Of the Internet

It sometimes seems to me that the Internet has been there my entire life. My sentient life, perhaps. I can’t remember when I heard about it the first time. It sort of seeped into my consciousness around the same time  I installed slackware linux off of a CD-ROM on to my father’s 386 pc.

At the time I lived in a farmhouse in rural Ontario. We got television by steering an antenna on the top of a mast towards the broadcast antenna. Sometimes it was aimed at Ottawa, sometimes into Montreal, sometimes across the border, into Burlington, VT. Sometimes it even worked.

I wasn’t totally disconnected from the world, but nearly so.

As I learnt about this bigger world of information, in a place where there was almost none, a profound sense of longing stirred in me. For a while I had been accessing local BBS systems via a modem. My information world was defined by my local calling area, and then, later on, by the one BBS that had access to fidonet.

In 1992, Delphi Forums started providing limited consumer access to the internet: ftp, telnet, usenet and text based web.  When I heard about it, I was ecstatic, and as I dialed hundreds of miles south, into a POP in New York City, I thought I’d finally be able to get whatever information I want.

My parents soon disagreed. The phone bills were exorbitant. And despite my best efforts I couldn’t convince them that this primitive, text based interface was the future. For now, at least, I was stymied.

A short time later, Canadian internet service providers started to appear – all a long distance call from where we lived, but still, they offered SLIP and PPP access, and I signed up as soon as I could. I had Netscape Navigator running on linux, and finally the future I knew was happening out there was accessible to me.

It was a world where learning was only limited by my ability. Where the only important thing was my brain. I could consume or contribute, like anybody else. I learned how to programme in C and Perl. I read through the linux kernel. I wrote articles. I started a company. It was an Eden, where anything was new and possible.

My early experiences with the internet have defined the rest of my life but now, when I think about where we are, all we have achieved, my feeling is primarily one of disappointment.

The world of information that we once had is now gone. It is now curated by machines and presented to us through a veil of advertising. Personalisation is just an exercise in demographics too small for anything other than a machine to care about. Whereas I could once steer a Google search towards getting me anything I wanted, now it merely gets me whatever most people want.

Facebook started out by keeping me in touch with the things people I knew were up to. Now it displays a stream of news articles written by machines that will confirm my own biases.

I grew into an adult at a time when we were all being told to build our own brands. Kids today are living in a time when they need to carefully manage what other people are saying about them in places they have no control over.

I’m not a curmudgeon. I’m not trying to say the world was a better place. I’m trying to say that it was different and aspirational, and at every juncture we made decisions that have shut down opportunities, rather than opened them up.

However we can still change.

Despite my misgivings, I am still hopeful. I believed and still believe that the combination of global networks and computational power can save the world. We can choose to build services and applications that enhance the best of humanity instead of the worst. Compassion, generosity, our sense of spirit and adventure.

We can and should make decisions that enhance privacy and personal freedom at every opportunity, rather than quash it. We can choose to educate, instead of censor. We can still use what we learn to help feed the hungry, or to enrich the poor, to heal the sick, and make ourselves better husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.

The state of the internet reflects both the best of us and the worst of us, and unfortunately there is more about humanity that is bad than is good, but history shows us that we can work against our nature.

We just have to choose to do so.

 

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