(This is my presentation at Gikii 2019 at Queen Mary, London. Slides Here).
For many years, we thought of the Internet as inherently good, a unique innovation that would bring about a better world through technology. The Internet could empower people to become educated and better versions of themselves. Having access to unlimited amount of information like no other society before, it was thought that a new world would arise, a world of educated, informed, democratic, egalitarian, globalist societies. More transparency, less corruption, more democratic engagement.
Nothing encapsulates this better that TIME magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year edition, which gave us, the people of the Internet, the title of Person of the Year. In a piece that sets the tone of the time, writer Lev Grossman wrote:
“[2006 is] a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”
Peak cyber-utopianism came about 2010, Iran’s Green revolution had become the shining light for hope for the future. Thanks to communication technologies, sophisticated populations would rise up against their oppressive regimes. Wikileaks held governments accountable, Wikipedia provided perfect information curated by informed and engaged netizens. Social media brought together protesters in the Arab Spring. Writer Mark Pfeifle suggested that Twitter should be declared as the Nobel Peace Price winner by stating:
“Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy”
We would live in a perfect techno utopia of decentralised systems with Bitcoin providing financial independence that would bank the unbanked.
The rise of cyber-dystopianism
How naïve we were. How wrong we were.
And yes, I say “we”, I count myself amongst some of those who bought the hype. While I never went full cyber-utopian, I agreed that the Internet was good, and provided some needed transparency and education that could improve society.
We started to see everything go south just after the zenith of cyber-utopianism. Snowden. Gamergate. The Arab Spring turned into more repression. Bitcoin became the Bitcoin we know, not a currency but a highly speculative and ecologically damaging investment.
How this happened is an interesting story in its own right, but what fascinates me is that we now encounter ourselves in the opposite, a cyber-dystopia of global proportions. This scenario comes with many flavours, but I do not think it is a coincidence.
I would argue that utopianism has been replaced with purposeful dystopianism that matches our worse nightmares. Take almost everything we are warned against in dystopian science fiction, and there is a matching example of how it is being deployed in reality.
I go through several dystopias in the talk, but I will concentrate on four here:
Dystopia 1. Eco-dystopias and the Waterworld
As climate change becomes a reality, the depiction of ecological collapse has become one of the most prevalent in fiction. The Day After Tomorrow, Geostorm, Sharknado… In literature one of my favourite is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Whatever shape climate change will finally take, energy consumption is an important element of how we are making the world a more inhospitable place to live.
The Internet has had two effects that have helped the development of this particular dystopia. Firstly, it has helped to spread disinformation in the shape of damaging climate science denial. While deniers pre-date the Internet, social media has helped to both connect disparate conspiracy theorists and deniers, but it has also allowed some users to fall into disinformation rabbit-holes led by algorithmic recommendations.
Secondly, the Internet itself is consuming more energy. The popularity of streaming have led to more server farms and data centres, which is starting to have a noticeable environmental impact. A report in Nature says that by 2030 the Internet will account for 20% of the world’s energy consumption. If cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin become popular, the energy impact would be even worse. Already Bitcoin is having a considerable energy footprint.
Dystopia 2. Black Mirror World
One of the reasons for Black Mirror’s success is that it hints of the technologies of tomorrow, drawing their deployment to their chilling conclusions. Nosedive continues to be my favourite episode, with a world where every interaction is rated, and your social status and economic capabilities are tied to your social media standing.
Needless to say, the growth of a gig economy already hints in that direction, where Uber ratings become a status marker. While the important of the Chinese social credit rating system has been perhaps exaggerated, there are cheerleaders for having our real lives dependent on our online interactions.
Dystopia 3: Techbrocracy
Many fictional dystopias rely on the existence of a powerful technology entrepreneur that controls vast resources, and sits on top of a large corporation with state-like powers. Examples abound, The Circle’s Eamon Bailey, Blade Runner’s Eldon Tyrell, 2049’s Niander Wallace, Alita’s Nova, the always white dude chairman of a technology corporation has remained as a powerful ideal of what the industry looks like.
This film and literature trope seamlessly translates to our world, with the mighty tech-bro as a permanent feature of the Internet scene. Jobs, Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg, choose your favourite tech-bro (or sister, in the case of Elizabeth Holmes, who channels her inner tech-bro). We are expected to pay homage to these figures, to admire and emulate their ideas. The large corporations they control are just part of the manifest destiny of the tech-bro philosophy. Silicon Valley prevails, and its ideology spreads to the rest of the world.
Dystopia 4: Centrality World
Perhaps a less popular dystopia is that of a centralised Internet. It was very prevalent in Ready Player One, where the Internet as we know it has become a private enterprise. It is also an element in Tne Matrix, and any other film with a central “off switch”, or a central point of failure. In some ways, it is the hive mind trope that was so clear in the battle of Winterfell. Kill the controller, kill the thousands of monsters.
This is a dystopia because the centralised Internet can be easily switched off, easily hacked, it is not resilient. In July 2019 Cloudflare went down, bringing with it thousands of sites, and some of the most important services in the world were out of reach for hours.
You may be asking why is such a minor inconvenience relevant. Well, this inconvenience is not supposed to be possible, the Internet should be immune to such outages as it is supposed to be decentralised, but it is increasingly not. We continue to put all of our eggs in one basket, be it Amazon Web Services, to Cloudflare.
It is a bleak time to be interested in Internet regulation, particularly because we do seem to be living through extremely difficult times.
But I am an eternal optimist and I do not want to finish with such a pessimist view. So here is the optimistic conclusion.
All dystopias have an inherent flaw that will always lead to their demise. Pushing rebels to the point where they will do anything to destroy the evil empire. Corruption. Centrality collapse (again the hive-mind trope). We can only hope that the inherent flaws in the existing dystopias will become more evident, and we will be able to move beyond, and think of utopias again.
The best we can do now is to continue to think that those utopias exist. May you live in less interesting times.