The Eternal October: Bringing Back Tech Optimism, Without The Naivety

from the time-for-a-rethink dept

For many reasons, it seems we’re deep in the mire of the techlash: everywhere you look, there are stories about the evils of technology. And while it is important to explore the risks and downsides of technology — especially after a few decades dominated by boosterism and PR-pretending-to-be-news — there’s a real danger of throwing out all the good (and potential good) while trying to deal with everything bad.

I think it’s time that we bring back recognition of how innovation, and technology such as the open internet, can actually do tremendous good in the world. I’m not talking about a return to unfettered boosterism and unthinking cheerleading — but a new and better-informed understanding of how innovation can create important and useful outcomes. An understanding that recognizes and aims to minimize the potential downsides, taking the lessons of the techlash and looking for ways to create a better, more innovative world.

A little over a decade ago I toyed with the idea of writing a book about the untapped power of the internet. I worked on a book proposal, found an agent, and talked with a few publishers — and what I heard was somewhat disheartening. I was told everyone was already so positive about the internet that no one thought a book about the good of technology would sell. Instead, I was told, the market was really hungering for contrarian books about how terrible the internet was. And indeed there were several such books published around that time, many of which sold quite well. Of course, over the past few years, the general good feelings about the internet have come crashing down in the public narrative, so I began thinking about finally writing a massively updated and expanded version of what I thought my original book would be about — and this time, I would be the contrarian, pointing out that maybe the techlash has gone too far in dismissing the important benefits of innovation. Again I went around and talked with a few people, and the message I got back was… “no one likes the internet any more, so such a book won’t sell.”

I’m beginning to think it might just be that book publishers don’t like the internet, and aren’t all that interested in publishing a book about its incredible potential for good.

Eternal August, September, & October

Internet old-timers probably know the phrase Eternal September, though I always heard it as “the September that never ended.” It comes from the idea that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, every September there would be an influx of newbies on the internet (mostly on Usenet) as incoming freshmen at colleges would get their very first internet access. And those newbies would blunder around, not understanding the customs and norms, and generally be bad tourists until they settled in and learned how things worked. However, in September of 1993 (incidentally my freshman year in college, and my introduction to Usenet), AOL opened its then-massive doors to Usenet as well. Prior to that, AOL had been a walled garden: a proprietary service, separate from the open internet. However, seeing the writing on the wall, AOL tore down its own walls and sent its massive userbase careening all over the open internet. And thus the bad behavior of my cohort of college freshmen was completely dwarfed by the sheer nonsense of hordes of clueless AOL users.

From then on, the internet was never the same. Hence, the Eternal September.

To some extent, what we’ve seen over the last few years was an enhanced and much more damaging version of the Eternal September. The craziness has taken over parts of the internet. A few weeks back, I was talking about this with a friend and we joked about the goal of the Eternal August — bringing back that moment of hope and potential, before all the newbies came in and ruined things. Indeed, originally this post was going to have Eternal August in the title.

But as I drafted this piece, I realized that it’s not the Eternal August we should be aiming for. Because that would ignore the very real damage and harms that have come from the abuse of technology: the fact that nation states and other actors with bad intent have often captured and abused the internet for their own ends. So instead, I think we should be aiming for a kind of Eternal October. Historically, prior to AOL’s walls coming down, the craziness caused by the September influx of newbies would gradually recede as they learned how everything worked and how to be good digital citizens. There was just a bit of a learning curve. The problem with the Eternal September was that there were just too many of these people for them to all learn how to be good digital citizens. But all these years later, perhaps that’s what we need to (and can) achieve.

That is, we should have a world in which we recognize the amazing opportunity of innovation to empower everyone and to challenge unaccountable power — but not one in which we indulge in naive utopianism or the assumption that progress towards a “good” outcome is inevitable and easy. That is the power of the Eternal October. Eternal August is fun and exciting and optimistic — but can be naive about the dangers downsides. Eternal September is a dystopian hellhole in which you recognize that utopias don’t come about automatically. Eternal October, then, is where we take both into account, and recognize how technology and innovation have amazing potential for good without overlooking the fact that they can also be abused for nefarious purposes. It’s when we explore ways to support the good aspects of innovation, and seek to minimize the potential for and impact of abuse.

