You probably remember those tantalising 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.
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.”
“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 [paracetamol] 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.