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Intelligent Machines

The four ways that ex-internet idealists explain where it all went wrong

21st-century digital evangelists had a lot in common with early Christians and Russian revolutionaries.

A long time ago, in the bad old days of the 2000s, debates about the internet were dominated by two great tribes: the Optimists and the Pessimists.

“The internet is inherently democratizing,” argued the Optimists. “It empowers individuals and self-­organizing communities against a moribund establishment.”

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“Wrong!” shouted the Pessimists. “The internet facilitates surveillance and control. It serves to empower only governments, giant corporations, and on occasion an unruly, destructive mob.”

These battles went on at length and were invariably inconclusive.

Nevertheless, the events of 2016 seem to have finally shattered the Optimist consensus. Long-standing concerns about the internet, from its ineffectual protections against harassment to the anonymity in which teenage trolls and Russian spies alike can cloak themselves, came into stark relief against the backdrop of the US presidential election. Even boosters now seem to implicitly accept the assumption (accurate or not) that the internet is the root of multiple woes, from increasing political polarization to the mass diffusion of misinformation.

All this has given rise to a new breed: the Depressed Former Internet Optimist (DFIO). Everything from public apologies by figures in the technology industry to informal chatter in conference hallways suggests it’s become very hard to find an internet Optimist in the old, classic vein. There are now only Optimists-in-retreat, Optimists-in-doubt, or Optimists-hedging-their-bets.

As Yuri Slezkine argues wonderfully in The House of Government, there is a process that happens among believers everywhere, from Christian sects to the elites of the Russian Revolution, when a vision is unexpectedly deferred. Ideologues are forced to advance a theory to explain why the events they prophesied have failed to come to pass, and to justify a continued belief in the possibility of something better.

Among the DFIOs, this process is giving rise to a boomlet of distinct cliques with distinct views about how the internet went wrong and what to do about it. As an anxiety-­ridden DFIO myself, I’ve been morbidly cataloguing these strains of thinking and have identified four main groups: the Purists, the Disillusioned, the Hopeful, and the Revisionists.

These are not mutually exclusive positions, and most DFIOs I know combine elements from them all. I, for instance, would call myself a Hopeful-Revisionist.

The question is, do these tribes matter? Or are the Pessimists ultimately right that the internet is essentially destructive to society? Does the flowering of DFIO cliques, as Slezkine’s book suggests, simply represent the final throes of a dying movement?

I say no. Both Optimism and Pessimism make the mistake of assuming that the internet has inherent features, but like any technology conceived of and built by humans, it is shaped by human struggles, by the push and pull of a multitude of interests and schools of thought. What’s needed is a coalition around a New Optimism—one that celebrates what’s working, is honest about what isn’t, and articulates a path forward grounded not so much in technological fixes as in a richer understanding of trust, identity, and community.

The Purists

“The internet was a wonderful place before it became corrupted by corporations/commercialization/etc.” You hear this trope frequently among some DFIOs. Purists are still true believers—they think the “heart” of the technology, however defined, is something fundamentally good. The blame, in this view, lies with intervening forces that subverted the technology and prevented it from reaching its full promise. Purists want to launch the next great crusade and frequently talk about using blockchain for everything, breaking up the big tech firms, or putting an end to the scourge of advertising. 

The Disillusioned

“The internet was never all that great,” you’ll sometimes hear one DFIO say to another. “We’re realizing that now.” While the Purists maintain that a golden era of the internet really did exist, the Disillusioned unhappily believe that there was never any substance to these claims. Close cousins include the Saw-It-All-Alongers, former Optimists who also want the feel-good kicks of saying that everyone else is catching up to what they divined years ago. You’ll frequently find members of both groups enthusiastically using social media to hate on social media.

The Hopeful

One response to a perceived local failure is to seek optimism globally. This is the aspiration of the Hopeful, who try to vindicate the dreams of internet Optimism by foraging for positive moments in the wider world of the web. Some will point to the mass departure of younger generations from platforms like Facebook, or to intriguing experiments in digital democracy in other countries, or to the vitality and diversity of internet culture in general, as signs that a brighter day is yet to come. The Hopeful love Tumblr unconditionally, shared the lemon-rolling video nostalgically, and collect whimsical Slack memberships like they’re going out of style.

The Revisionists

Many Optimists believed that the structure of the internet by itself—manifested in collaborative projects such as wikis or crowdfunding—would bend social outcomes in their favor. One response to the events of 2016 has been to revisit this assumption, claiming that while the basics might have been right, more work is needed to realize the original vision. Revisionists want to preserve the original aspirations for the web through amendment, calling for a new effort to design better communities and systems for governing society online. They extol the virtues of stronger community guidelines, ways to influence behavior through “nudging” interfaces, and the power of user-centered design. 

Tim Hwang is director of the Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, a joint program of the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. (He is not to be confused with Tim Hwang, CEO of FiscalNote, profiled in “The data lord of lobbying”).

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