In an Eternal October, we recognize a world in which innovation does a tremendous amount of good. Millions of people — often those who were marginalized and whose views were suppressed — have been able to find likeminded connections, to organize, and to speak out. In this world, we see incredible movements like the Arab Spring, the #metoo movement, and many powerful campaigns against hatred and racism. It’s a world in which access to information and people have enabled knowledge to flow, people to become educated, and previously unheard voices to speak out against true injustice.

But in this world we also recognize how those same tools of innovation can be co-opted and put to nefarious intent. We’ve seen how they can be used for targeted harassment campaigns, and how the power of online communities can be leveraged to spread disinformation, hate, chaos, and discord. We seen how the innovative new tools of communication have been put to important use for effecting change and speaking truth to power, but also how the powerful have turned those tools around to further entrench their power and attack the vulnerable.

And this doesn’t just happen on a large scale. Smaller benefits often get lost while focusing on the huge movements: the ability of marginalized and at-risk people in communities with little support to find others on the open internet and realize they are not alone; the ability of individuals in far flung places to simply find their own tribe — the people who truly understand them. But less globe-spanning downsides also can’t be ignored: the abuse can have devastating impact on a small scale as well.

The Eternal October: Focus on Empowerment

So how do we square those two sides? The power of technology to bring people together, to build movements, and to create change is undeniable. Sometimes it’s used for good and, clearly, sometimes it’s used for ill. Some people seem to believe that the fact that it can be used for bad purposes outweighs all else, and means that the technology and the power it creates should be greatly limited and scaled back. I believe otherwise.

For years, there were attempts to place all commentators on tech into one of two camps: techno utopians and techno skeptics. I’ve regularly been called a techno utopian. People can call me whatever they want, but I think the “utopian” framing is incredibly misleading. I’m reminded of Cory Doctorow’s useful response to those who called John Perry Barlow a hopeless utopian optimist:

You don?t found an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation because you are sanguine about the future of the internet: you do so because your hope for an amazing, open future is haunted by terror of a network suborned for the purposes of spying and control.

And I think this is also true of those of us thinking about these issues today. We don’t have the naive, blind optimism of the Eternal August, and we recognize the real issues driving this Eternal September of darkness we seem to be living through. But now we want to fight like hell to bring society around to that Eternal October: one in which we do not pull down all that makes the internet so valuable and wonderful, but view it with clear eyes that see how it has been (and will continue to be) abused and misused by some for ill-intent.

To me, the key is to focusing on what the open internet has always done best: empowering individuals. It is the empowerment that underlines all of this. Empowering more people to take control over their digital lives. Empowering more people to push back on unaccountable power — including unaccountable power from large tech companies, from governments, and from a wide variety of organizations that aim to bend people to their own beliefs instead of doing what’s right. That means empowering people to fight back against those forces that want to co-opt the internet for nefarious reasons, and to respond with truth over lies, context over innuendo, and autonomy over dependence.

I don’t think any of this is easy. But, like John Perry Barlow, I still hope for an amazing, open future — even while I fear how it will be taken from us through a combination of those with ill-intent, and those who have the best of intent but don’t realize just how many babies they may toss out with the bathwater.

I don’t know where all of this is going right now, but I do know that I’ve been having conversations along these lines with a bunch of people over the last year or so, and there’s a strong feeling that it’s time for us to reclaim the open internet. To bring it back to the original vision of the earliest proponents and builders of the open web, in which it was all potential, but with the humility and knowledge of how that power can and will be abused. We can have an internet that empowers people, but not with blind optimism. We can recognize that optimism is warranted, but needs to be tempered with a healthy understanding of where things can go wrong. We can look for ways to enable more people to respond to those challenges, rather than relying on large companies and governments to step in and “solve it” for us — often with a sledgehammer directed at the foundational things that make the internet such a valuable tool in the first place.

