In the beginning, Cold War-era engineers created the Internet and then utopian, hippy enthusiasts rescued the Internet and gave it to the world. Regrettably, spammers, venture capitalists, marketers, and corporations entered into the garden of digital delights and a communitarian paradise devolved into a virtual mall.
This, more or less, is the storyline of Evgeny Morozov’s very brief history of the Internet, “Two Decades of the Web: A Utopia No More” in Prospect. The author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, in case it wasn’t clear from the two titles, is not exactly optimistic about the direction the Internet has taken. The plot of his short overview of Internet history moves from early promise to eventual decline; it is a tale of utopian hopes disciplined by unfortunate realities.
Morozov’s history takes the idea of “virtual community” as its theme and features a set of Internet “cheerleaders” – Stuart Brand, Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow, and the Wired crowd – as its tragic protagonists. Tragic because their high-minded, lofty ideals were undercut, in Morozov’s telling, by an accompanying naiveté that left Paradise unguarded against the corporate snakes. “These men,” according to Morozov, “emphasised the importance of community and shared experiences; they viewed humans as essentially good, influenced by rational deliberation, and tending towards co-operation. Anti-Hobbesian at heart, they viewed the state and its institutions as an obstacle to be overcome—and what better way to transcend them than via cyberspace?
This anarchist/libertarian proclivity exposed the online community to dangers trivial and grave:
Perhaps the mismatch between digital ideals and reality can be ascribed to the naivety of the technology pundits. But the real problem was that the internet’s early visionaries never translated their aspirations for a shared cyberspace into a set of concrete principles on which online regulation could be constructed. It’s as if they wanted to build an exemplary city on the hill, but never bothered to spell out how to keep it exemplary once it started growing.
The law of entropy took over from there. The allusion to a city on a hill recalls the Puritan experiment in pious self-government that never quite managed to pass on its vision to the next generation. Pursuing the analogy, Morozov fills the role of the preachers who evolved the jeremiad – a genre of sermon identified by historian Perry Miller that denounced the community’s departure from its founding principles and called for repentance and renewal. Morozov’s commentary fits the genre neatly, and that is not at all to detract from the value of his critique.