The internet utopia that never was

I gave a speech earlier today at a conference set up by ISACA in San Francisco where I talked a bit about the early Internet — as a way of trying to explain why this tech never lived up to its utopian promise. I stayed up all night typing up some rough — emphasis on rough — notes so I could have my thoughts in order. They didn’t help much, as I kept fumbling with them and dropping them all over the place. But I figured I might as well post them here for all you to enjoy.

—Yasha Levine


[ BEGIN ]

I’m gonna do something a bit different this time.

I’m gonna start off the presentation with a short video — something fun and light.

My book Surveillance Valley is about the forgotten counter-insurgency history of the Internet. And that’s a topic that can get quite heavy and a bit depressing. And depressing in never a good way to start.

So let me get this going…

[ VIDEO ]

Yeah, the Internet. Started off so pure, so magical…Actually, that whole family gives me the creeps. They’re downright scary.

So maybe this video is a kind of foreshadowing — a message from the past about our present.

I mean, to a lot of people — and especially to very online and politically active people — the Internet has become a scary place.

Doesn’t matter where people are on the political spectrum, they’re convinced that the Internet has been hijacked. They’re convinced that what used to be a glorious democratic technology has been corrupted and taken over by hostile forces. Taken over and turned into an authoritarian weapon of influence and subversion and political control. A weapon so powerful that it has been able to throw elections — and put illegitimate presidents into the White House.

Who are these hostile forces that hijacked the Internet?

Well that depends on your political views.

For the right, the enemy is Big Tech like Google and Facebook and Amazon and its supposed unholy alliance with the Democratic Party and the far-left.

For the liberal side, the main boogey man is Russia and what they see as powerful international far-right disinformation networks that are hellbent using the Internet to poison people’s minds and to destroy America from within.

But political views don’t really matter.

People might disagree on the cause but everyone agrees that the Internet is now a problem.

Not that long ago, the Internet was seen as an agent democracy — now they see it as democracy’s greatest enemy.

This hysteria about the corruption and weaponization of the internet began to ramp up in a huge way right after Donald Trump became president.

I was working on this book back then and I couldn’t help but shake my head.

I mean, people were not wrong thinking that the Internet is a weapon. But what they were wrong about was thinking that this weaponization was something new — something unprecedented.

The truth is that Internet has always been a weapon, going back to 1970s — when this technology was built and deployed by ARPA, the R&D wing of the Pentagon.

It was designed as a weapon then and it continues to be used as a weapon today — vastly more powerful in its commercialized form than anyone back then could have imagined.

As I’ve been watching people freak out about the Internet these days, it’s becoming clearer to me that we’ve been sold a big lie about this technology.

And I gotta hand it to Silicon Valley, it’s been an extremely effective myth.

It has achieved something I would have guessed would have been impossible.

It has rebranded a technology designed for war into a technology of personal liberation.

A rigidly centralized weapon of influence into a tool of democracy and egalitarianism.

I know this utopian myth well.

I was born in the Soviet Union and my family ended up in America in San Francisco right as the dot-com bubble was heating up in the 1990s.

I was only 9 years old at the time.

We were political refugees who had fled a failed utopia.

This post is for paid subscribers