As regular readers know, I always close my final post of the year on Techdirt with reasons for optimism, and for last year’s post I talked about the need to make the world a better place. And that began with standing up and taking on the responsibility to help do that myself. This post is another step in that direction (and I haven’t given up on my book idea, either): I’m exploring more and more ways to actually bring about the Eternal October.

Expect more to come on this…

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Comments on “The Eternal October: Bringing Back Tech Optimism, Without The Naivety”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Lol. As someone whose very first website was on geocities, I did, in fact, laugh out oud at this. Though, I should also admit that I learned HTML because of that GeoCities page. But I do wish that more people had control over their own personal spaces online…

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Three things:

  1. You’re not alone in the HTML/GeoCities experience.
  2. NeoCities is a modern-day version of GeoCities, so that’s something for everyone to consider.
  3. Control over personal online spaces was my point, tongue-in-cheek though it was; Twitter and Facebook can serve a useful purpose, but personal sites are a much better reflection of an individual than a Twitter feed will ever be.
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

why can’t people have their own personal space that they control ON social media?

I have two words for you: ad revenue. You can be damned sure that if I’m (allegedly) in charge of my personal space, then no ads would appear thereupon. Which would most likely violate some obscure Term Of Service, and the platform would boot me off.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m not sure we’re on the same wavelength here, but when I read your comment, I assumed you were thinking the same thing as I was while reading Masnick’s article.

This article reiterates numerous times Masnick’s ostensible belief that the internet should ‘empower people’ (individuals).

So why does Techdirt, in every single other article on this subject, side with Big Tech companies against the individual.

Big Tech censors right wingers. Masnick repeatedly says it’s not happening, but when it does it’s a good thing.

Allowing Big Tech to thoughtpolice people is the opposite of ‘empowering people’. What he actually means is he wants to empower entities he agrees with and disempower individuals he disagrees with.

(I.e. he’s a standard anti-American Leftist.)

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"Big Tech censors right wingers"

We’re still waiting for the citations that this is happening as a result of political views and not for something else. Any verifiable citation that isn’t someone being a complete asshole.

the latest high-profile "victim" is Nick Fuentes, who is so openly racist that he got himself kicked out of CPAC before he was kicked off social media. If these are the heroes you are choosing, I suggest you look elsewhere rather than blaming others for your hatred and failure.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

(I.e. he’s a standard anti-American Leftist.)

Yes, because as we all know, "standard anti-American Leftists" are against unions and breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

Mike Masnick’s ideology is not something that could be clearly put into a pre-determined box. Do I agree with it 100%? No (especially about the unions). However, it’s not on a clear left/right/libertarian/authoritarian spectrum.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

They don’t even have to start their own site. There’s plenty of other sites out there that already exist, just join one where your edgelord behaviour is tolerated instead of trying to force yourself on to places that have already told you you’re not welcome.

But, it ultimately comes down to the real issue – those places naturally have smaller audiences compared to the mainstream. They don’t like being reminded that they are part of a minority – presumably because they see what people like them do to minorities.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I would agree on people having their personal space online. But then, why can’t people have their own personal space that they control ON social media?

Because that’s someone else’s space. And no one gets to force someone else to let you do what you want in their space. I think you should have your own space — but that’s different from forcing someone else to let you do what you want in their space.

As a simplified analogy: if you want to walk around nude in your own home, go for it. But that doesn’t mean McDonald’s needs to allow you to walk around nude in their restaurant.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Why is someone else’s space but isn’t? What’s the difference? Why could one give people a personal space but the other can’t? And do note I didn’t say anything about forcing anything anywhere. Is it not just the case that geocities wanted to give people a personal space and facebook doesn’t?

Cynically, I might be inclined to think there is no such thing as a true personal space online anywhere and never can be, because by definition everything has to go through someone else’s property. If you’re not on a platform, you’ll be on a webhost, a domain registrar or at the very least an ISP if nothing else.

