By: Susan Crawford
Last month, I heard Jill Lepore give a talk about These Truths, her single-volume history of America from the 15th century through the 2016 presidential election. She got her biggest laugh when she made fun of WIRED for predicting in 2000 that the internet would both lead to the end of political division and be a place where government interference would be senseless.
There are many famous WIRED moments that also fit this description, including Jon Katz’s assertion in 1997 that Netizens had nothing but contempt for government, John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, or the Joshua Quittner profile of EFF in 1994 depicting Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder Mitchell Kapor and the fabled Esther Dyson as people who “got it.” Their goal was to have the net be a wiring together of humanity that would restructure civilization. The EFF would “find a way of preserving the ideology of the ’60s,” Kapor told WIRED.
Much of that early libertarian net culture—white, rich, smart, and full of “let’s just geek around it” swagger when it came to government—has become mainstream in Western democracies in 2018. Paradoxically, that ideology came from a time when, in fact, government was doing a lot for people.
Those baby boomers profiled by WIRED had only known a United States full of generous government support for education, a time of continuous upward mobility, and an America that could carry out enormous and inspiring public infrastructure projects – including requiring that phone companies permit competing internet service providers to use their lines. The voices in WIRED were those of a very secure bunch of people. And they were bored by it all; they saw government as a set of clueless, bland bureaucracies. Who needed that?
As it turns out, we all did. Today, globally interconnected changes in climate and widespread disdain for democratic institutions are the key titanic, messy trends that are likely to begin producing shocking results 25 years from now. At that point, with the globe dealing with punishing heat and alarming levels of water, it won’t be internet technology that will be doing the disrupting. There are signs that the internet will be fading from view as distinctive “place” promoting political and social changes. Indeed, if we keep to our current course, communications capacity and what humans do online may be controlled by a few highly profitable actors who will be uninterested in teh unpredictable. Given this context, there is a substantial risk that 25 years from now the breathlessly libertarian views trumpeted by WIRED’s early voices will have reached their unpleasant apotheosis.
I hope I am wrong.