Posts about Internet

Concede defeat to bad speech

What if we concede that the battle against “bad speech” is lost? Disinformation and lies will exist no matter what we do. Those who want such speech will always be able to say it and find it. Murdoch and Musk win. That is just realism. 

Then what? Then we turn our attention to finding, amplifying, and supporting quality speech.

A big problem with concentrating so much attention and resource on “bad speech,” especially these last five years, is that it allows — no, encourages — the bad speakers to set the public agenda, which is precisely what they want. They feed on attention. They win. Even when they lose — when they get moderated, or in their terms “censored” and “canceled,” allowing them to play victim — they win. Haven’t we yet learned that?

Another problem is that all speech becomes tarred with the bad speakers’ brush. The internet and its freedoms for all are being tainted, regulated, and rejected in a grandly futile game of Whac-A-Mole against the few, the loud, the stupid. Media’s moral panic against its new competitor, the net, is blaming all our ills on technology (so media accept none of the responsibility for where we are). I hear journalists, regulators, and even academics begin to ask whether there is “too much speech.” What an abhorrent question in an enlightened society. 

But the real problem with concentrating on “bad speech” is that no resource is going to good speech: supporting speech that is informed, authoritative, expert, constructive, relevant, useful, creative, artful. Good speech is being ignored, even starved. Then the bad speakers win once more.

What does it mean to concentrate on good speech? At the dawn of print and its new abundance of speech, new institutions were needed to nurture it. In my upcoming book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis (out early next year from Bloomsbury Academic), I tell the story of the first recorded attempt to impose censorship on print, coming only 15 years after Gutenberg’s Bible.

In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti begged Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. It was a new translation of Pliny that set him off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to 22 grammatical errors, which much offended him. Mind you, Perotti had been an optimist about printing. He “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired,” wrote John Monfasani. But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross.” 

Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor. “The easiest arrangement is to have someone or other charged by papal authority to oversee the work, who would both prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books and would appoint some moderately learned man to examine and emend individual formes before printing,” Perotti wrote. “The task calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance.”

Note well that what Perotti was asking for was not a censor at all. Instead, he was envisioning the roles of the editor and the publishing house as means to assure and support quality in print. Indeed, the institutions of editor, publisher, critic, and journal were born to do just that. It worked pretty well for a half a millennium. 

Come the mechanization and industrialization of print with steam-powered pressed and typesetting machines — the subject of future books I’m working on — the problem arose again. There was plenty of proper complaint about the penny press and yellow press and just crappy press. But at that same time, early in this transformation in 1850, a new institution was born: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See its mission in the first page of its first issue:

Rather than trying to eradicate all the new and bad speech suddenly appearing, Harper’s saw the need to support the good, “to place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.”

Magazines — which Ben Franklin and Noah Webster had tried and failed to publish — flourished with new technology, new audiences, and new economics as good speech begat more good speech. 

I am not suggesting for a second that we stop moderating content on platforms. Platforms have the right and responsibility to create positive, safe, pleasing, productive — and, yes, profitable — environments for their users. 

But it is futile to stay up at night because — in the example of the legendary XKCD cartoon — someone is wrong, stupid, or mean on the internet. People who want to say stupid shit will find their place to do it. Acknowledge that. Stop paying heed to them. Attention is their feed, their fuel, their currency. Starve them of it.

I also am not suggesting that supporting good speech means supporting the incumbent institutions that have failed us. Most are simply not built to purpose for the new abundance of speech; there aren’t enough editors, publishers, and printing presses to cope. 

Some of these legacy institutions are outright abrogating their responsibility: See The New York Times believing that the defense of democracy is partisan advocacy. Says the new editor of The Times: “I honestly think that if we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.” No one is suggesting this as either/or. I give up. 

Instead, supporting good speech means finding the speech that has always been there but unheard and unrepresented in the incumbent institutions of mass media. Until and unless Musk actually buys and ruins Twitter, it is a wealth of communities and creativity, of lived perspectives, of expertise, of deliberative dialogue — you just have to be willing to see it. Read André Brock, Jr.’s Distributed Blackness to see what is possible and worth fighting for. 

Supporting good speech means helping speakers with education, not to aspire to what came before but to use the tools of language, technology, collaboration, and art to express themselves and create in new ways, to invent new forms and genres. 

