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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.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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