Where the Internet went Wrong

The Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society had its 25 year reunion this past week. I spent two years with BKC, one as an affiliate and one as a fellow. Between that and being at the Center for Civic Media, I had some of the most stimulating years of my life to date. My understanding of the world and my place in it transformed to something more nuanced but also more powerful. And while I’ve lost touch with some of the folks, many of us still talk.

At the reunion, things were generally framed as past, present, future; with the breakout groups and lunch convenings I loved in my time there. The main thread that came out through most of the conversations, was “what did we get wrong?” Or perhaps in our more gracious moments, “what have we learned?” In that context, there were a few recurring themes in the circles I ran in for the 2 days of the conference:

  • Defending free speech and exclusion of regulating speech didn’t land us where we expected
  • Lack of intersectionality and limiting who has a seat at the table has constrained what we can learn and do
  • Influence in law and regulation not transferring sufficiently to market forces left us with blind spots.

Defending Free Speech

Well, we all know where this is at right now. We now wrestle with hate speech, doxxing, etc online at a mind boggling scale. Turns out giving everyone with access to the internet and a device a microphone WASN’T the panacea we thought it would be (just like bringing democracy and capitalism to other countries hasn’t worked out the ways we expected). The answer to bad speech may not be more speech afterall, which brings questions up about how (and if) we might be able to govern ourselves. Maybe it’s tools for individuals to mediate their own experience. Maybe it’s content moderation teams with proper support. Maybe it’s much smaller “rooms” for online spaces. Many options were proposed, and much work is being done in this area.

A note here, is that the fight “for” “”free speech”” is being strongly coopted by the Right to further the deregulation of other spaces, and as a way to remove accountability – outcomes none of us expected. This is bleeding over into other countries as we export our views on free speech in a new form of colonialism, whether through copied IP law, through norms, or through other mechanisms.

Lack of Intersectionality

In every room and session I was in, people were bringing up the historical view of the internet we were talking about — where it was an idealized “place” — as a view unique to the people who were at BKC and the circles they ran in. The Dream of the Internet being a great equalizer has NEVER been true in many places, and it’s STILL not true. That only becomes apparent when a broader range of people (mostly non straight white men from Harvard) are in the room. The ensuing approaches to regulation (or lack thereof), default sheltering of platforms, and advocating for free speech can’t be universally applied outside the idealized context, and perhaps don’t even apply there any longer. We spoke about the the ways BKC has unwittingly perpetuated systems of power, and how that perpetuation might continue to change in the future.

I am deeply grateful to the current, past, and future Berkmaniacs following this path. I feel like I did my own small part while there by bringing an antiauthoritarian anarchist streak a mile wide to the table, some thinking on queer rights, and a deep intuition about austere areas being left out; but I was even less informed about racial inequality in the US then as I am now. Leadership seems eager to find ways to address this gap (and are taking active steps), but the vibe in general is that unpaid fellowships have drastically impacted who can show up at BKC, defaulting to furthering existing systems of power. So if you’ve got a cool mumble million dollars laying around to fund some BKC fellowships, I’d suggest doing so. I think they’re only doing paid fellowships these days, but that also means the number of fellows has been reduced.

Lack of Influence over Market Power

Speaking of money, BKC has (mostly) focused on regulation and law as a fulcrum for change when it came to the internet and its intersection with society. This was probably due to being a part of the Harvard Law School. This lack of reflection on the role of capitalism might also have to do with when it was founded — shortly after the Cold War ended, when people still believed that capitalism was a tool that could be used to help liberate other countries. However, some of our current concerns about the lessening of academic, journalistic, and individual rights and freedoms actually ended up emerging from the market. This is not just about corporations – fears of losing funding from other channels for nonprofits et al are also enough to freeze or at least chill speech as well.

However, taking that intersectional view means we should not lay it all at capitalism’s feet — if we take a look at communist countries, they ALSO tend to not be bastions of freedoms and rights. Good thing capitalism and communism aren’t the only two options on the table.

What I walked away with

Berkmaniacs have influenced the world before, during, and after their times at BKC. Many of the weird projects we picked up together have taken on a life of their own. Some of them have even had the desired effect. We have a better idea of what to fight for, with who, and with what fulcrums.

Personally, I (still) think we can govern ourselves if in small, well defined groups which are interdependent. I think it’s possible to do this with the complications to free speech, in an intersectional way, and with an eye to new market mechanisms. I think the Fediverse is an interesting foray into this. I also think our simple existance is a good attempt at this. I belong to a neighborhood, a preschool, a job, a marriage, an origin family, etc. Each of these have different expectations and participants. I am able to navigate all of them (sometimes even at the same time) and it’s (usually) fine.

I still think a role of technology is as a mirror to ourselves. Just like law is an externalization of societal expectation that then allows us to examine those expectations to see if they sit well with us, algorithms and AI allow us to see our existing biases and to then model changes. We can still be better tomorrow than we are today, if we’re willing to look in the mirror we’ve made for ourselves rather than trying to melt ants with it.

So it’s not all doom and gloom. We’re all still in this together. Getting things wrong is often the cost of trying out new things. Being wrong shouldn’t be scary – not learning from being wrong should be. I fully trust BKC has learned from these lessons.

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