I have decided that I am a digital technology romantic. Maybe idealist is more accurate. These perspectives cause me some stress in present times and require that I promote what might be lost causes. I came to these perspectives and stresses because I am a mature user of digital technology. You can translate this as old if you wish, but I am proud to say I was there before the Internet was really available. I was there when you called up BBSs using your acoustic modem. I was there in the days of telnet and gopher and before Mosaic. I ran my own server that sat next to my desk (working at a university with a direct Internet connection made this possible) and crafted rudimentary web pages by hand so there was something there to see.
These experiences offered me a vision of what the Internet might become. I saw digital technology as an equalizer – a way for more individuals to be influencers and to become better informed. It looked good for a while, but now what once seemed possible is being corrupted by big companies and the powers that be in the government. Maybe you don’t see this happening. Maybe you are satisfied with the filtered information you consume through Facebook. Maybe it is fine with you that your access provider (ISP) can collect data on your online behavior as an additional profit opportunity for that company. Maybe you don’t care that your provider can prioritize the speed with which you receive content of a type they can determine.
We went the wrong way with digital technology. The interstate highway system, an early way to think about the Internet, would have made a better model. Now, we are stuck with a system in which big money controls and shapes user experiences often without users understanding how these controls even work. You work for these companies. You provide the content and they distribute. You provide the attention and they sell the ads.
I blame the republicans for some of this. Allowing ISPs to sell data associated with user behavior and rolling back net neutrality were actions taken by the republicans now in office. At some level, I suppose this is consistent with the “get government out of as much as possible” mantra republicans push. However, allowing this logic works far better when those who provide services must compete. So, how many Internet providers can you access? With minimal and often no competition, the republican logic just does not work. Big money to play and few options for consumers means what was once possible has been lost. This is what happens when the common good is no longer the responsibility of government. This is what is called an oligarchy rather than a democracy.