Two Schools of Internet Pessimism

by on August 30, 2010 · 20 comments

[I am currently helping Berin Szoka edit a collection of essays from various Internet policy scholars for a new PFF book called “The Next Digital Decade: Essays about the Internet’s Future.”  I plan on including two chapters of my own in the book responding to the two distinct flavors of Internet pessimism that I increasingly find are dominating discussions about Internet policy. Below you will see how the first of these two chapters begins. I welcome input as I refine this draft. ]

Surveying the prevailing mood surrounding cyberlaw and Internet policy circa 2010, one is struck by the overwhelming sense of pessimism about our long-term prospects for a better future.   “Internet pessimism,” however, comes in two very distinct flavors:

  1. Net Skeptics, Pessimistic about the Internet Improving the Lot of Mankind: The first variant of Internet pessimism is rooted in general skepticism regarding the supposed benefits of cyberspace, digital technologies, and information abundance. The proponents of this pessimistic view often wax nostalgic about some supposed “good ‘ol days” when life was much better (although they can’t seem to agree when those were). At a minimum, they want us to slow down and think twice about life in the Information Age and how it is personally affecting each of us.  Other times, however, their pessimism borders on neo-Ludditism, with proponents recommending steps be taken to curtail what they feel is the destructive impact of the Net or digital technologies on culture or the economy. Leading proponents of this variant of Internet pessimism include:  Neil Postman (Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology), Andrew Keen, (The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture), Lee Siegel, (Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob), Mark Helprin, (Digital Barbarism) and, to a lesser degree, Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) and Nicholas Carr (The Big Switch and The Shallows).
  2. Net Lovers, Pessimistic about the Future of Openness: A different type of Internet pessimism is on display in the work of many leading cyberlaw scholars today.  Noted academics such as Lawrence Lessig, (Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace), Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It), and Tim Wu (The Master Switch The Rise and Fall of Information Empires), embrace the Internet and digital technologies, but argue that they are “dying” due to a lack of sufficient care or collective oversight.  In particular, they fear that the “open” Internet and “generative” digital systems are giving way to closed, proprietary systems, typically run by villainous corporations out to erect walled gardens and quash our digital liberties.  Thus, they are pessimistic about the long-term survival of the wondrous Internet that we currently know and love.

Despite their different concerns, two things unite these two schools of techno-pessimism.  First, there is an elitist air to their pronouncements; a veritable “the-rest-of-you-just-don’t-get-it” attitude pervades their work.  In the case of the Net Skeptics, it’s the supposed decline of culture, tradition, and economy that the rest of us are supposedly blind to, but which they see perfectly—and know how to rectify.  For the Net Loving Pessimists, by contrast, we see this attitude on display when they imply that a Digital Dark Age of Closed Systems is unfolding since nefarious schemers in high-tech corporate America are out to suffocate Internet innovation and digital freedom more generally.  The Net Loving Pessimists apparently see this plot unfolding, but paint the rest of us out to be robotic sheep being led to the cyber-slaughter since we are unwittingly using services (AOL in the old days; Facebook today) or devices (the iPhone and iPad) that play right into the hands of those corporate schemers who are out to erect high and tight walled gardens all around us.

Unsurprisingly, this elitist attitude leads to the second thing uniting these two variants of Net pessimism: An underlying belief that someone or something—most often, the State—must intervene to set us on a better course or protect those things that they regard as sacred.  They either fancy themselves as the philosopher kings who can set things back on a better course, or they imagine that such creatures exist in government today and can be tapped to save us from our impending digital doom—whatever it may be.

In both cases, I will argue that today’s Internet pessimists have over-stated the severity of the respective problems they have identified.  In doing so, I will argue that they both have failed to appreciate the benefits of evolutionary dynamism.  I borrow the term dynamism from Virginia Postrel, who contrasted the conflicting worldviews of dynamism and stasis so eloquently in her 1998 masterpiece, The Future and Its Enemies.  Postrel argued that:

The future we face at the dawn of the twenty-first century is, like all futures left to themselves, “emergent, complex messiness.” Its “messiness” lies not in disorder, but in an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever shifting, a pattern created by millions of uncoordinated, independent decisions.

However, because “these actions shape a future no one can see, a future that is dynamic and inherently unstable,” Postrel noted.  But that inherent instability and the uncomfortable realization that the future is, by its very nature, unknowable, leads to exactly the sort of anxieties we see on display in the works of both varieties of Internet pessimists today.  Postrel contrasts the two visions of stasis and dynamism and makes the case for embracing dynamism as follows:

How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with [Tim] Appelo that “we’re scared of the future” and join [Judith ] Adams in decrying technology as “a killing thing”? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise?  These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future.  And that question creates a deep divide.

Indeed it does, and that divide is growing deeper as the two schools of Internet pessimism—unwittingly, of course—work together to concoct a lugubrious narrative of impending techno-apocalypse.  It makes little difference whether the two schools agree on the root cause(s) of all our problems; in the end, it’s their unified call for a more “regulated, engineered world” that makes them both suffer from the same stasis sickness.

In this chapter, I will take on the first variant of Internet pessimism (the Net Skeptics) and make the dynamist case for what I call “pragmatic optimism.”  I will argue that the Internet and digital technologies are reshaping our culture, economy and society in most ways for the better, but not without some serious heartburn along the way.  My bottom line comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis: Were we really better off in the scarcity era when we were collectively suffering from information poverty? Generally speaking, I’ll take information overload over information poverty any day.  But we should not underestimate or belittle the disruptive impacts associated with the Information Revolution.  We need to find ways to better cope with those changes in a dynamist fashion instead of embracing the stasis notion that we can roll back the clock on progress and recapture “the good ‘ol days”—which actually weren’t all that good.

In another chapter in the book, I will address the second variant of Internet pessimism (the Net Loving Pessimists) and show how reports of the Internet’s death have been greatly exaggerated.  Although the Net Loving Pessimists will likely recoil at the suggestion that they are not dynamists, the reality is that their attitudes and recommendations are decided stasisist in nature. They fret about a cyber-future in which the Internet might not as closely resemble its opening epoch.  Worse yet, many of them agree with what Lawrence Lessig said in his seminal—by highly pessimistic—1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, that “Left to itself, cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control.”  Lessig and his intellectual disciples—especially Zittrain and Wu—have continued to forecast a gloomy digital future unless something is done to address the Great Digital Closing we are supposedly experiencing.  I will argue that while many of us share their appreciation of the Internet’s current nature and its early history, their embrace of the stasis mentality is unfortunate since it forecloses the spontaneous evolution of cyberspace and invites government intervention to create a more “regulated, engineered world” that will, ironically, undermine much of what they hope to preserve about the current Internet.


[I’ll then go on to finish this chapter, basically by finally completing my essay, “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society.” In the second chapter addressing the pessimism of the “Net Lovers,” I will build on my review of Zittrain’s “Future of the Internet,” my twopart debate with Lawrence Lessig on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace,” and my forthcoming review of Tim Wu’s soon-to-be-released book, “The Master Switch The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.”  I will then eagerly await the hate mail from all the affected parties.]

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