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6 October 2021

The internet was built for connection – how did it go so wrong?

The World Wide Web celebrates its 30th birthday this year. Its users are less empowered than ever.

By Richard Seymour

Tech capitalism proclaims to offer connection in a lonely world. According to Nick Bilton, author of Hatching Twitter (2013), the platform’s breakthrough came in 2006, when one of its founders, Noah Glass, realised that the technology could “erase” loneliness – during a crisis, when a marriage ends or an earthquake strikes, there will always be someone to talk to. Eradicating solitude, and “building a global community”, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg puts it, remains the overarching vision of the social media industry.

People would depend on the internet for community even without lockdowns. But almost no one has made as much money out of the pandemic as the owners of technology stocks. Share values in Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Alphabet/Google and Microsoft soared in 2020, driving a Wall Street boom during one of the worst crises in capitalism’s history.

But except for the tech bosses themselves, few are happy with how social media works. Platforms regularly change their rules and design with no accountability to users. The “community guidelines” stating what content is permissible on their platforms are ineffectual against bullying, trolling and bigotry, and yet have never offered fully “free” speech. The way platforms utilise their monopoly over user-generated data is shrouded in secrecy.

[See also: Why Facebook has designs on your face]

The communities they facilitate don’t appear happy, either: multiple studies have linked screen time with an increased risk of depression. Since 2016 social media firms have been charged with promoting fascist subcultures, ultimately enabling violent outbursts such as the US Capitol riot earlier this year. More menacingly, Facebook, as it was forced to admit in 2018, had been used to incite the Myanmar genocide against the Rohingya from 2016 to 2017. For a world of “connection”, the internet is a lonely, paranoid and volatile place.

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These ills first emerged in the 1990s, out of what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have identified as the “Californian model” of internet provision – that is, one almost entirely commercialised and deregulated. This was when online communities were converted into tradeable resources, as the role of advertising – informed by user engagement – incentivised internet services to manipulate users. Social media feeds became algorithmically tailored to goad people into more febrile engagement. The less happy the system made us, the more it compelled us to participate. This was the route to profit.

Three decades after Tim Berners-Lee introduced the Web to the world, we are compelled to ask: could the internet have been different? In commercial terms, it is hard to imagine what might replace advertising-funded platforms. There are subscription and fee-based models, such as Substack and  OnlyFans. But their “communities” are small paying audiences rather than participants. Substack has reportedly reached half a million subscribers and OnlyFans over 120 million users, but Facebook has 2.89 billion. This is partly due to the “network effect”. The usefulness of a platform like Twitter or Facebook depends on how many people use it. The more users they have, the more connections they can offer each user. Platforms that charge fees are thereby likely to restrict the number of users and so reduce the value of the service.

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Yet the history of internet technology shows that there have long existed alternatives to our present digital derangement.

Before the triumph of the Californian model, there were two online communities with different conceptions of social life. In the late 1960s, a tech-savvy faction of the hippy commune movement was led by Stewart Brand, later joined by Larry Brilliant. The bible of this movement was the Whole Earth Catalog (1968), which offered commune-builders information on how to use land, erect shelters and craft goods. With the rise of personal computing from the early 1980s, Brand and Brilliant found a way to implement the values of the commune movement through an online forum and email system they called the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (Well).

The Well used a Bulletin Board System connecting users on a dial-up network. The community of “Wellbeings”, as they named themselves, was an attempt to realise the communal values of 1960s counterculture in a digital context. The majority of online communities in this era were, as the American critic Howard Rheingold describes, “computer enthusiasts, engineers, and college students”. The Well strived to be accessible to anyone with a modem, but was biased towards educated, male, West Coast professionals and hackers.

The Well turned traditional concerns on the left – about computing and its relationship to military power – on their head. During the Cold War, computing and cybernetics had emerged from the same military-industrial complex that had produced nuclear bombs. The idea that social networks were webs of information, later called the “information society”, was a weapon of war developed in government-sponsored research laboratories such as the Radiation Laboratory at MIT.