Supporting good speech means bringing attention to their work. This is why I keep pointing to Jack Dorsey’s Blue Sky as a framework to acknowledge that the speech layer of the net is already commodified and that the opportunity lies in building services to discover and share good speech: a new Harper’s for a new age built to scale and purpose. I hope for editors and entrepreneurs who will build services to find for me the people worth hearing. 

Supporting good speech means investing in it. Millions have been poured into tamping down disinformation and good. I helped redirect some of those funds. We needed to learn. I don’t regret or criticize those efforts. But now we need to shift resources to nurturing quality and invention. As one small example, see how Reddit is going to fund experiments by its users. 

We need to understand “bad speech” as the new spam and treat it with similar disdain, tools, and dismissal. There’ll always be spam and I’m grateful that Google, et al, invest in trying to stay no more than one foot behind them. We need to do likewise with those who would manipulate the public conversation for more than greedy ends: to spread their hate and bile and authoritarian racism and bigotry. Yes, stay vigilant. Yes, moderate their shit. Yes, thwart them at every turn. But also take them off the stage. Turn off the spotlight on them. 

Turn the spotlight onto the countless smart, informed, creative people dying to be seen and heard. Support good speech. 

Web .0000012

I’ve been thinking about Matt Mullenweg’s response to Brian Armstrong’s response to Moxie Marlinspike’s excellent post about Web 3. I have some responses in return in this post based on a thread. tl;dr: I think Matt + WordPress provide much of the model Moxie seeks at the end of his post. 

First, let me say I don’t give a rat’s rump what is called Web 1, 2, or 3. They are all hubristic labels based on the ego of the present tense. This might be web .000002. As I often say, it’s 1475 in Gutenberg (Johannes, not WordPress) years. 

A key lesson I came to writing my book (still out with a publisher) on the (Johannes) Gutenberg Parenthesis is that it took a century and a half before groundbreaking innovation came *with* print: the newspaper, the modern novel, the essay (Montaigne), a market for printed plays. 

So what interests me about Web N is not what goes *into* it in terms of technological innovation — that will come — but more so what comes from invention *with* the technology, once the tech becomes easy, assumed, boring. 

What strikes me is that WordPress — blogging then — is a *with* not an *into* institution because it allows people to create WTF they want. It makes the technology easy & boring. It allows creators to surprise us with their creations for their own sake, not technology’s. 

Right there is a model for Moxie’s Web 3: ease. Creating NFTs: not easy, not cheap. Creating on WP: easy, cheap, thus fast and open. 

Of course, WordPress *is* a creation tool. There are others. But what sets it apart — what set it apart when it won out over Movable Type — is its open-source architecture decreed by Matt: The underlying code is open; anybody, including Matt, can build services atop it.

I remember when a Polaris VC scratching his head over Matt’s open-source architecture called me to ask whether it was insane to invest. No! I said. I explained why WordPress would win over Movable Type because of it. The software would spread and improve at the same time. 

In this structure, Matt merely has a first-mover advantage in building his services. This is why I am also excited by Jack Dorsey’s proposals for Bluesky, making the speech layer a commodity so innovators can build value-added layers we need (e.g., recommendation, authentication). 

So now (at last) to the point re Moxie: In the end, the post calls for:

 1) “We should accept the premise that people will not run their own servers by designing systems that can distribute trust without having to distribute infrastructure.”

In a sense, doesn’t WordPress at least display a model for meeting criterion #1 through open source: multiple instances create a sort of distributed architecture?

Moxie’s second wish: 

2): “We should try to reduce the burden of building software.” 

Here, too, doesn’t Matt’s WP at least demonstrate a model through its object/block-oriented creation tools (not of software, but of creation *with* software)? 

All this is to say that we’re not making a clean progression from Web 1–2–3 but instead trying to clean up what was done in Web .0000012. We return to Web 1 to deplatform it through a worldview that is already well proven: open source. I *know* that’s simplistic. 

My point is that it’s just as dangerous to think that Web 3 is an advance on Web 1 & 2 as it is to think that Medieval years were Dark Ages and that the Renaissance was progress and that we are modern. That’s the greatest hubris of all. Perspective matters. 