Yet, people can rent a home and it’s still their home even if they don’t own the entire building. So, I don’t know. It’s an interesting concept to explore, if nothing else.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"Why is someone else’s space but isn’t? What’s the difference?"

They’re both still someone else’s private property, but they have different functions and thus different rules.

"Yet, people can rent a home and it’s still their home even if they don’t own the entire building."

You have different rights and responsibilities if you’re renting vs. buying.

if all you have is "that orange used to taste different to the apple I have now", you don’t really have an argument.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Why is someone else’s space but isn’t?

Both are. My point is not to go back to Geocities. My response to the Geocities question was not to say we should bring back geocities, but to say that I don’t want that. I want people to be able to control their own spaces. Not someone else’s.

Jeroen Hellingman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Steven Pemberton already promoted having your own website a very long time ago, in 2008 he wrote this:

It is still valid today, and so very easy. I run my own stuff from a NAS, but even a Raspberry PI can run impressive things nowadays. I think with the right software, you could even run a website from your smartphone.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Some people seem to believe that the fact that it can be used for bad purposes outweighs all else

As Shakespeare said

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.

Probably because the evil makes the news and the historical record, while the good is often ignored.

ECA (profile) says:

The Stupid things

For all the Laws and regulations killed in the recent past, to help the Capitalist Corps that have no concern of the Citizen or the Consumer.
NOW they want those same reg, laws, controls over the internet.
This is like the NEW kid into a gang that has to do all the grunt work, because he dont do things the same as the Older kids.

But the breaking in period, and re-programming of the kid, SHOULD NOT mean things have to go back to the old ways of doing things. The GANG should learn from the new kid, at least a few better ways.
To say the Older kids Dont want to learn better ways, Newer ways is abit harsh, but they have had their time, and really messed things up. Making a Bad name for themselves.
They have forgotten, who they are/were, and COULD BE.
Even the Hell’s Angels went Legit, found it easier to work in the system, then fight it. And they made Tons of money doing it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Wait for the Techlash to go bankrupt

The tech lash is obviously engineered or absolute morons – just like the USSR’s supporters of old. The USSR was bleeding economically and spending money on Red Armies to try to overthrow their rivals. They even eventually tried reform but had delayed it too much. Once Glastknot shattered their illusions things fell apart faster.

Why bring them up? Because it is the same situation. The old media newspaper and TV conglomerates are bleeding and reduced to irrelevance. They just ceaselessly run hit pieces and try to demand money be rained upon them. They maybeventually bow but it will be too late and fundamentally bad at it because they always sucked at it.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Wait for the Techlash to go bankrupt

"Why bring them up? Because it is the same situation."

It really is. The USSR held economy an abomination to be suppressed and controlled at every turn, leading to a nation drowning in natural resources, artists and academics sliding straight into a shit-show collapsing after a mere 70 years.

The US won’t last that long when it begins to view technology and communications the same way.

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

My brain… its different.
I scanned the headline and my brain said Nativity.
Brain decided to build an internet nativity scene.

Baby Jeebus – The users.

Mary & Joseph – The paternal figures trying to make the whole world safe for the baby, they are not prepared for the task.

Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar – The 3 pillars of big tech who also believe they know best, often acting to make sure they get more benefit than Baby Jeebus.

The Angels – Those who know what the interwebs COULD be, who often have problems getting the rabble to listen to the good word.

The Shepherds – The leader of the different groups who listen to the braying, grunting, bleeting of their flocks & claim they know best for Baby Jeebus but they could care less about what happens to Baby Jeebus they just need to keep the flock following them.

The Ox and The Ass – The flock who know nothing about how things actually work but demand the Shepherds make their desires manifest, ignoring that those same Shepherds will lead them to the slaughterhouse to gain riches.

The Straw – The actual internet. They keep walking on it, crushing it, while demanding it keep them warm, feed them, comfort them, protect them… but no one seems to want to shovel the crap away to reveal the truth.

There was a point in here I think… that or I just let my brain run free letting Baby Jeebus doing Neo’s moves in the Matrix.
It entertained me, maybe you’ll get something out of it too.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Your brain "That Anonymous Coward" is evidently defective.