[See also: Apple vs Facebook: how the war between the Silicon Valley giants is changing tech]

But according to Fred Turner in From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), by appropriating these new communications technologies the Well made the ambitions of commune-builders “commensurate with the technological achievements of mainstream America”. The success of the Well in providing users with friendship, emergency support and communities for hobbyists and political chat entered into legend.

Intriguingly, however, part of what made the Well so successful was what makes it distinct from the internet today. It encouraged users to combine online discussion with “fleshmeets” – meeting in person. This is unlike the internet now, where online discussion largely replaces physical encounters.

The “failure” of the modern internet is sometimes blamed on the hippy values that survived in the Well and in hacker communities on the US West Coast during the 1980s. The computer scientist Moshe Vardi argues that the hippy belief in sharing, the idea that “information wants to be free”, not only created an information commons but also produced a “tragedy of the commons” in which individual users exploit communal resources for their own purposes. Another prominent computer scientist, Jaron Lanier, similarly claims that the ideology of “free information” left tech firms with little financial choice but to fund their businesses through advertising.

[See also: Why the billionaire space race is the colonial fantasy reborn]

This criticism overstates the hippy foundations both of the internet and of the Well itself. Stewart Brand was earning a fortune working as a conference organiser for companies like Shell, Volvo and AT&T soon after he launched the Well; his co-founder Larry Brilliant was a multi-millionaire who owned a company that made computer conferencing systems. Their vision of “networked entrepreneurship”, which they introduced to the World Economic Forum in 1996, made the liberal values of the counterculture compatible with the right-wing libertarianism of tech stockholders and executives. By conceiving of the internet as an electronic agora, a marketplace where people could speak freely without censorship, they promised that the technology provided a form of self-determination. One could experiment with identities, sexualities and lifestyles in a free virtual space. But it would be self-determination on the terms of the free market, with minimal government regulation.

For all of the hackers and tech enthusiasts who had provided free labour and invention on the West Coast during the 1980s, the money and infrastructure of the early internet came from the US state looking for ways to enhance military domination and industry. Everything from packet-switching technology – which helps transmit data across networks – to the  iPhone went through phases of public sector development and private investment.

But there was nothing inevitable about online communities being captured for commercial ends. This happened as a result of decisions made in Washington, DC, beginning with the wave of telecom deregulations in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration then rolled back limitations on commercial use of the internet, and transferred innovations developed by the public sector to private companies. This was part of the broader political programme of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, which favoured extensive privatisation.

[See also: How Big Tech made us screen addicts]

The major beneficiary of this Web 1.0 was America Online (AOL), which was the first to experiment with commodifying online communities. It did so by using the free labour of over 10,000 volunteers to make its message boards turn a profit. But it was Google, and later Facebook and Twitter, that established the advertising model based on extracting data from users. The social industry, where social life is turned into profit, was born.

Was the communal dream of the internet compromised from the beginning? It is telling that the idea of the online community was phrased in the language of the “electronic frontier” and “virtual homesteading”. This is the internet as settler-colonialism – the dreams found among early Quakers fleeing to the New World, or hippies forming rural communes in the 1960s, that utopias can be built by sidestepping messy social struggles. In reality, there is no escape: they brought the old worlds with them.

In the 1970s, long before the establishment of Silicon Valley, the French state had pioneered its own national online system: the internet before the internet. It was called the Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique (Minitel). After all but leaving Nato in 1966, the French state anticipated the “computerisation of society” and began intensive research into its own version of the communications networks that were being explored by the US military.

Minitel emerged from this research in 1981. It was a public sector-owned videotex service, delivered on a small, sleek, brown box with a keyboard that flipped out to reveal a screen. Users could get the terminal free from their local authority and pay a small usage fee to access online pages of text and images. It was an open platform, guaranteed by the public sector. Anyone could set up the equivalent of a website, a service, provided they registered to do so. Users could shop, chat, book concert tickets, play games, check their bank accounts and even – foreshadowing the “smart home” – operate remote-control thermostats and appliances. It was an enormous success. By the mid-1990s there were 6.5 million Minitel terminals in use.

