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:
- 2008: On Staying Happy
- 2009: Creativity, Innovation And Happiness
- 2010: From Pessimism To Optimism… And The Power Of Innovation
- 2011: From Optimism And Innovation… To The Power To Make A Difference
- 2012: Innovation, Optimism And Opportunity: All Coming Together To Make Real Change
- 2013: Optimism On The Cusp Of Big Changes
- 2014: Change, Innovation And Optimism, Despite Challenges
- 2015: Keep Moving Forward
- 2016: No One Said It Would Be Easy…
- 2017: Keep On Believing
- 2018: Do Something Different
- 2019: Opportunities Come From Unexpected Places
- 2020: Make The World A Better Place
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.