The modern web is a hostile city.
You could liken it to aggressive urban design. The kind of place where the benches are uncomfortable, so homeless people won't sleep on them.
We see it when data scandals go unpunished, dissenting voices are censored, or cops trick copyright to keep off Youtube. When kids and grandmas are confounded by dark patterns. Whenever an online mob piles onto the day's victim.
As Gordon Hull puts it:
Unless you make money by trafficking in user data, internet architecture is hostile from top to bottom.
But in a classic case of doublethink, that doesn't always tally with my experience.
I met my wife because of Facebook, the home of bad algorithms. Twitter's hellsite rep is well-deserved, but also unrecognisable from the smart, funny, beautiful communities I've met there. Instagram isn't just an insecurity factory; it's a convenient place to message my friends. I publish my blog and connect with people all over the world.
Like many hostile cities, the internet is perfectly liveable. When the riots are on the other side of town, it's possible to escape, find friends, remain unaffected.
But to break from the slums requires us to do more than simply walk; it takes parkour to navigate, urbex to discover its finest spaces.
So is this really the chosen one that was promised?
Tomorrow was meant to be better.
The wild internet was unstructured, amateur, dangerous and beautiful.
But its roots were also its undoing. The US government's deregulated approach meant that decentralised, open-source platforms were eaten alive by aggressive market forces. Idealism grew into entrepreneurialism. Shareware became SAAS.
We behave as if the internet is a public space, but it's not. We use Google like a government utility, but it isn't.
As the web has commercialised, we've always been at the whim of corporations, often in another country, that determine fair use, good conduct, and the price on our heads. And the walls have been getting gradually higher. DA Wallace observed how chaotic, personal MySpace was replaced by templated, totalitarian Facebook. And just as the intersection of news and entertainment has gutted most great journalism, the monetisation of 'personal brands' has put our every thought up for sale. As Jenny Odell puts it, we're captive, held in 'a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.'
Sometimes the effects loom large in our consciousness, like how the dominance of English accelerates the decay of other languages, or the way we're all caught up in America's culture war.
It's not to say that we should remain insular, or that the issues we face aren't shared. But the internet has connected us beyond simple connection; it's relocating global cultures into a single fragile suburb.
The internet has shifted from a service to a right.
Few parts of life remain untouched. So unless we build a better city, we'll lose future generations, who never knew another world, to the grinding teeth of tech-capitalism - funnelled by algorithms, too insecure to smile, too porn-drained to fuck, riddled with anxiety and anger.
We live here now: the question is whether we can build it better. Like the overlapping sprawls in The City And The City, it's likely this new home lies within the old one.
Smarter people than me have tried to define what that could be:
Without access, there's no movement. It seems unfathomable that we might lose it, but an ISP that disapproves of you might exercise its arbitrary power to silence. As an individual it's an annoyance; as a group, it's violence.
Experiments in co-ops and community broadband attempt to build rights at a local level. They put users first.
Think of it this way - in Australia, the national broadband rollout has become such a joke, average speeds lag behind Kazakhstan. For many countries this is not just a valuable lifeline, but a way to participate in the world.
Much of our discussion sits around content - the equivalent of set dressing. The real problem lies with infrastructure.
Balaji (can't escape him) talks about the potential of national stacks and neutral protocols. Countries developing their own alternatives to common online platforms, based on open source standards, thereby reducing their reliance on foreign tech powers.
Perhaps even banding together between the giant forces of the US and China... unaligned clusters of neutral countries finding the scale that comes from unity.
A City Of Cultures
Like most great cities, the internet is really a tightly-clustered set of neighbourhoods and villages. Its joys lie in exploring communities with an open mind. Because just as you shouldn't judge NYC by a frenetic visit to Times Square, nor should we judge the web by its worst excesses.
Big platforms and legacy brands have clouded our vision. Instead, communities like InterIntellect, built on principles that overturn the din of online discourse, help us reconnect with the sense of discovery once promised. It's up to us to find them, support them, build them.
In fact, it's all up to us. It's easy to see the internet as a utility. A road we travel to go elsewhere. But it's clear that as it takes up more mental, emotional and physical space in our world, it's more than that.
And we all have a right to change it.
It's the city we all live in.