In praise of internet institutions

CC0 Samuel Zeller (via Unsplash)

There’s a great piece by John Naughton in today’s Observer. It begins with a short essay, by way of context to his interview with academic, activist, and politician Tim Wu. Naughton asks Wu whether he was ‘utopian’ about the internet, and whether that’s changed. In the latter part of his answer, Wu notes:

Looking back at the 00s, the great mistake of the web’s idealists was a near-total failure to create institutions designed to preserve that which was good about the web (its openness, its room for a diversity of voices and its earnest amateurism), and to ward off that which was bad (the trolling, the clickbait, the demands of excessive and intrusive advertising, the security breaches). There was too much faith that everything would take care of itself – that “netizens” were different, that the culture of the web was intrinsically better. Unfortunately, that excessive faith in web culture left a void, one that became filled by the lowest forms of human conduct and the basest norms of commerce. It really was just like the classic story of the party that went sour.

The lesson should have been obvious, if you consider important public-spirited institutions like public parks, universities, museums, charities, some parts of the media. None of the best of these maintains a public character by just assuming people will be good or by adopting not-for-profit business models and assuming, arrogantly, that they’d be different somehow. The exception that proves the point is Wikipedia, which did commit itself to a structured non-profit path. Today, I think Wikipedia can hold its head high: it has thrived without advertising or other commercial distortions, while attracting and handling more traffic than nearly any other site on Earth.

Later, Wu makes a similar point about how we need more than just ‘good will’ to have positive social interactions when everyone’s got a smartphone in their pocket. Citing President Obama’s parties where guests are obliged to leave their devices at the door, Wu says:

Obama’s example shows how you do it: by reclaiming physical spaces and making them non-commercial. The easiest place to do this is your home. You might have a policy of checking devices at the door, say, or confining their usage to one room in the house. However you do it, the real key is drawing physical lines, not mental lines, in recognition of just how weak our wills truly are. For you will not win trying to fight a running battle with the forces of commerce. You’ll end up like the alcoholic who goes to bars and says to himself: “I’ll be fine with just one drink.”

I like this approach: don’t just rely on the strength of our resolve, but actively put measures in place to stop bad things happening. This works in families (for example, our son can only use his smartphone downstairs), in business (I set up a co-op last year with friends so we can work together in solidarity), or on the world stage (I’m a supported of the Open Rights Group, Internet Archive, and similar organisations).

At a time of year when people are still making ‘resolutions’, it’s a good time to point out the difference between a resolution and a commitment:

  • resolution, n. a firm decision to do or not to do something
  • commitment, n. a pledge or undertaking

To my mind, there’s a world of difference between merely ‘deciding’ to do something, and pledging to do it. A resolution is directed inwards, which his fine, but doesn’t necessarily change the world. On the other hand, a commitment means that you have to actually do something that’s observable, and has an impact on, others.

I’m still a few years away from 40, but it’s looking increasingly likely that the second half of my life is going to be doing the less-sexy, ‘institutional’ stuff that preserves the digital liberties my generation has taken for granted.