• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Title

The Broken Internet

Adolescent angst?

 

May 23, 2017
 
 

For so many reasons I remain deeply grateful to Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, Department of Human Development, for hiring me. In part, I am grateful because while teaching there I learned to incorporate a developmental model into my thinking. History was no longer just about dates and places and times, it was about change over time, with attention to the connections between civilizations and the human life cycle. Readers of this blog will no doubt recognize some aspects of that analysis in my thoughts about law, policy and technology.

 It is with this mindset that I approach the media’s latest trope “the broken internet.” Coming from an interview with the somewhat chastened and increasingly thoughtful Evan Williams, the Twitter and Blogger guy, it goes something like this NYT quote: “I think the internet is broken,” he says. He has believed this for a few years, actually. But things are getting worse. “And it’s a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it’s broken.”

Pardon my playing the age + mother card, but that sounds more like adolescent angst to me. Not that adolescent angst is bad.  I, myself, had enough of it to last a lifetime. In its proper developmental place, it is exactly what the doctor orders for every young man and woman, a dose of greater awareness of the realities of life, a tempering of younger forms of boundless enthusiasm with its unrealistic expectations of what life has to offer.  It is, in short, a necessary step for every young person, especially those who have exploited more youthful aspects to their fullest, as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur represents so mightily in our culture today. If the emotional pendulum has swung out too far on those younger aspects, then adolescent angst serves the purpose of swinging emotions back in. Ultimately the goal is to have emotions settle at a developmental place that embraces responsibility, moderation and, well, for lack of a better word, maturity. 

If Mr. Williams were my son, here is over a beer what I might say. “Honey, the internet is only a reflection of humanity.  Humanity is broken, if you want to think of it that way. That is not an inherently pessimistic assessment, but it is a realistic one. If you expected technology to automatically cure hunger and want, war and violence and political oppression, you simply did not have the intellectual or emotional tools to appreciate the beautiful naiveté of that expectation. You have done so well in your life to create these great platforms, and you can continue to do important things, only now you will do so with more realistic expectations and, with god’s help, a little wisdom.”

What might those more realistic expectations be? Long time readers can stop reading here because I am about to go down a well-worn road. First, “the internet” is not just about technology + a business model (= $$$). What we know about people psychologically and sociologically, anthropologically and historically – just to draw on the obvious disciplines that offer insight into those categories of experience stretched over time and place – is critical to an assessment, even if that means adding to our academic studies consideration of “human-computer interaction” or other social science perspectives to hone in on the specifics about behaviors and technology. 

“The internet” is not a single instrument, either, it is a full orchestra. Let’s now hear from political science, or what various forms of governance, for better or for worse, humans subject themselves to in the name of social order. For what ideas or forms do people suffer, or are willing to sacrifice their lives to defend or change? What are the eternal verities of that dynamic that ring the bells of fairness and what are the discordant aspects that dominant men and women use to unjustly enrich themselves psychologically or materially at the expense of others? If one believes, as I do, in the principle of “civilization and its discontents,” that social order comes at the expense of the individual, and that the more oppressive and unfair a society, the greater the discontent, then it would seem to require architects of “the internet” to incorporate some of these concerns into their planning for a realistic, sustainable future of that medium. 

This more seasoned assessment might change up the query. If humanity is broken, so to speak, by existential realities of want and need, how do we construct an internet that decreases the probability of bad things happening and increase the possibility people acting on their better angels? That is the question I would like to see Mr. Williams, and many a Silicon Valley boy and girl, ponder. And not just them. If you believe, as I do, that the internet is world-historical phenomenon and therefore deserving of deep consideration not just as a technology but as both shaper and shaped by its interactions with just about every other aspect of human experience contemporarily, then we – all of us – desire statesmen, artists, scientists, philosophers, the cable guy and her supervisor, the electrical engineer and the lawyer, the student and the teacher, etc. – to weigh in on the cultural and physical construction of this “thing,” thoughtfully. 

If prominent thinking about the “internet” is finally now at its adolescent moment, that is good.  Ever since the vaulted, lyrical John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, a view that assumed social order without the discontent of governance, we have awaited this sobering moment. Read something more current, such as Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Teargas, to go forward.  It is time for us all to grow up.  We must recognize that every component: the ISPs, the technology, the delivery models, the value proposition for K-12 and higher education, the estimated 3.2 billion, and growing number of people, governments and protest moments who use this communication, commerce and content tool, require it to act as a bulwark against trolls and bullies and advanced persistent threats from nation-states, organized criminals, greedy industrialists, corrupt government officials and vandals. Whatever we create must be faithful to eternal principles of a good society. Problem is that good societies don’t grow on trees. So, honey, if you are up to the task of investing in not just your bank account but a better future for us all to see, then here is a big hug and let me know how I can help on your way to maturity.

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