As a teenager in the 90s, I was really excited about the internet. Growing up, I felt that it’s ability to connect people and unlock human progress was simply a given.
And I definitely wasn’t alone. The democratising power of the world wide web, and its boundless technological potential, were being discussed everywhere. Now everyone could truly have a democratic voice. Now the world’s knowledge could be at everyone’s fingertips.
New exciting companies grew, that did away with the puritanical formalities if the traditional industry. They were going to “think different” and “do no evil”. They provided email for free, and put shiny knowledge portals in everyone’s pocket.
Then came the ravages of the next couple of decades. It turned out that the price for free services had been our souls. That “do no evil” apparently meant building smarter weapons. Silicon valley corrupts internet policy, and enables massacres. Far from empowering people and bringing peace and prosperity on the world, the internet had created bigger monopolies than ever. It has made us more divided and created a mental health crisis.
From today’s rightfully cynical perspective, who could possibly argue that the internet is a force for good?
But I’m wondering if this is just what true progress looks like. Real growth requires confronting uncomfortable realities. Why wouldn’t this also be true for the growth of human thought and society?
Despite the destructive monopolising of the Big Five, it is still undoubtedly true that many many more people have a voice now than in the 90s. The balance of publishing power has radically and irrevocably shifted from the state-sanctioned media to the everyday humans on Twitter.
Yes, the tensions that have arisen from the democratising shouting at each other are huge. But what did we really think was going to happen if let billions of people directly argue with each other? Of course this isn’t helped by the gamified, manipulative algorithms of the profit-hungry tech monopolies, but it seems quite plausible that the fundamental problem is that there are many more conflicting opinions out there an anyone was really ready for.
And I wonder if something similar is happening for the way in which many problems across the world appear to have become much more intense. The internet shares information. It brings different perspectives and controversial facts. It lets people find alternate viewpoints. This has undoubtedly exacerbated harmful conspiracy theories, for sure. But it also makes it much more likely for propaganda and covert state actions to be challenged.
The printing press threw the world into turmoil that lasted centuries. It seems likely that the impact of the internet will be still greater, so it is really still in its infancy; we are very much in the turmoil phase.
Maybe the internet has delivered exactly what we hoped. It’s widened the conversation, given many more people a voice. It’s opened up access to information and empowered billions. It’s just that we were naive if we didn’t expect turmoil. The truth is subtle and complex, and the quest for it is full of conflict. The number of different perspectives are almost endless, and are not easily reconciled.
For every person who becomes radicalised by the internet, I can well believe there are many more who have genuinely expanded their understanding of the complex and subtle truths of the world. For every psychopath or bot hiding behind the veil of anonymity to maliciously manipulate people, there are many more who are honestly just trying to be heard, trying to work through very real cultural tensions. All the shrill cries of “nazi”, “racist”, “woke”; the complaints of being cancelled; book bans are just reactions to a diverse human race, suddenly forced to hear each other in a way they never have before.
So I still believe the internet is a democratising force. I still believe in democracy. And democracy is hard.
This isn’t to say that the fights don’t matter. In a sense, they matter even more - what we’re debating and shaping now, in this transformative time in human progress, will shape the future for sure. It is important to protect encryption, to break the tech monopolies, to create a sustainable internet. We must protect free access, push back against manipulative algorithms.
I guess what I’m really saying is that digital democracy and free speech are the long game. And maybe, just maybe, we’re doing just fine. Let’s keep going.