It is not enough for the Internet to succeed. It must succeed inevitably.
Or so many of us Internet Triumphalists in the mid-1990s thought. For, if the march of the Internet’s new values were not unstoppable, then it would surely be stopped by our age-old inclinations and power structures. The Net, as we called it then, would become just another venue for the familiar patterns of marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and ignorance.
Now I’m afraid the argument for inevitability that kept me, and others, hopeful for 20 years no longer holds.
It’s a simple argument that we can all the Argument from Architecture:
The Internet’s architecture is highly unusual.The Internet’s architecture reflects certain values.Our use of the Net, based on that architecture, strongly encourages the adoption of those values.Therefore, the Internet tends to transform us and our institutions in ways that reflect those values.And that’s a good thing.
Premise No. 1 makes me a cyber-exceptionalist. Premise No. 3 assumes there’s weak causality at work, making me some flavor of technodeterminist. The sweep of the transformations promised in Premise No. 4 results from the cyber-exceptionalism of Premise No. 1. Because I like the values referred to in No. 2, Premise No. 5 asserts my cyber-utopianism.
I still believe the Net’s architecture is exceptional and reflects values that Western liberals like me take as fundamental. That architecture moves packets of information around without any central management or control. It moves them without favoritism based on content, sender, recipient, or type of application. It enables us to connect with one another and with what we create for each other without asking permission.
The Internet’s architecture therefore values open access to information, the democratic and permission-free ability to read and to post, an open market of ideas and businesses, and provides a framework for bottom-up collaboration among equals.
In the past I would have said that so long as this architecture endures, so will the transfer of values from that architecture to the systems that run on top of it. But while the Internet’s architecture is still in place, the values transfer may actually be stifled by the many layers that have been built on top of it.
In short, my fear is that the Internet has been paved. You can spend an entire lifetime on the Internet and never feel its loam between your toes.
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