Although it was developed to help modernise the French economy, it was through Minitel that a new left cyber-utopianism emerged. In 1986 social movement organisations created their own Minitel service: 36-15 Alter. It combined 25 associations representing farmers, anti-racist students, psychiatric patients and others, who paid the membership fee and managed content collectively. In the same year, student protesters used the web service provided by the left-wing daily Libération to organise protests against education minister Alain Devaquet’s reforms to the university system, forcing his resignation. Two years later, striking nurses used Minitel to coordinate their industrial action against low wages and staff shortages. The psychotherapist and philosopher Félix Guattari commended the way the nurses used Minitel for “transversal communication”, and looked forward to a “post-media era”. No longer would people rely on mass media, with its “element of suggestion”.

[See also: The rise and fall of digital Corbynism]

Minitel was not a leftist utopia, but a state-maintained free market. And because its  infrastructure was not commercialised, and there was no way to profit from clicks, it did not lead to the model of addiction and trolling that characterises the social industry today.

Drawing on the early success of  Minitel, an alternative to the Californian ideology momentarily presented itself in the early 1990s. France Télécom (known as Orange today), was the nation’s publicly owned telecommunications utility. Hoping to ingratiate itself with the West Coast tech scene, it hired John Coate, one of the founders of the Well, to develop a new internet service.

The end of the Cold War, and the global ascendancy of the US, had accelerated  the privatisation of industries and economies. Instead of fusing a public sector internet service with the grass-roots community-building that was flourishing on the West Coast, France Télécom merely developed another proprietary service for the wealthy called “101 Online”, comparable to the services then offered by CompuServe and AOL. It flopped.

So, too, did Minitel. The lack of adequate investment meant that it was lagging behind technologically and in no condition to compete with the World Wide Web when it emerged in 1991. The government ceased to provide terminals free of charge, while the European Commission recommended that EU states adopt what was essentially the Californian “free market” model of internet provision. Soon, Minitel terminals were outmoded by the spread of mobile phones, and yet the system remained surprisingly popular until it was retired in 2012.

What chance is there for major internet reform, now that the “free market” enthusiasms of the 1990s have given way to overpowering corporate monopoly? Even the slightest tweak to regulations provokes the wrath of the social industry bosses. When in 2014 the Spanish government tried to impose an intellectual property law forcing Google to pay news providers for links and excerpts provided on Google News, the firm announced that it would shut down its service in Spain. A similar move by the Australian government led to Facebook temporarily banning news pages on its platform in that country earlier this year.

Despite American liberals’ ire over Big Tech, the Biden administration is likely to preserve industry power. Even with the appointments of two prominent antitrust crusaders – Tim Wu to the National Economic Council and Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission – Biden’s team is stacked with industry representatives, and is lobbied hard behind the scenes. This is no surprise: the Democratic Party is close to Big Tech. The Clinton administration laid the foundations for globalising the internet on American terms, while the Obama administration enabled the social giants, even while struggling with them over the state’s rights to user data – the justice department, for example, demanded that Twitter hand over access to the accounts of WikiLeaks volunteers.

[See also: When the internet goes dark]

The power of the social industry is political, not just economic. Although social media platforms operate for profit, they also create human communities. They don’t organise us as a market or a democracy: rather, they encourage us to accumulate likes, shares and retweets, to build followings and behave like celebrities. This feverish, competitive world is lucrative, but it also changes who we are and how we socialise – this is real political power. Our dependence on these platforms, and the social life they promote, perpetuates our civic impoverishment. It leaves us disorganised, dependent on professionals and defenceless against power: what sociologist Theda Skocpol calls “diminished democracy”.

Yet in the 20th century, as Skocpol writes, hundreds and thousands of civic organisations were run on a democratic, federal basis. We can do the same with online platforms. Business empires such as Facebook and Google are unlikely to be taken into public ownership. But it would be possible to experiment with digital cooperatives, eroding the grip of these behemoths and dispelling the myth that our internet is inevitable.

Richard Seymour is the author of  “The Twittering Machine” (The Indigo Press)

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This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places