I am an avid internet user. It is difficult to imagine my life without it. I owe many of my closest friends to the internet, along with many of my professional successes. As a force in my individual life, I’m willing to call it a net good.
On the systemic level, though, I wonder. It is hard to deny that the internet has been instrumental in the neoliberal regime, consolidating economic power in ever fewer hands. Amazon is archetypal here. Where the distribution of books used to be the province of a range of independent and chain bookstores, now Amazon is most people’s first stop — and they’ve actually moved to expand their reach by creating the kind of bricks-and-mortar bookstore they’ve been putting out of business for decades.
Amazon is also indicative of a broader trend: while we’re supposed to be shocked and awed by the endless innovation of the tech sector, their underlying business models are not new at all. Amazon is the bigger, better Sears catalogue. That’s it. Netflix streaming is the on-demand function from your cable plan, with better selection and an exciting new fee. The model for virtually all online publications — use content to attract eyes so that you can sell ads — is literally exactly the same as for print publications. Offering a service so you can sell ads is but a variation on the theme — particularly social media “services,” where the users themselves collectively generate the content that attracts them to the site. Sometimes you get other variations, like the “freemium” model that offers a free teaser to try to convince people to pay for the content or service, but in principle that already existed too, in the form of the public library or the waiting room at the dentist.
The other primary business model is intermediating transactions and taking a cut. Sometimes this enables transactions that otherwise would not have happened, or at least not happened as easily. This is the model for the finance industry, which does not actually create economic value. At its best, this model sets up the conditions for other people to create economic more efficiently or effectively — but at its distressingly frequent worst, all it does is extract value that can be stockpiled, concentrating wealth and power without producing any widely shared benefit.
Most “innovations” center around finding exciting new ways to extract free labor or, when that can’t be achieved, to brutally underpay people. The most exciting models combine the extractive and exploitative approaches, as shown by Uber. The Uber example also shows us how often these exciting and innovative new breakthroughs are illegal. Some of those illegal moves might seem beneficial to the public, for instance those that make music and movies more freely available or allow an alternative to cabs. Others are openly harmful — it’s appalling to think how much easier it has become to distribute child pornography since widespread adoption of the internet, for instance, increasing demand and hence directly leading to more abuse of children than would otherwise have happened.
The double-edged sword can be found everywhere. We love to read about how protestors in the Arab Spring coordinated via Twitter, but ISIS seems to have enjoyed greater and more enduring success with its social media strategy. We have all benefited from being in contact with many more interesting and like-minded people, but by the same token we are also put in contact with trolls and harrassers — and the eyeball-monetizing model means that no one has any real motivation to tamp down harrassment, because eyeballs are eyeballs.
Many of these pitfalls can be traced back to the distorting influence of capitalism on the internet, but it’s not as though the non-profit sector has done much better. The signature achievement of the open source movement has been the developement of a clone of the 70s-vintage UNIX operating system, which has basically resulted in a giveaway of free (as in beer) software to tech companies while making essentially no impact on the everyday user’s reliance on proprietary software. The other major achievement has been to create a more up-to-date Encyclopedia Brittanica, with farcically good pop culture coverage. In short, the bold techno-anarchists are hardly sticking it to the man — when they take a break from harrassing the dread SJWs.
And none of this even touches on the very real environmental impact of “the cloud.” We all instinctively deplore the waste of paper generated by pre-internet bureaucracy, but I daresay that printing something off and putting it in a file cabinet is better for the environment than keeping a server running 24 hours a day so that I can have instant access to it. I love having instant streaming access to all my favorite shows, but could we as a society maybe decide whether the amount of power consumption a Netflix binge produces is worth that convenience gain? Obviously our democratic machinery is in a bad state at this point, but even if it weren’t, the seemingly immaterial nature of the internet means that question probably wouldn’t arise — and this at precisely the time when we need to have environmental and specifically power-usage concerns at the very forefront of our collective mind, not shunted even more effectively into the background.
I’m sure we can all imagine a better internet. Many of us have probably even experienced it in some fragmentary way. But the mass, commercialized internet that we know now is definitely not that utopian internet — and it threatens to destroy what utopian moments and spaces persist. I realize that there are complex questions about whether any tool can be truly neutral, but even if we regard the internet as such a neutral tool, one that could be used in any direction we choose, we as a society have chosen the very worst ways, almost systematically. And however the intrinsic properties of the internet may have contributed, our concrete use of the internet is unquestionably an indictment of our deeply corrupt, thoughtless, and self-destructive society.