Back in the ‘90s, for those old enough to remember the hype, the young internet was promoted as a solution to racism — no one could tell if you were black, white or Asian behind the screen; they could only see pixels — and an end to ignorance — it would spread education and enlightenment to all — among many other claims.
Twenty years later the internet has made pirating movies, ordering books and getting take-out so much easier, but has led to a the popularising of Holocaust denial, toxic racism and fake news.
But that’s not the biggest mistake we made about the internet. No, the biggest mistake is that we thought that as the internet became more mainstreamed in society, the internet would become more like society.
Instead, the society has become like the internet.
We thought that, as the internet matured, it would serve as the world’s most effective distribution source for news. Instead, “news” itself has become one more internet message board, with no filter and where whatever gets the most attention, regardless of quality or truthfulness, wins.
We thought that as the internet matured, it would enable democracy. Instead, our politics has become more like the internet — hyperpolarized, aggressive and far more concerned with signifying where they stand on national “cultural war” issues than solving local problems.
We thought that as it matured the internet would help connect people to communities. Instead, it has diluted strong communities based on place and presence and replaced them with weak virtual communities based on meme consumption.
To be clear, many of these trends were well on the way before the internet existed; the future of the media was predicted with terrifying accuracy not just by theorists but by movies like “Network” (1976) and “Broadcast News” (1987). Likewise, the hyperpoliticization of politics began in earnest with Newt Gingrich’s promotion to Minority Whip in 1989 and was well underway by the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term. Geographic polarization was also already in progress.
But the internet has become the technology around which these already existing social trends orbit, and it has provided them a structure in which they are supercharged. Factories, railroads, highways, these aren’t just technologies, they are systems around which life is organized.
There was, to be sure, a U.S. before and after the Industrial Revolution, but they were very different countries. Likewise, the systems of policy and society that existed before the internet can’t simply be transferred over to a culture in which everything gets done in virtual worlds. At least not without imitating the Amish, and if we had that kind of self-control we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Thus all culture is increasingly internet culture, and this is the kind of shift that ends eras and shakes the foundations of the world.
It’s easy to blame this development on Donald Trump and his habit of sending angry, misspelled tweets at China at 3 a.m. And yes, this is horrifying and may very well put us in an unnecessary war. But Trump is a result, not a cause. Twitter empowers demagogues and disempowers diplomats. The “attention economy” discourages people from working behind the scenes to get things done. The constant churn of a newsfeed prioritizes the new and the novel over the good and the true. The constant disruption caused by new tech business models backed by a near endless supply of venture capital keeps people in a constant state of economic anxiety and agitation.
This isn’t to say that new technology or the digital era will be all bad — I am absolutely giving a one-sided account — but the point is that it will be radically different. Industrial societies were organized differently than agrarian ones; digital economy societies will be organized differently still. With or without Trump, nearly ever facet of our culture, from universal education to voting rights, from dating to religious freedom, is now back on the table to be renegotiated. Nothing is really settled anymore. On the contrary, everything is unsettled.
The only promise that Silicon Valley ever got right is that the internet will “change everything.” They just got all the particulars wrong, and still do. They are not prophets of culture, only its disruptors.