In writing about the Gutenberg Parenthesis, I learned the dangers of periodization, for in dismissing what came before, we lose the opportunity to build upon it. This is why I despise journalism’s conceit of the “first draft of history,” thus ignoring history. (By the way, from the MS:) 

The reason I’m thinking so much about this is that I’m teaching a course in Designing the Internet next month with Douglas Rushkoff. I’d love to assign Moxie’s post that launched a thousand threads, though I fear the technology might be intimidating to students.

Then I see that’s Moxie’s point: People don’t want to run servers. They don’t want to become fluent in something called Web 3. They want to build *atop* not *in* (that is, not in a walled platform). Making tech complex as a prereq is the equivalent of having to run servers. 

So I might well assign the post but also assign Matt’s thread because it brings historical perspective on the building of the web and demonstrates the whole point of the course: that students have the agency & responsibility to build the future of the net. 

Of course, Matt sums it all up better than I can: 

Continua: Lessons from two books on books

All culture is conversation. — Neil Postman

Culture is made up of what remains after everything else has been forgotten.
— Jean-Philippe de Tonnac

I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about the end of the Gutenberg Age and the lessons we can learn from our entry into it. (It awaits a publisher.) In my reading, I very quickly saw that I would not be demarking eras—in fact, I warn of the perils of periodization, the hubris of the “modern,” the noxious journalistic conceit of writing “the first draft of history.” Instead, I sought continua across eras, for that is where the lessons lie.

I came to see that from the dawn of movable type, books were in conversation with each other: Luther conversed with the Pope in their books (and bonfires of them); Erasmus and his friend More held an ongoing conversation through theirs. With its mechanization and industrialization — with the birth of mass media — print lost the art of conversation. Now, in a connected world, we are attempting in fits and failures to relearn how to hold a conversation with ourselves. There is a continuum.

Among the delights of my research are the moments when I find books that I fancy are, whether they intend it or not, in a conversation with each other. Sometime ago, I found connections about cognition in Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories and David Weinberger’s Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility. In another example, I constantly recommend to students that they read Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software with André Brock Jr.’s Distributed Blackness, for the first offers an oral history of the early attempts to create Black spaces online and the second is a sequel in time, analyzing the successful gathering of Black Twitter as a space for — in Brock’s delightful word choice — “jouissance.”

I just finished reading two new books by book historians I hold in the highest esteem and found connections between them.

Andrew Pettegree is the dean of book-history scholars. I have devoured many of his books — among them The Book in the RenaissanceThe Invention of NewsBrand Luther — and countless of his papers in the Brill series he edits and elsewhere. He and his colleague at the University of St. Andrews, Arthur der Weduwen, collaborated (for the third time) on a captivating new book, The Library: A Fragile History.

Matthew Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland, another book historian, focuses on more contemporary topics. Aging nerd that I am, I loved his last book, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. He has just written a new book, Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage.

I read these two books together. One could say that The Library is about the past and Bitstreams about the future. But no. Rather, between them they present a compelling continuum in their examinations of the processes of creating, editing, publishing (or today we might say sharing), curating, protecting, and losing what is written, said, or made.

The Library begins, of course, at the library of Alexandria. When Richard Nixon went to Alexandria, he asked to see the library, which is a punchline for a few reasons, one of which is that no one knows exactly where the library was. I was struck learning that scale was the Alexandrian library’s mission but also its curse, for the hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls collected there would have had to have been copied before crumbling every century or two. The more the library collected, the more impossible that would have become. “The sheer size of the Alexandrian library militated against its survival,” said Pettegree and der Weduwen. I’ve been thinking a lot about scale lately, about how mass became the mission of media with industrialization, about the benefit scale brings online (enabling more people to speak), and about the curse scale brings (curating and moderating — or, as some would wish, censoring — is an impossibility at scale). The pursuit of scale — and its perils — is not new; it is a continuum.

As The Library makes clear, the reflex to save books was not immediate, and when it began it was a pastime of the privileged. One of the earliest and greatest collectors was Columbus’ son, Hernando Colón. (See Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.) Subscription libraries were a business model that would support much of publishing. When Benjamin Franklin and friends started their shared collection in 1727 it saved them money on their reading and established the Library Co. of Philadelphia. Public libraries followed and flourished, thanks in great measure to the support of Andrew Carnegie.

