New Year's Message: The Arc Of The Moral Universe Is A Twisty Path

from the twisty-little-passages,-all-alike dept

As long term readers of Techdirt know, each year since 2008 my final post of the year has been a kind of reflection on optimism. This tradition started after I had a few people ask how come it seemed that I was so optimistic when I seemed to spend all my time writing about scary threats to innovation, the internet, and civil liberties. And there is an odd contradiction in there, but it’s one that shows up among many innovation optimists. I’m reminded of Cory Doctorow’s eloquent response to those who called internet dreamers like John Perry Barlow “techno utopians.”

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 to some extent, my own thinking follows along those lines. I can see amazing, astounding opportunities to continue to make the world a better place through the power of the internet and innovation. I also think we have a bit of amnesia about just how much good the internet and innovation have already created for the world. But, that doesn’t mean we get to stop thinking about ways in which it might go wrong.

If you’d like to read the past years’ New Year’s Messages, here’s the full list:

Just a few months ago in a conversation with some friends in the tech policy world, I had to admit I was kind of surprised at how defeated they sounded. With dozens of laws being proposed (and a few getting passed) around the globe, at the federal level, and at the state level, there was a sense of despair among many internet supporters, that the good parts of the internet were on their last legs. I can understand where this thinking is coming from, and yet… even with all that, I remain optimistic. That’s not to say I don’t expect any of the bad laws to go into practice and destroy some of the value of the internet. I’m pretty sure a few such laws are likely to happen, and the consequences of them will be bad.

But, perhaps I’ve reached the age where I recognize that there is no “end of history” and no final state of things. These very bad ideas may come into play, but the internet is amazingly resilient in routing around such nonsense, one way or another, over time. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote is that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” A similar kind of thing can be said about innovation. How it plays out may take quite a while, but it tends towards improving the world.

That’s not to say that there aren’t setbacks and problems and disasters — because obviously there are. But a key part of innovation is not just the act of creating something new and useful and getting it adopted by the world, but rather having society learn to adapt to it. I’m reminded of Clay Shirky discussing the innovation of the printing press, and how there was about a century of upheaval over that bit of innovation, until society really began to grapple with its power. Obviously, the internet has taken that to an entirely new level, and society is still very much adjusting.

Indeed, as we’ve noted repeatedly, many of the “problems” that are now blamed on the internet are actually problems that have existed in society for centuries that we just see more now because of the internet. I am still waiting for people to do a better job breaking down which of the problems commonly associated with the internet today are actually just the internet shining a light on existing problems v. exacerbating or creating them (and also weighing those against which societal problems have actually diminished thanks to the internet — because that’s a long list as well).

But, in the end, I have faith that society itself adapts. Not always neatly, and certainly not without many (potentially extremely problematic) mistakes. But society adapts. And the innovation drives it forward: not in a straight line, not without trips and falls, but eventually.

Indeed, despite the mess of the last few years — and especially “the narrative” that “everyone hates the internet” — I’ve been seeing more and more recognition that there are opportunities to return to an optimism about tech. Over the summer, I wrote about the concept of the Eternal October, bringing back an optimistic view of how tech and innovation can be good, but with the humility and wisdom gleaned from the mistakes of the past couple of decades.

History doesn’t end. It just teaches us more lessons. The question is what do we do with those lessons.

I’ve spent the past few months exploring these concepts more and more, and in the New Year expect to see a lot more writing on this. I’ve been talking to lots of people who are legitimately exploring ways to turn today’s innovation into something a lot more promising than it is, and it has me more excited than I’ve been in a while. And that’s even with all of the nonsense happening among policy makers and regulators around the world. Even as they do whatever it is that they do, actual innovators are heads down working on creating a better world.

More specific to what’s been happening here at Techdirt and the Copia Institute, we’ve been engaged in a number of different policy discussions to try to prevent governments from making things worse. The Copia Institute officially launched our Copia Gaming initiative (and we’ve been really busy on that front so stay tuned for a bunch of exciting announcements). We’ve also got some fun changes for Techdirt itself in store — including a big one that has been over two years in the making, but where we finally see some light at the end of a tunnel.

This year, we also took all third-party ads off the site as well as all Google tracking (at some point next week, we’ll do our annual stats review — but for the first time without using Google Analytics, since that’s gone). Of course, that also means that we’re more reliant than ever on having our community support us, so please consider supporting the work we do if you can. A few months back, we finally moved on from our own homemade “Insider Chat” and launched the Techdirt Insider Discord, which has been tremendous fun — and we’ve got more planned for that too.

