2015: The Year That Techno-Optimism Broke

Once upon a time, writers saw the Internet and social media as a liberating, even transformative force. Now, as reactionary elements successfully utilize it to advance their political and cultural fortunes, has become fashionable to cast it as a threat that must be curtailed. 2015 in particular seemed to many to be the nadir of the Internet. With clashes over culture wars fueled by outrage clickbait, effective social media efforts by terrorist groups and repressive foreign regimes, and the social media-fueled rise of the hateful and bigoted Donald Trump campaign, 2015 gave rise to urgent questions and debates over how the Internet could be made a safe place (if it ever could be). Censorship became a major topic, with many endorsing mass blocklists that swept up both harasser and innocent alike.

So what happened? How could we go from rhapsodies about “digital cosmopolitans,” the “consent of the networked” and the power of “wikinomics” to solemn analyses of “why we can’t have nice things” in a troll-ridden world? The Internet did not really change. It has always had the latent potential for, depending on your viewpoint, the privileging of “good” and “bad.” The problem was that academics, pundits, reporters, and analysts that lavished the Internet and social media with hype and praise when it privileged causes and groups they approved of never thought about the potential for groups and causes they didn’t approve of to use it.

By the close of 2015, writers chronicled the rise of the “dark forces” of the “internet counterculture.” Others struggled to explain online trolling — was it the work of Internet malcontents or a reflection of larger societal dysfunctions? Leading Internet forums such as 4Chan, Reddit, and Twitter were cast as decaying at best and pools of degenerate filth at worst. Finally, anonymity — one of the most sacrosanct elements of Internet culture — was pathologized at length by numerous authors.

If you didn’t know anything else about how people talked about the Internet and social media, you would wonder why anyone would bother or care about such a cesspool. But there was once a time not long ago when the Internet was viewed much differently.

In fact, what is so remarkable about all of this is how much it breaks with a longstanding tradition of techno-utopianism that frequently lavished the bottom-up, anonymous, gatekeeper-challenging, and eclectic forces of the Internet as mechanisms of social good. It may seem difficult to believe, but there was once a time when the Internet was viewed as a progressive and liberating institution. Policymakers, academics, and pundits were once highly optimistic about online social movements and discourse. They proclaimed that technology was going to uproot traditional institutions marveled over the exploits of Twitter revolutionaries, Occupy Wall Street, and slacktivists.

Information wanted to be free. Cyberspace was declared to be independent of the encroachments of nations. “Slacktivism” was going to lead us to magnificent new vistas of social progress and human freedom. Decentralized networks were going to create wealth, enable organization without organizations, crowdsource innovation, and unleash the “wisdom” of crowds. Some of this certainly stemmed from the Silicon Valley hype machine and those associated with it. The satirical Twitter account @ProfJeffJarvis, for example, existed to poke fun at the almost absurdly optimistic “thinkfluencing” of online media gurus that relentlessly pushed tech jargon and buzzwords.

But it would be a stretch to cast techno-utopianism solely as a cash-grab. For many, it had a decidedly progressive political dimension as well. Twitter revolutionaries would unseat dictators. Academics and analysts lionized cyber-vigilantism and excitedly recounted the exploits of those who engaged in it. It was a modern update of the David and Goliath myth, with tweets and hashtags substituted for the plucky Israelite’s sling and stone. “Little brother” would triumph over Big Brother. The Internet would enable a more open, participatory, and egalitarian society. It would even obviate the need for centralized direction and goals in social movements and prize decentralized and networked movement structures.

As David Rieff observed, this literature made grand promises about the power of technology to right a very crooked world:

Even comparative moderates in the futurological sweepstakes tend to swoon when the subject is the pace of technology-led change. Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, argues in his new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, that it is an entirely realistic goal for humans to “take control of our technologies and use them to build the world we want rather than the world we fear.” The present moment, Zuckerman asserts in his book’s concluding sentence, offers “an opportunity to start the process of rewiring the world.”

All of this techno-hype was not viewed as uniformly good, for sure. Gadflies such as Evgeny Morozov warned that the Internet could enable repression and that it — as a technical tool — could be used by anyone willing to devote the time and energy to make the most out of it. However, Morozov and others’ warnings were outnumbered by waves and waves of popular press books, columns, and speeches extolling the transformative power of all things digital.

By late 2015, however, analysts had soured on the very same forces and mechanisms they once lionized. Online social movements, instead of liberators, were recast as villains. The openness and optimism that analysts imputed to the Internet was recast as a threat to democracy. Instead of marveling over scrappy bloggers and tweeters speaking truth to power, media outlets scrapped their comment sections altogether.

It would be one thing if the facts changed and techno-boosters merely updated their viewpoints in light of a different situation. However, nothing had really changed except the viewpoint of these observers. More bluntly: it’s easy to view bottom-up social movements and the technologies that enabled them as progressive when those movements and technologies served or were perceived to serve progressive goals.

When the targets were foreign dictators, Occupy Wall Street’s “1%” holding back the “99%”, or the military-industrial complex, the Internet was seen as a force for good. The fact that so much of the techno-utopian era coincided with the election and re-election campaigns of Barack Obama — which heavily utilized the Internet for mobilization and organization — also did not hurt. Analysts fell into the trap of believing that the social forces and enabling technologies of the Internet could only be used for purposes they already approved of.

Whereas before they could only see how people they agreed with ideologically could target institutions and problems they disliked, the events of 2015 forced them to see how people that did not share their beliefs could target people, institutions, and things they favored. If a conservative is a liberal that got mugged, a techno-pessimist is a techno-utopian that that found himself or herself on the receiving end of a Donald Trump supporter’s pseudoanyonous Twitter diatribes.

This is why what was once celebrated as the wisdom of the crowd became feared as the rule of the mob. After all, Trump’s meteoric rise to political prominence is exactly the kind of social media-fueled thwarting of traditional gatekeepers that techno-utopians used to celebrate. Trump is the definition of an “outsider” candidate loathed by party elders and the political establishment. And the success of his candidacy is intricately tied to the deft use of social media to get around those gatekeepers. Yet Trump and his supporters are used as a primary example of the dark heart of the Internet.

Yet the revulsion against Trump pales in comparison to the fear and panic that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’s use of the Internet has provoked. No less than the New York Times has joined a growing call for the curtailment of freedom of speech on the Internet. Once again, ISIL fits the template of the kind of outsider social movement that techno-utopians used to lionize. Yet the response seems to be shock and horror that a group could use a tool thought to be intrinsically liberal (the Internet) for non-liberal ends.

What all of this suggests is that the fervent belief in the Internet as a liberator and medium of collective enlightenment was ultimately shallow. Analysts valued the Internet and social media when it seemed like it would advance their political preferences or at the very minimum could not be exploited by forces they vehemently disapproved of. However, the very logic of techno-utopianism suggested that emerging technology was a tide that lifted all boats. If, for example, the Internet allowed scrappy underdogs to quickly grow, challenge gatekeepers, and mobilize, there was nothing inherent in any of those mechanisms that suggested that only forces that techno-utopians approved of would benefit.

The answer, however, is not to swing to the opposite extreme. The Internet may not, alone, be capable of “rewiring the world” as Zuckerman put it. But it is also not a horseman of the apocalypse. The emerging belief that it heralds our doom — after so much hype and absurd optimism — is less a comment on the Internet and more a cutting criticism of the shallowness of trendy ideas about it.