With mechanization — of presses, paper, and typesetting—books became so inexpensive that more could write them and anyone could buy them. That, though, frightened the elites — just as movable type had in its day and the internet does today: a continuum. For the masses could now read and, God forbid, learn and even speak. Pettegree and der Weduwen explore the moral panic brought on by the rise of fiction, the fear that it would corrupt the souls of especially women and children. Even to open the stacks to browsing was worrisome as surely readers without watchful librarians would gravitate toward dangerous tales. “Circulating libraries were denounced as purveyors of pornography and books of brain-rotting triviality.” Sound familiar?

The Library ends recounting wars against books: wars of banning and burning and wars that destroyed libraries, demonstrating just how fragile they have been. (On this topic, I also recommend last year’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Oxford Bodleian Librarian Richard Ovenden.)

As a bibliographer, Matthew Kirschenbaum seeks to discover, preserve, and study not just the product but the act of creation: the process. In Bitstreams, he begins by exploring the physical and digital archives of manuscripts of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The paper version was singed and almost destroyed in a fire in her home and so Kirschenbaum was permitted to view the remains on a screen. Also on screens, he delved into the contents of her outmoded plastic diskettes. That is how he reconstructs revealing moments of conversation between Morrison and her editor over critical choices of words. Next Kirschenbaum examines writing that was “born digital,” poetry written in Hypercard, and he finds that while the author’s words may be preserved, the choices and designs he made in fonts — the full experience of display — may be lost as machines and formats become obsolete. Many a bibliographer will argue that each copy of a book should be studied as a unique object rather than a copy for each one carries its own provenance and use and marks in the margins. (See Luther’s copy of Erasmus’ New Testament.) So, too, Kirschenbaum teaches that each bitstream — each representation of creation on different screens in different circumstances using different tools — is “never truly self-identical.”

The ultimate continuum I see in these books is about culture as conversation, to borrow from Neil Postman. For as a disciple of James Carey I see much of our world through the lens (the loudspeaker?) of conversation. Kirschenbaum writes about the processes of creation. Pettegree and der Weduwen write about the processes of selecting, saving, using, discarding, and destroying print in libraries. Together, they present an unbroken string from creator to reader, in the constant conversation of culture.

Libraries, then, can be as much about what is forgotten as what is remembered. In addition to everything else he does — which is awe-inspiring enough — Pettegree heads the Universal Short Title Catalogue, a grandly ambitious effort to create as complete a bibliography as possible of the first two centuries of print with movable type. This means tracking down not just books and artifacts in collections but also those that are lost to history, the ghost of their existence surviving only in references elsewhere or as lines in auction or estate catalogues. This struck me as a terribly depressing endeavor: finding that which cannot be found. But I was mistaken. When Pettegree and his USTC colleague der Weduwen presented their book in a conversation for the New York Public Library, I quoted Jean-Philippe de Tonnac (above) in a question, asking about the lessons they might recommend for the digital bibliographers of the future.

Pettegree answered that he and the USTC pay special attention to the “ugly ducklings” of print, the items that were so well-used in their day that they were worn to bits or that were so everyday that they were not valued enough to be preserved. For that tells us much about the choices that culture makes and the choices that make culture. “[N]o society has ever been satisfied with the collections inherited from previous generations,” Pettegree and der Weduwen write, adding that what they chronicle in their book “is not so much the apparently wanton destruction of beautiful artifacts so lamented by previous studies of library history, but neglect and redundancy, as books and collections that represented the values and interests of one generation fail to speak to the one that follows.”

The great and founding book historian Elizabeth Eisenstein (who along with Thomas Pettitt of Gutenberg Parenthesis fame and Pettegree himself inspired me to embark on my book project) was attacked by some critics — some out of sexism and jealousy, I think — for focusing too much on the fixity of print. They accuse her of not recognizing how books, especially in the early days of incunabula, were riddled with error, of unsure provenance, and changed often. They say that she projected latter-day views of print on the past. I say the critics are wrong. Eisenstein frequently addressed print’s malleable nature. In a conversation I had with her, she did boast on Gutenberg’s behalf that his Bible had already lasted longer than any digital format would, and she was right. Yet as Kirschenbaum argues, digital bitstreams can be resurrected: “[T]he immolated edges of a manuscript are gone forever, carbonized and vaporized in a flash; the bitstream, if fixity and integrity are maintained, awaits only the imposition of the appropriate formal regimen to cauterize its internal cascade of relational disarray and rememory its pixels all anew.”

