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Cycles of optimism and pessimism

Found at: zaibatsu.circumlunar.space:70/~solderpunk/phlog/cycles-of-optimism-and-pessimism.txt

Cycles of optimism and pessimism
--------------------------------

My overall attitude toward the online world has tended to go through
long cycles of alternating optimism and pessimism.

I started using unix, learning to program and learning about
networking around 2000.  During the early naughties, I was generally
feeling pretty good about the whole scene.  Mozilla were doing a great
job championing the cause of a web based on open standards, and
Firefox helped to break the IE browser monopoly.  OpenOffice offered
the prospect of doing the same for word processing.  The idea that
proprietary file formats were evil had a lot of traction and wide
awareness, and big-profile free software projects were addressing
these major problems.  The One Laptop Per Child project came along and
for the first time exposed me to the idea that computers could be not
just fun and interesting and useful in a practical sense, but that
they could actually be a force for genuine good.  During this time I
bought myself a domain name, setup my own web and email server, and
poured a lot of energy into being part of what I felt was a community
with a strong moral compass that I believed in, and which was going
to make the world a progressively better place.

But the OLPC project failed, and Facebook came along, and Twitter came
along, and smartphones became a thing, and it kind of seemed like
everybody stopped caring about the things we previously had (this was
actually more or less what my second ever phlog post[1] was about).
By the time the...teens?  twenty-teens?  whatevers...rolled around I
was starting to feel disenchanted.  The Snowden leaks, and the
general lack of serious response to them, were a bit of a turning
point.  I started to get seriously pissed at how the people who I felt
*should* have been leading the way out of the mess didn't seem to have
the guts to actually do it.  I read a transcript of a speech by Jacob
Appelbaum about how he believed the US government had compromised his
iPhone and were using it to spy on him, and I just wanted to scream at
him "why the fuck do you still *have* the thing, then?!".  I read an
interview with Bruce Schneier where he talked about his iPhone, and
said that expecting people to live without iPhones wasn't a reasonable
response to privacy problems with them and instead we should ask our
governments to pass laws to protect us.  I was so frustrated!  I
thought "Bruce, you're older than I am, you lived a long time without
an iPhone and your life, while less convenient because of it, was in
no sense miserable because of it.  Of *course* we can give them up!".
I wondered why so many people and organisations who espoused
principles in favour of a decentralised internet were nevertheless
on Twitter and/or YouTube.  By actively refusing to use a lot of these
things, I started to feel like I was somehow in the most radical
0.0001% percent of the planet, and that nobody else cared, really
cared, about any of "our" old principles anymore.  I largely withdrew
from any and all online communities and became a bit of a hermit.

A little more than two years ago I rejoined SDF and got involved in
gopher, and also re-engaged with the fediverse, first through GNU
Social and then Mastodon.  I found myself engaging, for the first
time, with people who took all my extreme ideas for granted, and it
really helped.  Although I have huge misgivings about the precise
manner in which Mastodon explosively took off, the fact is that it
happened, and now "federation" is a household term for anybody who
pays even vague attention to the online world.  Conversations about
internet decentralisation are happening more and more, and - years
later than they should, but better late than never - people are
starting to openly and boldly criticise Google.  I started to feel a
lot better about things during this time.  It seemed like maybe the
tide of popular opinion amongst the most technically informed people
was perhaps starting to turn.  At the same time, lots of really cool
things have been happened in gopherspace and pubnixspace, and the
internet lately has at times felt for me as much fun as it did 15
years ago.

But just in the past week or two I've started to feel like maybe the
next change in the cycle is coming.  A few observations clustered in a
relatively short time have triggered this.  Somebody in gopherspace (I
really can't remember who, and I can't find the post now - if it was
you, or you think you know who it was, please let me know so I can add
a link) wrote about how they had been observing the internet use of
people around them for a while and had noticed that they almost never
saw anybody looking at anything other than a feed/timeline from one of
the big social media sites; nobody seemed to access "the actual web",
except by following links posted to one of those sites.  And then,
Alex Schroeder shared on Mastodon a link to a long series of toots[2]
about Google, Chrome and ad-blocking.  It was a very blunt, and quite
depressing discussion of just the kind of things you might imagine,
summarised quite well by one response: "Google’s business model is to
display ads on web. Google developing a market dominating web browser
was just to get control of their business-critical platform. Now that
Chrome is practically ubiquitous they can start to leverage the
control they’ve gained".  But maybe the thing that had the biggest
impact on me was Finland winning the ice hockey world champsionships.

(this is going to *seem* like a huge digression, but I promise it's
relevant and in the end not actually about hockey at all)

I'm not really into ice hockey, or sport in general, but it's pretty
huge in Finland.  In the national psyche, beating arch-rival Sweden on
their home turf for the 1995 world championships ranks second only
behind valiantly holding off Soviet invasion during WWII and
preserving the new country's fragile independence.  That's only a
slight exaggeration for comedic effect; "95, never forget" is a thing
people actually say here.  Anyway, last weekend Finland won the world
championships for the third time ever, so this Monday was more or less
a day of national celebration.  There was a huge party in a park in
Helsinki, with local celebrities singing and dancing for hours while
the crowd waited for the winning team to arrive.  The president of the
country turned up and gave a speech.  It was Serious Business.

