Opinion: 30 years on, what's happened to the promise of the internet?

Then as now, we must ask whether tech evangelists are selling a vision of the future with our interests in mind, and not just theirs.

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As a child, when you imagined the future, did it look like the world of 2024? Profit-seeking AI chatbots and environmentally harmful cryptocurrencies? Social media platforms cluttered with ads and banning news content for Canadians? I doubt it.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, or at least the version of the internet as we know it today. In 1994, when the first web browser debuted, tech evangelists were effusive with dreams of the technological future as a place of free information, expression and opportunity. However, as we know, the internet quickly became more privatized, more extractive and less wondrous.

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This is an opportune moment, then, to reconsider the past 30 years and take stock of what went wrong.

The first problem may be that our tech leaders — from Mark Zuckerberg to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman — seem to think they can force their latest fixations on the rest of us with impunity.

Zuckerberg’s mission to turn Facebook into Meta and embrace the metaverse, inspired by Neal Stephenson’s dystopian 1992 novel Snow Crash, stirred much investment, even though one wonders whether anyone actually seems excited about it. Are you?

Altman’s company may almost single-handedly change how many of us do our jobs with the imposition of generative AI, which can often make our jobs harder, not easier.

The way I see it, this hubris among our corporate leaders is merely a symptom of a much larger problem, which is that the future has become the domain not of governments, organizations or citizens, but of technology and, more to the point, the companies and executives that wield it.

The risk is that the whims of Zuckerberg, Altman, Elon Musk and other “great male geniuses” of Silicon Valley come to decide what the rest of us deal with, and what seems imaginable, thereby shaping and limiting our own imaginations. Meanwhile, governments and policymakers struggle to keep up, let alone react.

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This is not what many dreamed up in 1994 as the internet emerged. Those objectives — from open-source values to democratic empowerment — remain a part of the story of the internet, but largely feel forgotten or unviable, at least under current conditions.

The narratives of the future sold by today’s Big Tech have shaped the discourse for us all. I call these “unwanted utopias” — terrific for the Zuckerbergs and Musks of the world, but not very utopian for you and me.

So what do we do now?

First, we must recognize that what a technology can do is less important than the ways in which it is actually used. This, I believe, should be our guiding principle as the internet enters its fourth decade.

We must ask ourselves whether the future that is being sold to us has our interests in mind. Is generative AI being implemented to make your life easier, or is it going to make your job more complicated or serve as an excuse to pay you less?

Second, we must take that recognition as a signal that no technology is inevitable. Is the metaverse a box that cannot be closed, or is it possible to meaningfully debate whether we want it at all?

Third, we must realize that any story is fallible. As many of these companies are now facing a new reality where constant growth seems more difficult, their promises begin to look less appealing, less trustworthy. Maybe that’s because they are.

Of course, considering how the internet has evolved, and how entrenched in its ways it has become, it’s hard to imagine how we can reclaim the future from Big Tech’s elite and recover the opportunities it initially presented in 1994. But can you imagine where we’ll be if we don’t?

Perhaps, in 2024, we can start to undo some of what’s been done.

Jake Pitre is a public scholar and doctoral candidate in film and moving image studies at Concordia University.

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