We risk projecting our contemporary expectations of print’s fixity not only on early publishing but on the early internet, expecting that since digits are all but free everything can and should be saved. No. Culture is conversation and some conversation is meant to disappear in the sky like the hot air it is; some is worth remembering and repeating, teaching and learning, copying and remixing. The Library and Bitstreams make clear that observing what society and its institutions choose to remember will tell us much about what they value.

In a recent post, I discussed the case of Niccolò Perotti, who made what is believed to be the first call for censorship of print in 1470, beseeching the Pope to appoint learned censors to judge and fix printers’ formes before they were duplicated. What he was really calling for was not censoring at all but instead editing; he foresaw the need for the institutions of editor, publisher, and librarian to assure quality and authority in print.

The institutions created for the age of print are so far inadequate to the networked world with its abundance of wonderful conversation. We should not expect the net to be edited any more than we should expect a barroom argument to be. We cannot expect — though many do — Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to be cleaned and polished like a slick magazine. We should understand the net for what it is: conversation, process, sometimes a library, sometimes a stream of bits disappearing into the past.

What institutions do we need then? That is what leads me to teach this course alongside Doug Rushkoff, in hopes that students might tackle such questions as Pettegree, der Weduwen, and Kirschenbaum (and Rosenberg and Weinberger, and McIlwain and Brock) inspire. How do we find what’s worth hearing? What editing and moderation of the public conversation should we wish for, demand, or permit? What could digital librarianship accomplish? What will we save so it may be used, studied, and built upon in the future? How do we rethink our models of content, product, and property and our laws of copyright to support collaborative creation? (See my proposal for creditright.)

Kirschenbaum begins Bitstreams asking this lovely question: “What is textual scholarship when the ‘text’ of our everyday speech is a transitive verb as often as it is a noun?” At the end he wisely declares: “[A]ll the data dumps in the world — 365 days of diffs — won’t get us any closer to total recall. The future of digital literary heritage will be as hit and miss, as luck dependent, as fragile, contingent, and (yet) wondrously replete as that of books and manuscripts.”

Disinformation is not *the* problem

Yes, disinformation is a problem. But by treating it as the problem, we can cause more: We give malign actors the attention that feeds them as we spread their messages. We defer facing society’s real ills. We ignore voices too long not heard. We present a distorted and dystopian view of reality. We delay building a better internet and society.

I’ve paid attention to disinformation myself. I’ve written about it and raised money to fight it. The war against disinformation is in good hands: see danah boyd’s Data & Society, Joan Donovan’s work at Harvard, the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta et al at the Stanford Internet Observatory, Claire Wardle at First Draft, and many more. 

I’ve come to see that the time has come to turn our monomaniacal media gaze to additional, more positive and perhaps productive strategies. Consider:

Ignore the trolls

Recently, Morning Joe began the day mocking “Dr.” and Trump lackey Rep. Ronny Jackson for tweeting that the Omicron COVID variant was a worldwide political plot. Joe Scarborough dutifully ridiculed the idiocy of it, and later that day Anderson Cooper did likewise. Thereby they gave Jackson precisely what he wanted: media attention and glory among his cult of anti-institutional insurgents for pwning the libs. 

Have we learned nothing in the last five years? Fascists will make up shit for the sake of making shit up so they have shit to stir. As I argued here, I don’t think even they believe most of it; they want us to believe they believe it. Their outrageousness is not news; it is a strategy designed to exploit the weaknesses in journalism to report conflict and the unusual. So stop. Ask whether there is any point, any value in repeating their lies and sick fantasies. If not, say nothing. Starve them.

In this time of abundant speech — which I celebrate, as so many communities too long not heard in mass media finally have their press — the key skill we must develop is not to point out or even debunk the bad but instead we must to learn to ignore idiocy as we amplify authority and wisdom. 

In 1850, just as steam-powered presses were enabling a flourishing of new publications, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine announced its intention to “place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.” That is what we need now: not services that expose us to the worst of the web and humanity but instead services that find and share their unbounded treasures, which most certainly are there: talent, expertise, diverse lived experiences that deserve to be heard. Build that, please. 

Focus on society’s real ills

Underlying the moral panic about the internet and its agues is the assumption that if we could just turn off Facebook or Twitter, everything would be OK. That is to assume that society was just fine before new technologies came along. That, of course, is delusional blindness — blindness to the racism, inequity, misogyny, lack of empathy and understanding, greed, and hatred that have plagued this nation for generations and centuries. 

