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The Disappointing Internet

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 12, 2011 10:17 AM

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Writing in Prospect magazine, technology scholar Evgeny Morozov says the verdict on the internet is in: After two decades of economic boosterism and ideological cheerleading, the internet has betrayed the "laudable instincts" of its founding fathers, resulting in a fundamental "mismatch between digital ideals and reality."

The main problem, Morozov writes, is money. The internet has to be paid for somehow, even though its founding mythology has created the expectation that everything ought to be free. Businesses have found inventive ways to square the circle. But the result has been a strangely dishonest kind of commerce, in which users, seduced into giving away personal data, are the main product. "Internet users," Morozov writes, "think they enjoy free access to cool services, but in reality, they are paying for that access with their privacy."

The personal information users give away is used to support an increasingly sophisticated infrastructure of information filtering and opinion manipulation. The freedom from hierarchy offered by the internet, Morozov concludes, is almost always illusory: in fact, the web reinforces the status quo. It parrots your tastes back to you, and "amplifies" pre-existing political divisions. It looks like a venue for free self-expression, but in fact it ceaselessly indexes, records, and analyzes everything that you express. All in all, Morozov concludes, the internet is a disappointment.

What went wrong? It was a mistake, Morozov writes, for the web's founders to let the marketplace take over. "We need to stop thinking of the internet as a marketplace first and a public forum second. What is long overdue is a fundamental reconsideration of the primacy of the internet’s civic and aesthetic dimensions. It’s time to decide whether we want the internet to look like a private mall or a public square."

Update: Via Twitter, Tim Carmody points out this great essay by Paul Ford, written way back in 2001: "In general, we ignored social reality, basing our networked cosmos on the intellectual meanderings of a certain kind of white male psyche."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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