It is fair to say that the past decade has not been kind to this vision of electronic community, for reasons that were entirely predictable. When Barlow proclaimed that “we are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” it does not appear to have occurred to him that some people might use this freedom of expression to coerce, harass, or silence other people. Thus, the Internet quickly became infested with all of the same sorts of obnoxious people that exist in the “real world,” such as racists, bigots and sexists, not to mention team-killers, smacktards, cyberstalkers and other “griefers” all too willing to invade privacy, steal identities, harass ex-girlfriends or co-workers and generally make life miserable for other people. Worse, they are able to do so by taking advantage of the very features that were supposed to make cyberspace such a utopia: no laws, barriers or borders, no government or police and almost perfect anonymity. The results confirmed Gresham’s law of cyberspace: bad talk drives out good.
— Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture
This is one of my favorite books. I included it on my list of books that have shaped my worldview. The Lady of the House has heard me refer to it so many times over the years that she finally decided to read it herself. On last week’s trips to Ohio and D.C., she brought it along and read her favorite bits out loud, followed by pauses for discussion. I know reading is largely pictured and practiced as a solitary activity, but you get a lot more out of a book when you read as a team. The conversation helps more of it to stick in your memory.
At any rate, this was published in 2004, which makes its pre-Web 2.0 prescience even more striking. In this excerpt, Heath and Potter were referencing Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which, they accurately noted, “reeks of bongwater.” But jokes aside, let’s spare a moment for people who used to think like this. Imagine what a cataclysmic disaster 2016 must have been for them. It’s often said that an old European way of life, with all its dreams and promises, was brutally murdered in the trenches of Verdun and the Somme; a century later, the, uh, “trenches” of the web were likewise filled with the smoldering wreckage of utopian hopes and the mangled remains of naïve early adopters. Twitter was being blamed for providing a platform to help Trump to the presidency, Facebook was excoriated for corroding the distinction between news, gossip and conspiracy theories, and social media in general had become largely associated with ominous, dystopian data-harvesting schemes and virulent mob behavior. Two years further on, and rather than the global agora filled with philosophical conversation that the founders envisioned, social media can be fairly described as a giant kennel full of Pavlov’s dogs, with Trump as the bell.
For tragic skeptics like myself, all of this was indeed entirely predictable. It seems too obvious to need saying, but any future developments in society can only be built on, or extended from, what already exists. That includes flawed human beings and all their ignoble, contradictory motives for action. There never will be a form of social, technological or political alchemy that will produce a purified form of human nature without all the dross of its past. If you promised to build a third floor of a building that can support itself on thin air and doesn’t require a foundation or two supporting floors, you would be rightly thought insane, but if you promise that a new political arrangement or a new gadget will make people behave in predictably benevolent ways, you’ll be hailed as a visionary. In a couple decades, you can expect to find people similarly shocked by the unintended consequences of gene editing. And on and on it goes.