Society The Internet

Whatever Happened to the Internet’s Promise?

Illustration for Techonomy by Jon Han.

(This article first appeared in the 2017 Techonomy print and digital Magazine, published last November.)

Just over twenty years ago, activist and internet pundit John Perry Barlow wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, motivated partly out of idealism and partly because he was angered by the U.S. Congress’ passage of the 1995 Telecommunications Act (one of the first times Congress sought to extend its laws and regulations to cyberspace). At the time, Barlow extolled the virtues of a system that not just spanned, but transcended identity, space, sovereignty, and geography:

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth…a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity…Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

Today, many still gravitate towards the kind of techno-utopianism expressed in Barlow’s declaration. Such idealism feeds into – and helped build – a massive global social movement around free culture and cyberspace. And perhaps it does offer us a powerful outline of what should be the ultimate governance of cyberspace: An arena that is uniformly equitable and enlightened, a benign and ever-growing ecosystem that interweaves people and machines through networks, the cloud, analytics and artificial intelligence. The digital revolution and resulting “democratization” of everything promised to lead us to a wealthier, healthier, more equitable world, one that brought us closer together, erasing both physical and virtual boundaries.

But unfortunately that is not the world (or cyberspace) we live in today.

We’re not even close. We’ve just witnessed a brutal, divisive, made-for-reality-TV embarrassment of a U.S. presidential election. Parochial and nationalistic leaders around the world are making gains. We watch the progress of hate-filled groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, the decimation of countries including Syria and South Sudan, and the displacement of more than 65 million people globally in recent years. That’s one refugee for every 113 people on the planet, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Borders clearly still matter. The UK voted for Brexit, Donald Trump probably still wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, and the refugee crisis is re-configuring the politics and borders of Europe.

Not only that, but borders are hardening in the virtual world, too. There’s the Great Firewall of China and the widespread emergence of internet “walled gardens.” Countries demand “data sovereignty,” insisting that information about their citizens in what is misleadingly called “the cloud” be stored on physical servers located within their borders. Then there’s the growing plague of cyber warfare and cyber attacks, ranging from the North Korean hack of Sony to Russia’s attack on American political institutions.

We can’t ignore the fact that tech enables insularity and hostility as readily as openness. Numerous countries “turn off” the internet or services like Twitter to prevent open discourse – including Brazil, Gabon, India, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. A world where networks and algorithms only show us what “we want to see” is no recipe for inclusion. And with half of humanity still disconnected, lack of access to the internet is a major barrier in itself.

Yet our lives, businesses, and institutions will continue to march towards the digital and virtual. So we need to figure out who should control or manage the sprawling network our 21st century world operates on. Should it be national governments? The UN? A yet-to-be-created multi-stakeholder global entity? Corporations? Citizens? Is it really possible to force a system that was designed not to respect borders to do so? I remain optimistic that we can overcome our challenges. Humans are after all brilliant, inventive, creative survivors. Connectivity is bringing us together, both online and in real life. And tech has certainly led to a more transparent world, one in which visibility can build moments and movements.

The potential of technology to change our world remains endless, limited only by our imaginations and our dated institutions. Satellites the size of tissue boxes now shoot into orbit to help us measure, monitor, and optimize how systems work on earth. Drones are used not just for military airstrikes but also for delivering humanitarian aid. Precision and vertical farming may help feed the world. And we can 3D-print almost anything.

Even more promisingly, the line between tech and science is growing blurrier. Synthetic biology has cross-industry applications from agriculture to manufacturing. Genome editing tool CRISPR allows us to edit DNA with precision. As our ability to manipulate both the biological and physical world increases, it seems a lot less like science fiction to talk about the potential of a future sentient ecosystem that adapts to and intuits our needs.

So, as we move towards a world in which we can foresee the potential of a genuine symbiosis of humans, intelligent machines and the physical world, how do we ensure it is a better one? The contrast between Barlow’s ideals for cyberspace and our current reality gives us something to strive for. The cyber world envisioned in the Declaration is one in which individual liberty is ensured and social, economic, and political divisions are erased.

Is such a thing possible? Can we take the best of that vision and apply it to the physical world? I refuse to rule it out. But we cannot reduce our world to bits and bytes, ones and zeroes. People are more than just data generators and consumers. Our technology, the industries that create it, and the systems that govern it must respect human complexity if they are to give us tools that help us create a better future. I’m confident they can.

Simone Ross is Techonomy’s co-founder and program director.

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