On that note, my final paragraph of these final posts of the year is always about thanking all of you, the community here at Techdirt, for making this all worthwhile. I started Techdirt over twenty years ago as a fun project that allowed me to work out some of my own thoughts on the intersection of technology, innovation, business, and civil liberties, and over the years it’s grown, and I still am amazed each day that anyone pays any attention at all, let alone contributes to the discussions we have here. The community — of which you reading this are a key part — is integral to what makes Techdirt so much fun for me. You challenge me, make me think, introduce me to new ideas, help me explore impossibly challenging subjects, and just generally push me and the rest of Techdirt to be better. So thank you, once again, for making Techdirt such a special and wonderful place where we can share and discuss all of these ideas. I look forward to whatever happens as we enter 2022.

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Comments on “New Year's Message: The Arc Of The Moral Universe Is A Twisty Path”

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

"History doesn’t end. It just teaches us more lessons. The question is what do we do with those lessons."

Unfortunately, it seems no one remembers history or they want to change it to their views. Still, like you, I’m optimistic for the future of the internet thanks in large part to this site.

Thank you

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

Sort-of on-topic: If we seek justice in regards to the Internet, we should first look toward protecting adult content and its many creators from being victims of anti-porn legislation and puritanical social control (e.g., payment processor lockouts). Any attack on pornography is an attack on free speech, and any attempt to crack down on free speech on the Internet will almost always start with one of the easiest targets.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

A place of optimism about the future.

For some of us who played PC games in the early 1990’s, Apogee Software gave us games such as Duke Nukem, Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and other lesser-known games such as Wacky Wheels (a DOS Super Mario Kart clone) and Secret Agent. In the mid-90’s, they changed their name to 3D Realms and released Duke Nukem 3D which made gangbusters in sales (not to mention advanced the art of making first-person shooters). While its Sequel Duke Nukem Forever was planned, it was in development hell for over a decade until the rights were transferred to Gearbox and it was released to poor reviews. 3DRealms laid off all their employees, and were bought by a Norwegian firm (I think), but the people behind 3DRealms relaunched Apogee as Apogee Entertainment in 2020 and in 2021, they announced (and released) new games as well as remasters of old ones and marketed themselves as "the original indie publisher". The founder of Apogee, Scott Miller, wrote this post on his blog last October:

The game industry has changed so much since the 90’s. And in revolutionary ways that are mind-boggling. Team size is one of these ways.

We just announced several new games in the past few weeks, like Dead Fury, Below the Stone, and most recently Elements and Turbo Overkill. All four of these games are being made by three developers or fewer. Back in the 90’s, to accomplish what these ultra-small teams have already done would have taken 20-person teams.

HOW’S THIS EVEN POSSIBLE? LET’S COUNT THE WAYS…

  1. Engines like Unity and Unreal have advanced and matured significantly, and are so feature-packed that they allow for nearly anything the imagination desires.
  2. The marketplaces for these engines give developers access to code modules that can be dropped into a game to do any number of things, like NPC AI, weapons effects, physics, animations, and the list goes on and on.
  3. The marketplace also has art and models that can be bought for cheap and used in an indie developer’s game. In many cases, art/models bought on the marketplace can be fairly easily modified to make it unique and to better fit the game.

These are just some of the radical shortcuts that didn’t really exist two plus decades ago, and much of it not even a decade ago. Indie developers have never had it so good, and this is one of the reason the indie scene is simply exploding. No longer does all of a game’s code and art assets need to be built from scratch, saving tons of time and money.

Will this continue? For example, in a few decades will we be able to simply tell an engine the type of game we want to play and the engine creates it using sophisticated game creation AI?

I WOULDN’T BET AGAINST A FUTURE LIKE THIS.

So yeah, it’s not all doom and gloom everywhere.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m pretty sure that Mike had talked on Twitter about how he was writing a paper about NFTs, and in responses to people he said that he thinks that people who think NFTs are a scam have it all wrong, and he also said he slots people with environmental concerns in the same bucket as those who think NFTs are scams.

Mike very much seems to be taking the side of “decentralized web3 with NFTs and crypto are inevitable, so deal with it”, sadly the same as Fight For The Future and the EFF which also shill for crypto and NFTs.

