Were you on the internet when it all started? It was an amazing time. We were all explorers then, trekking across a digital wilderness amid the chirping of modems and the flickering of CRT screens. It was a free space. No advertising, no pay-walls and very limited security. No one gave you prepackaged search suggestions or content tailored to your pre-existing views.
It was also terribly clunky. It took forever to accomplish the simplest task. It was buggy and it looked absolutely horrible.
But then things started to happen, and they went on happening, faster and faster. We got some really good new services, and we said goodbye to some old ones. Goodbye Altavista and hello Google. Adios Microsoft Encarta and welcome Wikipedia.
Before we knew it we had a whole new digital economy. Sure it was a bit bumpy there around 2000–2001, but we got access to a lot of great services that helped enrich our lives and expose us to a much broader world. Now everyone was connected, all the time (well, apart from 60% of the world’s population). We started carrying our connections in our pockets (along with microphones and cameras), and put an ever greater wealth of data about ourselves online, and in the hands of our service providers.
It was easy, perhaps, to go on imagining that the internet was the same free place that it had been in the beginning. And even if we didn’t exactly believe that, it was definitely more comfortable to just not think about it. There might be the occasional story to jolt us out of our digital comfort zone, but through a careful and concerted effort we quickly managed to collectively forget about them and move on.
Even so, when we closed the books on the first decade of the 21st century, you had to be humming pretty loudly to yourself in order to drown out the analog reality behind our digital world.
Then came Wikileaks, and then came Edward Snowden. In a one-two punch they (and others) ripped down the last tattered remnants of the curtain separating our ordered normality from actual reality. (And those were some nice curtains too. Your mother helped you pick out those curtains.)
There are many ways of summing up what we’ve learned about this brave new world of ours. We have seen the extent to which our governments are spying, not just on each other, but increasingly on all of us. Hacking and theft of data has become a regular occurrence. We have also seen the companies that we rely on daily first take part and then fight back against government surveillance. Hopefully we have realized the power inherent in all that data we hand over on a daily basis.
We realized that the internet, far from being free, is crisscrossed by power structures. Some are old and some are new. Some are weak and some are immensely strong. All are global.
And then what?
Many power structures have rocked in the past few years, and many have remained unchanged and unchallenged. One of the most troubling structures is this:
- There is a small informed group that have the technical knowledge, skills and tools to affect change in their digital lives and challenge online power structures (secure their communications, protect their data, achieve privacy).
- There is a large informed (now) group of people that lack the knowledge and tools needed to do anything about their situation.
In the wide gulf between these two groups lies a sparsely populated technology and media landscape. There are a lot of things to do there. There are tools to build that bring user-friendly privacy into people’s lives (and then educate people on how and why to use them). There is information to convey that enriches and elevates public debate. There is news to report, and then spread to a wider audience.
There is room to build informed dissent, and to answer the question “And then what?”
Here you will find writing on technology, and writing on international politics. You’ll find links to news you might not find otherwise, and you will find opinions.
You can also find an outlet for stories that you want to get out of your brain and onto this page. Just shoot off an (encrypted) email.