I started working with the internet in 1995. I remember my boss calling me into his office on a cold January day. He was a taciturn Finn and thus always matter-of-fact in his utterances. 

He said, “I’m going to have your work computer hooked up to the internet. I think it might be important.”

As the years passed, I have frequently wished I could send him a gift. My early exploration of the Internet defined my career. I quickly learned how to create web sites; later, I helped firms transition online. One of my first major jobs was to assist a company that previously published technology recruitment ads in glossy magazines. While they eventually folded, thanks to my efforts, they did have a website and managed to survive for longer than they might have otherwise. That experience taught me how transformative the web would be.  Later, I took up roles in Amsterdam and Antwerp; I have seen the world. Internet technologies still define my work; my Engineering PhD was an analysis of online communities.

I fondly recall the early days. There was no Amazon, no Facebook, no Google, and Microsoft was a late arrival. Web forums with limited user bases was our social media. Because of the lack of centralisation, it felt more open. People who had hitherto found it difficult to be heard suddenly had a powerful new channel. Monetisation was barely achievable. Web page sizes were a big concern because many users were still using dial up modems. 

Perhaps the best aspect of the early web was the sense of hope: I could have conversations with people all around the world. We could share what was going on in our lives. Eventually, social groups cohered; we looked forward to merely talking. It was magical. 

This is not the world we live in now. I am aware that when this blog began, the iPhone was less than a year old. Since that time, connected devices have taken over our lives. We talk to smart speakers in our homes to control our thermostats and light bulbs. We ask those same speakers to play radio broadcasts from distant lands: this aspect remains magical.  

And yet, we are now disenthralled. Large firms dominate now: I do my best to buy from etsy and eBay, but it is difficult to avoid using Amazon.  For example, if I want a turbo brush for my discontinued vacuum, Amazon is most likely to have a replacement.  I can and do buy books for cheaper via Bookmail on eBay; however, if I need a Python coding manual in my hands within 24 hours, Amazon is the most sensible option.

Furthermore, Google is so ubiquitous in search that its very name has come to mean “search” itself.  Social media platforms round up attention, segment it, and shove us into algorithmically driven bubbles which reinforce our beliefs and perspectives.  A stark reminder of this arrived earlier in the week.

I am on the left; I am also pragmatic.  These are not contradictory qualities. As I am on the left, I dislike Donald Trump and the entire clown car crew that follows in his wake.  I am also pragmatic: I ask, what is the best way to see him off? 

I do not claim to have any specific answers. However, I think we need to understand how the internet has changed. The aforementioned bubbles are not a bug, but rather a design feature in a world in which attention drives revenue. For every Khaby Lame reviving the spirit of Buster Keaton, there are at least several incel “influencers” telling frustrated young men that feminism and “woke culture” are to blame for their woes.

We on the left need to recognise that we also inhabit bubbles. For example, during the recent Academy Awards ceremony, the comedian Jimmy Kimmel read out a post by Trump disparaging him and his hosting abilities. Kimmel responded with the quip: “Isn’t it past your jail time?”.  My immediate circle chuckled; I smiled too.

But then I remembered: this is my bubble. The algorithms have presented me with like minded people who come from a similar background. Those same algorithms present something very different to other audiences. To a factory worker in Akron, Ohio, for example, this episode may seem like it’s a sneering elite looking down their nose at Trump. This factory worker may accept that Trump is not an ideal character but at least he throws a punch at well-heeled fools that know nothing about his life and how difficult it is.  It is via this means that far from living up to the promise of universal connection, the internet has become a tool of infinite division. Fact, truth, and reason are lost in the maelstrom of heightened emotions. Now democracy itself is under threat.

How can this be remedied?  I believe part of the solution may lay in our choices: for example, every time we buy a book from BookMail, a few pounds or dollars are taken out of Jeff Bezos’s pocket.  We also need much stronger antitrust action to prevent consolidation of the attention economy; it is a nonsense that any one firm’s name becomes totally synonymous with the functions it performs.  No one says “Ford” when they are talking about driving a Toyota.   

I recognise that I am a romantic with an exaggerated sense of nostalgia.  I frequently think about some of the first web forums I chatted on; I recall hitting the refresh button, waiting a few seconds for a reply from someone far away, and my breath catching as the page reloaded.  Yes, some things are far better now. If breaking news is available, I’d much rather have a phone vibrate in my pocket than have to wait for my modem to make screaming robot noises before I access the information.  Back then, we referred to the internet as “new media”. An older technology guru warned me that one day that it would just be called “media”.  He was right. Disenchantment came; it’s too bad that the bright dream turned so dark. 

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