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

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

He can’t back it up because he believes in a nonsense strawman. I’ve said that web3 and NFTs are absolutely chock full of nonsense and scams, but that it’s worth exploring the little bit of it that is interesting at the core, and from which something interesting might be possible.

But this particular commenter is not at all interested in nuance or understanding and just wants to shit on me because he can’t recognize that there might be a nuanced take. I mean, I’ve responded to him in the past, and it doesn’t matter, because he keeps lying about my position. It’s pathetic.

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

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Considering how often they insert the same tired claims into spaces where they are off-topic, this is 1) obvious, and 2) no surprise.

Happy new year. i am glad to be able to read the thinking of someone who is optomistic while being realistic, and not a pep squad or cult. Thanks for all your efforts.

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

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"I’m pretty sure that Mike had talked on Twitter"

Cool, if that’s true you can provide links to the conversation. Right?

"Mike very much seems to be taking the side of “decentralized web3 with NFTs and crypto are inevitable, so deal with it”"

It is inevitable. Whether or not it is significant or relevant remains to be seen, but there’s nothing to stop that from existing. While we wait for the outcome, it’s hardly wrong to discuss how we should deal with that situation.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Maybe vs Will

Strive to improve things and you might lose, give up and treat that goal as a lost cause and you already have.

As bad as things might seem to be at times it’s still important to push on and try to, if not improve things then at least slow down the downward spiral, always keeping in mind that history shows just because things are bad now doesn’t mean they’re destined to stay that way and sometimes enough people refusing to accept the current course is enough to shift what might have seemed an unstoppable force out of the way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Have to say, the combination of out_of_the_blue and John Smith has been missing out on these New Year’s messages since 2018’s. I guess the defeat of Shiva Ayyadurai was too much for them to handle.

Happy 2022, Techdirt. May this year be the one where the downfall of Malibu Media and Strike 3 are written about, and a good laugh at the expense of copyright trolls is enjoyed by all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Strike 3’s situation is a bit of a stretch, yes, going by Torrentfreak’s reports. They’ve continued to file cases through 2021 with no signs of slowing down, but it doesn’t look as if they’ve been succeeding in those cases. For that matter, the most recent appearance they’ve made is the judge telling them that they can’t have a copy of the defendant’s hard drive because it’s impossible for Strike 3 to guarantee the defendant’s privacy. The one thing keeping Strike 3 above water is the fact that they’ve stayed out of controversy.

The same, however, cannot be said of Malibu Media. It’s fair to cast doubt on Colette’s claims that her business and marriage are in dire straits, and it’s possible that some bleeding-heart copyright lawyer may want to represent them pro bono the way Daniel Voelker stuck his neck out for Paul Hansmeier. But just as Ken White opined that the Star Trek motion from Otis Wright finished Prenda Law as a legal entity, I think the same applies to Malibu Media’s present situation. Sure, they’re probably going to pull a Norman Zada/Perfect 10 move and try to have their assets shifted and skip out on paying the fines demanded by the court. But as far as new cases go, they might well be finished – with the fact that their investors and their main lawyer sued them for not paying up, and their main lawyer is now rotting in jail after trying and failing to fight a bankruptcy fraud charge. And Colette Pelissier seems intent on pushing the Paul Hansmeier strategy of relentlessly insisting "It’s not my fault".

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

You are so right that the blaming of the internet for today’s problems is ridiculous. Having spent the past few years digging beneath a variety of surfaces to try and understand why we are where are, I have one conclusion: it is as old as the existence of human kind. Fundamentally, people are uncomfortable with people and conditions that are "different". Financial and physical power have supported the implementation of my values rather than yours. It permeates all countries and cultures and as we move into 2022, it will continue to block reasoned change and greater equity for all.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Fundamentally, people are uncomfortable with people and conditions that are "different"."

Here’s a strange coincidence you might want to look into in that case; The common denominator between anachronism, conservatism, bigotry, racism and misogyny is that the adherents of such tend to be unimaginative…or at least unwilling to imagine a reality different than the one they’ve brought up to believe is true.

Fear of Change may be a necessary imperative in times of threat but have become the root of all evil in modern society when sudden weather pattern shifts or animal migrations are the likely precursors of some localized flooding or earthquake threatening the tribe. Or someone not believing in the divine right of the king is likely to propel bloody revolution.

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