I want to say something unpopular and provocative: I am grateful for the internet, especially this year, most especially amid the pandemic that still engulfs the world.
In media’s telling — according to my sampling from just one newspaper’s and one magazine’s coverage of late — the net is singularly to blame for the polarization of society, a toxic ecosystem of hate, renewed racism, the deterioration of the public square, the destruction of democracy, a pandemic of disinformation, the rise of paranoid conspiracy cults, an increase of tyranny, the so-called surveillance economy, the death of privacy, the end of individuality, the twilight of free will, rampant harassment, sex trafficking, mental health morbidities, addiction to our screens, outright evil, and making us stupid. To journalists and lately politicians, nerds are now villains, algorithms are dark incantations, and Mark Zuckerberg is the folk devil. In their moral panic, media have made the internet the enemy.
But just try to imagine this last year without the net. Pause, please, to recall the privileges the net has provided, for thanks to it…
- Countless people could stay employed who otherwise would have lost their jobs, as others did theirs. The world economy would surely have fallen into a severe and lasting depression.
- Many parents could work from home and care for — and sometimes educate — their children.
- Students could continue to study and learn with their teachers and classmates. Without it, they would have lost the year entirely.
- Families and friends could connect, talk with, and see each other to offer support and love for as long as they wished. I am old enough to remember long-distance rates and greedy telcos’ ticking clocks.
- Scientists and doctors could share research and data as never before due to the open information ecosystem the net provided with preprint servers, peer review via social media, and search. Their adaptability is a model for us all.
- Commerce continued. We could order anything from our homes, staying safer inside them.
- Telehealth allowed patients to receive treatment for their physical and mental well-being.
- Vaccination campaigns could be organized on the net.
- After the murder of George Floyd, and after the net made it possible to witness the crime, a movement rose across the country and around the world to foster a long-overdue racial Reformation in America.
- Deprived of the ability to ring doorbells, candidates and supporters could reach out to voters and defeat the most dangerous president in the nation’s history.
- We could entertain ourselves to pass so many lonely hours, watching movies, bingeing on series, reading books, playing games, collaborating on TikToks.
- And — thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, TikTok, Reddit, Discourse, Slack, Clubhouse, podcasts, and blessed blogs — we could converse.
Myself, I was able to teach online, to attend conferences around the world, to conduct my research from many libraries, and to learn from more than 600 scientists and doctors in the COVID Twitter list I curated. I was able to reclaim the three-and-a-half hours a day that commuting was eating out of my life, to be with my family, to work, to save money, to get groceries to my 95-year-old father in Florida, and to stay safe. I am grateful for all that.
I also was able to finish a manuscript of a book about the end of Gutenberg’s age, which has provided me with much perspective about our transition into the era that follows. Lord knows, the early days of print were disruptive, preceding the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (I believe we are witnessing a parallel struggle over race today), various wars (notably the Thirty Years’), the Scientific Revolution, and eventually the Enlightenment. I am not a technological determinist. Print did not make this history inevitable, nor did history make print inevitable. But it is clear that without print, Martin Luther’s reforms would not have spread with the speed and force that they did. (He might have ended up like his predecessor, Jan Hus, in ashes. Then again, without the scale printing provided to the business of indulgences, he also might not have had cause for complaint.) Without the net — specifically social media — #BlackLivesMatter would not have been able to mobilize with the speed and force we have witnessed; it would still be throttled by the limited attention rationed to it in mass media. As #BLM has demonstrated, the First Amendment nurtures not just speech but also the rights to assemble and petition for redress; on the net, the First Amendment has reached its fullest expression through the people, not the press.
Is the net perfect? Of course not. To hold it to that expectation is ahistorical and simple-minded. It is imperfect because we, its makers and users, are imperfect. Everything media object to in their bill of particulars against the net is the result of human failures, foibles, exploitation, and corruption, some within the big corporations, some without. Must the net’s current proprietors do a better job of recognizing, anticipating, and counteracting bad behavior and bad actors and protecting it and us from their manipulation? Absolutely. But if we concentrate our attention only on the worst, we will never build what is better; we will only lose playing catch-up to the villains among us.
As I say often, the net is still young. We have yet to understand what it can be and what we can do with it. Its current proprietors are maligned in media, though that is a fairly recent pivot from the utopian to the dystopian. (USC researcher Nirit Weiss-Blatt pinpoints the date and cause of media’s shift). I also spent time during the lockdown, in a semi-sabbatical, working on a book proposal about media’s moral panic regarding the net, examining the legacy industry’s self-interest at work. I think it’s an important story to tell. But I also don’t want to make the mistake media make, obsessing on the negative.
In every panel and conference I watched during these Zoom Times, the starting point of the discussion about the net is what is wrong with it. The ideas that emerge in that context are then necessarily reactive, incremental, and often unimaginative: quick fixes and purported cures for what some say ails the net (though not us).
What interests me more is imagining a better internet and a better society with it. What if we instead allowed ourselves to start the discussion with what the net could be and what we could make with it? What if we raised our expectations to those heights? We have the perfect opportunity — and this is the perfect time — because we have before us, right in front of our Zoom-weary eyes, the amazing, even miraculous litany of what society managed to accomplish even during the dark and desperate days of a global pandemic, thanks to the net.
As a journalism professor, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to start three new degree programs with my colleagues at the Newmark J-School, in entrepreneurial and engagement journalism and leadership. Thus I get to watch students when they have the space to reimagine and reinvent journalism. It is wonderful. But I have begun to see that I have been thinking too small. Journalism is just one sector of media and media are but one part of the net; every institution and industry requires similar examination and invention. I wish to work with other disciplines — anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, African-American studies, Latino studies, gender studies, ethics, design, neuroscience, digital humanities, literature, history, law, economics, and the technologies — to provide students, scholars, and the people known as users the stage upon which to imagine and build a better net and a next society with it.
What if the starting point of our discussion was not what Zuckerberg did to disappoint someone this week but instead the example of what so many did with the net in a time of need: Teachers, students, technologists, companies, government agencies, philanthropists, doctors, scientists, parents, citizens accomplished so much. What if we set our sights not on giving a few malign fools too much attention for their idiocies but instead focused our attention on how brilliant people of good will could use new means to speak, assemble, and act and to build movements for racial equity, economic equality, climate protection, education, art, cultural understanding, civic participation, health….
I want to set students loose, knowing what we now know about what can go wrong, to design new functions, features, platforms, regulations, standards, companies, measurements, experiments, networks. More than that, I want to see them create what their imaginations allow with the technology, outside of it.
So I thank the net for what it made possible. I thank the people who had the vision to see what it could do and made it work for us in a time of crisis. I am eager to see what we can do next.
(Order the note card from BlissCollections.)