We hide behind many excuses to place blame on others, concocting syndromes like filter bubbles and echo chambers as classic examples of third-person effect: the assumption that everyone else is vulnerable to lies and hate but not us; we’re fine. Listen, please, to Michael Bang Petersen’s research, which finds that we do maintain echo chambers in real life and the problem is that the internet busts them, exposing people who already hate to the objects of their hate. Read, too, Axel Bruns’ exhaustive compilation of research in his book, Are Filter Bubbles Real?, which points to the conclusion that they are not. Let us ground our discussion of what’s wrong with society and the interventions we create in empirical research, not assumptions.

Before you cancel me or accuse me of canceling—which is the same thing — I am, of course, not saying that all of us are in every moment racist; don’t try that excuse. I am saying that if the last half-decade of insurgency and pandemic have taught us nothing else, it is that our society is infected with structural racism and inequity as well as hostility to education and if we do not address those causes every day in our journalism, in our teaching, and in our public discussion, then we are putting off the real work to be done. And then we are all to blame.  

Disinformation is real, yes. It is a tool of malign actors, true. But it is also an excuse to put off painful self-examination. 

Listen to the voices of experience

And how do we embark on that work? We need to begin by listening to those voices too long not heard who can tell us all about their experience of inequity, yes, but more importantly so we may include and value their contributions to our learning and public discourse. 

Last year, The New York Times crowned the heroes of COVID-19: all white men. Just today, the other Times, Rupert’s, featured data-crunchers as the “smoking-hot heroes” of the pandemic: all white men again. Oh, for fuck’s sake. Spend just 10 minutes scrolling through my Twitter list of 675 COVID experts and you will find countless women and women of color in science and medicine who are leading the war on the disease. 

Right under our noses are history’s greatest tools for listening — the internet and social media — and by concentrating only on their ills and woes, we forfeit the opportunity to hear those who enrich the public conversation. I’ve harped on this before: that journalism is the conversation and when journalists turn their backs on the voices they had ignored, they only extend the harm that journalism has done to so many communities and delay the reparations deserved. 

Journalism fancies itself a reflection of society but its mass-media mirror is cracked: it leaves out huge swaths of society; it presents a dark and dystopian view of the world but especially of life in those communities it fails to represent; it makes it money — just as the internet does thus far — on the corruption of attention and that colors its reality. We can build something better. 

Build a better internet and society

By concentrating only on the internet’s problems, the best we can hope for is a slightly less-bad internet. Or, if we mess up by intervening based on unfounded assumptions and fears, we can end up with a worse internet and society, one where our new freedoms are impinged upon to protect old, threatened institutions, like mass media. 

Instead, I want to see us take responsibility to build the internet and society we want. I’ve harped on this, too: We have time. The net is yet young. We still see its future in the analog of our past. We don’t know what it is yet. We — or more likely our grandchildren or theirs— will invent what it can be. Still, we should start now.

That is why I am teaching a course in designing the internet this spring, to convince students (actually, to have them convince themselves) that they have the power to take the net and make it theirs. This is not a technology course; it is most definitely a course in the humanities. I hope the students come up with audacious proposals for what the net can be, including ethical, moral, and regulatory regimes for what it should be. To build what they propose, we will need to shift resources and attention from exclusive attention on the net’s bad actors. That is why I write this. That is why I find myself drawn to others who want to talk not just about what’s wrong with the net but what can be built with it, by us, for us, humans. 

I will continue to support efforts to battle disinformation. But we must not stop there for there is so much more to be accomplished. 

Studying the internet

This spring at CUNY, my colleague Douglas Rushkoff and I will teach a course in Designing the Internet.

Students will propose and design a feature of the net they want to see. Some might start from the entrepreneurial perspective: a product, service, feature, or company. But I hope students will radically broaden their perspectives to design more: perhaps a regulatory regime, an ethical regime, a research agenda, a covenant of mutual obligation with the public for technology and media companies, a design agenda for equity and accessibility, business models built to avoid the corruptions we know, curricula, a warning from the past (about technological determinism or manifest destiny), archival standards, a manifesto for an open net, a constitution … anything. (Note that I did not list a metaverse, but if the students want to go there, they can.)

