As any new technology emerges, there is a degree of idealisation that accompanies it. While the idea of utopia is known to be unattainable, the ideals that come with emerging technology invariably suggest the possibility of a better future. Ultimately though, it is always a matter of time before those ideals fall by the wayside. From the inception of the internet, there were strongly held beliefs that it could act as a panacea for all of the communication issues within human society. This was the philosophy behind the Open Internet of Silicon Valley, which emphasised the esemplastic power that such technology could hold. However, as the internet has continued to expand throughout the 21st century, these ideals have gradually collapsed. Instead, cynicism and distrust towards the technology has taken prevalence. Where the Open Internet fell short were in its insubstantial attempts to implement regulation and platform moderation. By lacking practical measures that would improve accessibility and utility, the internet failed to live up to the utopian standards envisioned for it, instead becoming a tool for surveillance of citizens and capitalist profiteering.
Platform regulation and moderation as barriers to free flow of information
In article 11 of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of The Citizen, it is written that the freedom of ideas and communication is “one of the most precious rights known to man”. This was inspired by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, both of which still retain strong importance today. While not exclusive to Western culture, it is a characteristically Western belief to hold freedom in such high esteem. Following the second World War there was a rush to secure the freedom lost to the conflict, especially with the newly established threat of nuclear destruction on the horizon.
As a result, the inception of the internet offered a positive symbol for humanity. It operated as a decentralised communication network that was invulnerable to nuclear attacks. Should the world turn on itself, civilization would not be completely wiped out. It would ensure that the freedom of ideas and communication was protected against the greatest physical threat to human survival.
Through the 1990s, more practical applications of the internet allowed it to garner attention from the general public and connect geographically and intellectually separate groups of people. (Lemley, 2021). This interest accumulated until the start of the new millennium, when anticipation for the internet peaked then quickly crashed. This became known as the Dot Com Bubble, and it marked a significant moment in the internet’s history when its value within society had been grossly overestimated due to idealistic expectations.
While all companies involved took large hits, a few key players such as Google and Amazon survived and endured on to comprise the modern internet. Twenty years later, platformisation is what defines the internet today, where key functions and social exchanges are overseen by large platforms that enable them. However, due to their decentralisation, these platforms are difficult to regulate and can obfuscate communication between people in different parts of the world
This does not align with the vision of Silicon Valley’s Open Internet, and there has been pushback from tech investors who are still striving for that vision. Elon Musk’s 2022 takeover of Twitter and subsequent rebrand to ‘X’ was done as an attempt to secure a marketplace of ideas. In a marketplace of ideas, censorship is minimised to ensure the free flow of dialogue and to subsequently test the truth of different ideas via their acceptance in a social context. (Ingber, 1984). While removing restrictions like this works in theory, the actuality has been that X is plagued with issues of hate speech and user verification. Free speech enables anyone to have a voice, though not all voices are necessarily valuable to be heard. So while the internet has engendered some freedoms, it cannot support a utopian vision of communication, with or without platform regulation.
The dominance of the internet as surveillance
Utopias are unsustainable in the long term because they neglect to account for the fickleness of human nature. Moreover, utopia is not a fixed state, but rather a malleable concept that takes the form of whatever qualities are lacking within a society. (Greene, 2011). So while the internet streamlined communication and promoted the flow of information, those benefits were not without their respective drawbacks. Namely, the capacity for mass surveillance.
Mass surveillance is possible because the communicative reach of the internet presents an inverse danger. While almost anyone can access it, the double-edged sword is that it learns and reveals more about its users the more that they engage with it. Under this model, datafication reigns supreme and rewards platforms for collecting information about their users. So while the utopian vision of the early internet suggested an innate equality between people, the internet has instead become a capitalist mechanism geared towards benefiting much larger stakeholders at the top of the platform hierarchy.
As the internet has globalised and diversified, it has compartmentalised and effectively come to represent the values of whichever country it is provided in. More authoritarian states use it to control the information that citizens receive, while more libertarian ones use it to disseminate as much information as possible and maximise the impact that it has on the population. While this may seem promising for Western countries valuing freedom, the reality of the internet is at odds with the expectations held of it. Access to a greater volume of information does not mean better information. What counts is the quality of the information, and this is a difficult thing to get right. Too much content curation and the platform will seem contrived, thus putting off users. Too little content curation and the platform may become a toxic environment for its users to try and sift through. (Gillespie, 2018).
Even if the Goldilocks balance can be found, it comes at a cost to the platform and it will not be perceived the same way by the users. In particular, citizens who are distrustful of their government will be inherently suspicious of what a moderated platform has to offer. Platforms struggle to succeed when they abide by utopian principles of appeasing people, so instead they monetise their content and data, and turn the internet into a medium for surveillance. Silicon Valley’s Open Internet prioritises the need for problems to have technological solutions, but no amount of technology can fundamentally alter the attitudes and beliefs that real people hold. (O’Hara & Hall, 2018). In this manner, the internet can be categorised as technology, but its scope and utility make it far more than just a technology. (Cowles, 2009). Even though the internet seeks to differentiate itself from the surveillance-based systems elsewhere, it still succumbs to the same structure and mode of operation when put into practice.
Neither the real world nor the digital world resembles a utopia, as much as they aspire to be one. The elusiveness of perfection prevents that from happening, as no amount of technological innovation can account for the intrinsically flawed nature of people. The Open Internet represents a quixotic perspective of the digital world, where technology unifies people and aids in solving their problems as they arise. While the internet can, to some extent, ameliorate issues within society, it comes with its own baggage and cannot be considered a total remedy to all those issues. Alternatively, it could be considered outright detrimental to society, though that is slightly tangential when pursuing the idea of a utopia. Technology is an imperfect tool, and once that fact is recognised then it can go on to be used as necessary. The Silicon Valley vision was destined to falter and collapse, with the only question being how long before it would occur. The internet has not become the superhighway of free speech it was imagined to be, rather the realities of regulation, moderation and surveillance have taken over. Promisingly, now that the ideals have been dismantled, internet governance can be approached candidly, and the technological future can be secured in a rationed and considered manner. That is, until the next big digital breakthrough comes, and the cycle of technological idealisation starts once again.
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Di Stefano, M. (2022, November 14). Why did Elon Musk (really) buy Twitter? The Australian Financial Review. https://www.afr.com/companies/media-and-marketing/why-did-elon-musk-really-buy-twitter-20221108-p5bwei
Gillespie, T. (2018). Regulation of and by Platforms. In Burgess, J., Marwick, A. E., & Poell, T (Eds). The SAGE Handbook of Social Media (pp. 254-278). SAGE. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/lib/usyd/detail.action?docID=5151795.
Greene, V. (2011). Utopia/Dystopia. American Art, 25(2), 2–7. https://doi.org/10.1086/661960
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O’Hara, & Hall, W. (2018). Four Internets: The Geopolitics of Digital Governance (No. 206). Centre for International Governance Innovation. https://www.cigionline.org/publications/four-internets-geopolitics-digital-governance
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