of hordes of clueless AOL users.
From then on, the internet was never the same. Hence, the Eternal September.
To some extent, what we’ve seen over the last few years was an enhanced and much more damaging version of the Eternal September. The craziness has taken over parts of the internet. A few weeks back, I was talking about this with a friend and we joked about the goal of the Eternal August — bringing back that moment of hope and potential, before all the newbies came in and ruined things. Indeed, originally this post was going to have Eternal August in the title.
But as I drafted this piece, I realized that it’s not the Eternal August we should be aiming for. Because that would ignore the very real damage and harms that have come from the abuse of technology: the fact that nation states and other actors with bad intent have often captured and abused the internet for their own ends. So instead, I think we should be aiming for a kind of Eternal October. Historically, prior to AOL’s walls coming down, the craziness caused by the September influx of newbies would gradually recede as they learned how everything worked and how to be good digital citizens. There was just a bit of a learning curve. The problem with the Eternal September was that there were just too many of these people for them to all learn how to be good digital citizens. But all these years later, perhaps that’s what we need to (and can) achieve.
That is, we should have a world in which we recognize the amazing opportunity of innovation to empower everyone and to challenge unaccountable power — but not one in which we indulge in naive utopianism or the assumption that progress towards a “good” outcome is inevitable and easy. That is the power of the Eternal October. Eternal August is fun and exciting and optimistic — but can be naive about the dangers downsides. Eternal September is a dystopian hellhole in which you recognize that utopias don’t come about automatically. Eternal October, then, is where we take both into account, and recognize how technology and innovation have amazing potential for good without overlooking the fact that they can also be abused for nefarious purposes. It’s when we explore ways to support the good aspects of innovation, and seek to minimize the potential for and impact of abuse.
In an Eternal October, we recognize a world in which innovation does a tremendous amount of good. Millions of people — often those who were marginalized and whose views were suppressed — have been able to find likeminded connections, to organize, and to speak out. In this world, we see incredible movements like the Arab Spring, the #metoo movement, and many powerful campaigns against hatred and racism. It’s a world in which access to information and people have enabled knowledge to flow, people to become educated, and previously unheard voices to speak out against true injustice.
But in this world we also recognize how those same tools of innovation can be co-opted and put to nefarious intent. We’ve seen how they can be used for targeted harassment campaigns, and how the power of online communities can be leveraged to spread disinformation, hate, chaos, and discord. We seen how the innovative new tools of communication have been put to important use for effecting change and speaking truth to power, but also how the powerful have turned those tools around to further entrench their power and attack the vulnerable.
And this doesn’t just happen on a large scale. Smaller benefits often get lost while focusing on the huge movements: the ability of marginalized and at-risk people in communities with little support to find others on the open internet and realize they are not alone; the ability of individuals in far flung places to simply find their own tribe — the people who truly understand them. But less globe-spanning downsides also can’t be ignored: the abuse can have devastating impact on a small scale as well.
The Eternal October: Focus on Empowerment
So how do we square those two sides? The power of technology to bring people together, to build movements, and to create change is undeniable. Sometimes it’s used for good and, clearly, sometimes it’s used for ill. Some people seem to believe that the fact that it can be used for bad purposes outweighs all else, and means that the technology and the power it creates should be greatly limited and scaled back. I believe otherwise.
For years, there were attempts to place all commentators on tech into one of two camps: techno utopians and techno skeptics. I’ve regularly been called a techno utopian. People can call me whatever they want, but I think the “utopian” framing is incredibly misleading. I’m reminded of Cory Doctorow’s useful response to those who called John Perry Barlow a hopeless utopian optimist:
You don’t found an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation because you are sanguine about the future of the internet: you do so because your hope for an amazing, open future is haunted by terror of a network suborned for the purposes of spying and control.
And I think this is also true of those of us thinking about these issues today. We don’t have the naive, blind optimism of the Eternal August, and we recognize the real issues driving this Eternal September of darkness we seem to be living through. But now we want to fight like hell to bring society around to that Eternal October: one in which we do not pull down all that makes the internet so valuable and wonderful, but view it with clear eyes that see how it has been (and will continue to be) abused and misused by some for ill-intent.
To me, the key is to focusing on what the open internet has always done best: empowering individuals. It is the empowerment that underlines all of this. Empowering more people to take control over their digital lives. Empowering more people to push back on unaccountable power — including unaccountable power from large tech companies, from governments, and from a wide variety of organizations that aim to bend people to their own beliefs instead of doing what’s right. That means empowering people to fight back against those forces that want to co-opt the internet for nefarious reasons, and to respond with truth over lies, context over innuendo, and autonomy over dependence.
I don’t think any of this is easy. But, like John Perry Barlow, I still hope for an amazing, open future — even while I fear how it will be taken from us through a combination of those with ill-intent, and those who have the best of intent but don’t realize just how many babies they may toss out with the bathwater.
I don’t know where all of this is going right now, but I do know that I’ve been having conversations along these lines with a bunch of people over the last year or so, and there’s a strong feeling that it’s time for us to reclaim the open internet. To bring it back to the original vision of the earliest proponents and builders of the open web, in which it was all potential, but with the humility and knowledge of how that power can and will be abused. We can have an internet that empowers people, but not with blind optimism. We can recognize that optimism is warranted, but needs to be tempered with a healthy understanding of where things can go wrong. We can look for ways to enable more people to respond to those challenges, rather than relying on large companies and governments to step in and “solve it” for us — often with a sledgehammer directed at the foundational things that make the internet such a valuable tool in the first place.
As regular readers know, I always close my final post of the year on Techdirt with reasons for optimism, and for last year’s post I talked about the need to make the world a better place. And that began with standing up and taking on the responsibility to help do that myself. This post is another step in that direction (and I haven’t given up on my book idea, either): I’m exploring more and more ways to actually bring about the Eternal October.
Expect more to come on this…