A small part of the celebration was focussed on the younger ice hockey
teams, including the Finnish under-18 women's team, who came third in
their world champsionship this year.  Each player's name and number
was called out, and one by one the girls walked out onto the stage, to
applause from the audience.

I kid you not, more than half, and maybe as many as three quarters, of
the girls were *on their phones* as they walked on stage, and stayed
on them for the entire duration of their presenation.  Not actively
talking on them, but holding them in front of themselves at arm's
length.  I'm not actually sure what they were doing.  Taking photos or
videos of the crowd?  Video chatting with friends or family?  I'm not
sure it matters.  My point is: holy hell, to anybody my age or older
it is just incredibly, deeply, unquestionably obvious that it is
totally inappropriate to be, in any sense, on your phone while you are
being presented in front of your country as an elite athlete.
Obviously, today's teenagers feel otherwise, and can't or won't stop
sharing their lives via their phone even when traditional standards of
decorum would demand it.  This got me thinking about the importance of
young people's attitudes toward technology.

(I don't mean to single out the Finnish under-18 women's hockey team
in this, by the way.  I presume their behaviour is actually totally
representative of similarly aged girls and boys across many developed
nations)

When I was in high school, there was one girl in my class whose
parents didn't let her watch television.  Today, I very rarely watch
any television at all, and I bet if that girl's parents explained to me
now their reasons for making that decision way back then, I'd agree
with a lot of them.  But at the time, I and every single one of my
classmates thought this was total madness.  Way, way worse than the
kid whose family didn't have a microwave oven because his mother
thought they were bad for you.  The girl who never watched television
didn't seem to think that this restriction on her life was all that
bad, but I'm sure everybody else felt terribly sorry for her, and was
sure she didn't understand what she was missing.  When you're thirteen,
and you've spent just about every day in your entire life using and
enjoying a particular piece of technology, and every other thirteen
year old kid you know has done the same, then there's just no amount
of rational argument any adult can present which will convince you
that that technology is actually bad.  It's just not how young minds
work.  I think about how much time today's young kids spend
entertaining themselves watching YouTube videos on tablets, and I
realise that it won't be long at all until the world is full of young
adults for whom all the companies and devices and services that I think
are ruining the internet will be associated with happy childhood
memories.  There's nothing I can say or do which will stop this.  When
the minds of the young are lost, what hope can there be for the future?

I'm not any kind of expert on the topic, but I'm moderately interested
in the history of radio and television, and one thing I've learned
from reading up on these things is that a lot of people who were
closely involved in these fields in their early days are, today,
tremendously bitter and jaded about how things turned out, with regard
to commercialisation, the public interest, democractic access to the
medium, and all that jazz.  In the early days there was so much
excitement and idealism and promise in these technologies, but
eventually huge corporate monopolies and bland, undifferentiated,
lowest common denominator programming came to dominate both kinds of
airwaves.  Maybe it was silly to ever expect the internet to turn out
any differently.  Maybe the "real internet" that I know and love
will prove to have been some weird temporal blip from the very early
days of the technology, before the "weary giants of flesh and
steel"[3] woke up and did what they always do.  Maybe it's too late
and the apparent groundswell of opposition is just a case of people
not realising what they had until it was gone.

I suppose, really, that I never actually seriously thought that the
reinvigorated small internet[4] that has been my happy online home for
the past few years was ever going to change the overall direction of,
well, anything.  Maybe it doesn't really even need to.  As long as
there is a small part of the internet where I can be myself and say
what I think and do things the way I think they ought to be done and,
in doing those things, feel like I'm part of a community of
like-minded people doing the same kind of things, and not like a
solitary crazy person, that's enough.  I'm not happy here because I
think we're blazing the trails of the future and we're going to change
the world.  I'm happy here because I don't feel alone.  If we *do*
change the world, well, that'd be great, but I'm not holding my breath.
I think odds are good that the independent, non-commercial,
decentralised, open-standards, do-it-yourself part of the internet will
be increasingly marginalised, without ever actually disappearing.  It
will be like CW in the amateur radio community, or film in the
photography community, or non-indexed gear shifting in the cycling
community.  If anything, we're slightly better off than all those
little communities, because we can build and maintain our own small
internet without being dependent upon big companies continuing to
manufacture increasingly unprofitable physical products.  As long as
an internet based on TCP/IP is up and running, no matter what 99.99%
of the world is using it for, we'll be here.  Recalcitrant digital
cockroaches.

[1] gopher://zaibatsu.circumlunar.space:70/0/~solderpunk/phlog/weve-lost-our-way.txt
[2] https://x0r.be/@szbalint/102184830526516885
[3] https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence
[4] gopher://republic.circumlunar.space:70/0/~spring/phlog/2019-01-16__The_Small_Internet.txt