In the first third of the course, we will offer many readings — including the likes of Vannevar Bush, André Brock Jr., danah boyd, Charlton McIlwain, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Andrew Pettegree, Kate Klonick, David Weinberger, Ruha Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Axel Bruns, James Carey, Dave Winer, Marshall McLuhan— and much discussion examining the net and how we got here: lessons for good and bad. We will invite guests from other perspectives and disciplines: anthropology, psychology, African-American studies, Latino studies, ethics, history, psychology, technology. The students will work on their proposals through the term and will present at the end.

Our idea is to demonstrate to students that they have the agency and responsibility for the future of the net. Because the course is being taught at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, I have a particular objectives for media students: to argue that the canvas for journalists and the service they provide is much wider than story-telling and publication. (I contend the net is not a subset of media but instead media are becoming — alongside so many other sectors of society — subsets of the network.) I also want to instill in journalists the reflex to seek out, learn from, and share work from academics who are researching key questions about the net and its impact — based on evidence. The students will find and share a work of research a week.

Doug and I come at this from different perspectives. I wrote the book What Would Google Do? Doug, a professor at Queens College, wrote the book Throwing Rocks from the Google Bus. Opinions may vary. But we end up on the same road: arguing that the net is not baked, that its present proprietors are not its forever owners, that we have the opportunity and responsibility to decide and design the net we want. We both want the net to be the province of humanity over technology. As Doug put it to me: “We just get there differently. I want less evil, you want more good.”

In the end, I believe that what we are examining is the future of society’s institutions, challenged and rebuilt or replaced in a new, networked reality. In my to-be-published (I pray) book The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I use this example:

The first recorded effort to impose censorship on the press came only about fifteen years after Gutenberg’s Bible. In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti appealed to Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. His motive was not religious, political, or moral “but exclusively a love of literature” and a desire for “quality control,” according to Renaissance historian John Monfasani. Conrad Sweynheym, a German cleric who, it is believed, worked with Gutenberg in Eltville, and his partner, Arnold Pannartz, became the first to print a book in Italy, in 1465. Two years later, they moved to Rome, where in 1470 they published an edition of Pliny’s Natural History edited by Andrea Bussi. It was this book that set Perotti off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to twenty-two grammatical errors in the book, which much offended him.

Perotti had been an optimist about this new technology of printing, having “once viewed as a boon to literature ‘the new art of writing lately brought to us from Germany.’” He called it “a great and truly divine benefit” such that he “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired.” But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for according to Monfasani, Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross…. And when good literature does get printed, he complains, it is edited so perversely that the world would be better off not having the texts than to have them circulate in corrupt editions of a thousand copies.” Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor, not to ban books so much as to improve them. “The easiest arrangement is to have someone or other charged by papal authority to oversee the work, who would both prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books and would appoint some moderately learned man to examine and emend individual formes before printing,” Perotti wrote. “The task calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance.”

We might look upon Perotti’s call as quaint — not unlike Yahoo in the early days of the web thinking its librarians could catalogue every single noteworthy site anyone could ever make. The idea that a moderately learned if vigilant person could approve and correct all printing even out of Rome alone betrays a failure to divine the scale of printing to come. Yet one could say that rather than foreseeing the state censor, Perotti was envisioning the roles of the editor and publishing house as means to assure quality. He was looking to invent a new institution to solve a new problem, just as we must today. Fact-checkers engaged by Facebook and algorithms written at every internet company are inadequate to the task of assuring credibility of content, just as Perotti’s censor would have been. So what do we invent instead?

That is the question we will address in this course.

The course will be open to any CUNY graduate students from any discipline and, with approval, to undergrads and (if there is space) nonmatriculated members of the public (non-CUNY students can follow this link or DM me or Doug).

We hope this is a pilot for a much larger project in Internet Studies — perhaps a degree. We are also working with others on efforts to bring more attention to internet research: We plan to offer literature reads of prominent and current work to journalists and policymakers to inform their work with evidence (I’ll share a job posting shortly). And once COVID allows, we hope to bring together researchers to share perspectives on what we know and don’t know about the impact of the net, what questions we have yet to ask, and what data and access are needed to explore those questions. More to come, as I’m still raising funding for the work. (Disclosure: My school and center have received funding for scholarships and various activities from Facebook, Google, and Craig Newmark; I receive no remuneration from any tech platform.)

In the meantime, teaching this course alongside Doug will be a blast.