You appear to believe that what you wrote can be understood. You are wrong. It’s DRIVEL.

But keep up your schtick! You, the always baffling inhuman "ECA", and the exceeding nasty regulars, are true Techdirt. None of you seem to grasp how offensive / weird you are.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Your brain "That Anonymous Coward" is evidently defectiv

I normally don’t bother but…

"None of you seem to grasp how offensive / weird you are."

I call myself an immortal sociopath and somehow you think I have no idea how offensive / weird I am?

My brand is weird, didja miss the trendy avatar?

Yes my brain is defective, but store bought neurotransmitters are just as good as homemade.

If I’ve managed to offend you, I must be doing something right to penetrate the shell you hide inside pretending its the rest of the world who is wrong.

Sorry you were unable to grasp the idea of a Nativity Scene representing the interwebs & its problems today… I mean it was a bit of a different framing that other people use, but somehow you were unable to grasp the clear obvious statements I was making inside the nativity framework.

Keep trying sparky, someday you might amount to something.

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Anonymous Coward says:

"Important thing is, had an onion on my belt!"

As Maz approaches FIFTY, having wasted his productive years trying to legalize corporate theft of every kind especially to control First Amendment speech, he divagates on his dull youth, tries to find worth in it, and as always fails to make clear point.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Important thing is, had an onion on my belt!"

"hoards of clueless AOL users"

HA, HA! Classic phonetic spelling air by Ivy League "DOCTOR" Maz!

[Teacher: How did the Vikings come to England? — Student: In long boats. — Teacher, sighing: We went over this last week! They came in hordes! In HORDES! — The great Mark Steel on teaching only for tests; a true liberal / socialist, always for levelling The Rich and their corporations.]

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Anonymous Coward says:

"before all the newbies came in and ruined things"

The larger view is that almost everyone born after 1970 is a greedy little over-privileged and under-corrected astoundingly arrogant baby with just enough cunning (some are so slow that require more than a decade of intense drilling) to phrase their demands on laborers as some sort of "right". Dodging and projecting their own parasitical worthlessness becomes hatred of America, though they don’t propose to change their own position.

empower everyone

EVERYONE? While you almost daily now state that "conservatives" must be DIS-empowered by taken off all "platforms"?

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "before all the newbies came in and ruined things"

challenge unaccountable power

EVERY day you assert globalist mega-corporations are NOT accountable to The Public in merely being reasonably fair, but can arbitrarily "de-platform"? HOW are we to do that when denied access by the very criminals to the large audiences that they control?

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Anonymous Coward says:

HARD-CORE CORPORATIST disguised as dope-smoking liberal.

That’s who Maz actually is. Just believe him when he tells you! Daily he advocates corporatism that entirely contradicts the bright optimism he tries to present above.

Maz ALWAYS advocates for corporations, NEVER for individuals. He’s just blowing smoke here trying to build up his cred again to put over the next globalist power-grab.

Simple truism: The Public CANNOT have freedom unless corporations / The Rich are tightly regulated and controlled, harassed and hampered at every turn: otherwise they’ll make themselves literal Royalty.

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Anonymous Coward says:

SAY. WHY did you go to publishers, Mr New Internet Opportunities

You used to do pieces on people could cut out the middlemen / gatekeepers, publish their own material via practically free bandwidth, and just wait for the big bucks to roll in! — BUT turns out that even with your undeserved fame you were going the traditional route! — Just like the "Working Futures" crap that you put on Amazon instead of FREE on a torrent site. — So yet again you simply do not practice what you wrote up as wonderful. — You’re more fraud than even I believe. Is ANY of your writing valid?

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Anonymous Coward says:

Now and then I see how many comments Maz gets on his own...

And how silly the fanboys are with multiple comments at each other, always going off-topic / attacks on Trump. They add a little noise, but ad hom is their only skill…

Techdirt needs to allow dissent so looks at all alive. The 2-per-year zombies, like "jonr" out today, don’t help, just look ODD.

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