It’s remarkable to look at the world twenty-five years ago. We were just coming off the end of the Cold War, the end of the war in Kuwait, the end of wondering when the nukes were going to fall. Anita Hill had us paying attention to sexual harassment. Rodney King had us paying attention to police violence. Al Gore had us paying attention to climate change. And for the first time, almost anyone could get to the “information superhighway” that was going to transform the world.
Of course, it was all an illusion, because “we’re going to” means nothing. The worst verb in the world is “will.” We will take care of the environment, we will get a fair shake for people of color, we will make sure women enjoy full equality in society. Because when you say “we will,” you get to drop back and punt and let the future take care of it. And then you get Ferguson, and Sandra Bland, and Harvey Weinstein and Walter Scott and Kevin Spacey and Mark Halperin and Twitter bots and Facebook frauds and a ballistic missile alert in Hawaii and above all, the racist grandpa who got to sit in the White House without the most votes. In twenty-five years, if anything, we’ve gone backward.
Because we didn’t really believe in consequences. We said “this is wrong” but forgot to mention “unless you’re powerful enough to make it hell on anyone who calls you on it” and “we all know Hollywood and CEOs and powerful people are Just That Way and what can you do.” And when the Internet became a thing, it started off as rare and different and exotic and ended up being shaped exactly the same as everything else. Them that has, gets, and them that has more gets more. Silicon Valley in 2018 is functionally indistinguishable from Wall Street in 1986, except Y Combinator has replaced Wharton and Stanford is the new Harvard. Same big swinging dicks, same get-rich-quick scam artists crowding out actual product, same firehose of wealth pointed at a narrow sliver of white or proper-sort-of-Asian dudes from the same half-dozen schools. The money assholes moved to the Peninsula and metastasized, and just kept enabling more horrible assholes to be more horrible than ever.
Because the Internet gave us a data revolution and let us slice and dice and find people. We thought that it meant a gifted kid in Alabama would never have to be lonely, without thinking that a horrible racist in New Jersey would be empowered and enabled in the same way. It unleashed all kinds of power with absolutely no control or judgement of whether this was a good idea or not. Why? Because that’s how society already is. It’s how society has always been. Don’t believe me, book a flight on a commercial airplane. Look at your seat classes and your boarding groups and your TSA Pre and your CLEAR and the fact that bags cost, snacks cost, choosing your own seat costs…somewhere back there we managed to decide that we could charge extra to treat people like human beings and slice that into tranches of its own so people would pay more for the privilege of not being veal-boxed across the country. And then technology gave us the ability to add dynamic pricing to that, so now everything is a game of chicken designed to squeeze the most out of every salable good from airline seats to baseball tickets to advertising.
We’ve taken the internet revolution and run 180 degrees the wrong way with it. With every advance, our choices get smaller. We used to have hundreds of dialup ISPs. Then we had a handful of DSL providers. Now, you pick between your cable company and either your phone company or doing without, because fiber isn’t there for most people. There were a dozen significant phone manufacturers in 2006. Now it’s Apple and Samsung literally accounting for every dollar of profit in the mobile handset market, plus a few other players trying to find their way. We started with Yahoo and Hotwire and Excite and Altavista and Webcrawler and we wound up with Google. How many people in your address book have personal email accounts that end with something other than @gmail.com?
We thought the Internet didn’t require regulation. We actively avoided it. These were not laws of nature, they were deliberate choices. Letting Amazon walk on sales tax for a decade or more gave them an economic advantage that catapulted them to the top of the marketplace. Letting Facebook accumulate real name information and suddenly tear down the walled garden without consequence, and then purchase Instagram and WhatsApp, gave them a critical edge on making themselves the universal address book – and the ability to sell it out to anyone with cash. Letting Twitter become a honeypot for assholes and a free-fire zone for bots and racists so their DAU numbers could stay higher was just plain fucking stupid. But for whatever reason, the kind of scorn we gave junk-bond traders and algorithmic banking hustlers just never got turned on the likes of Dorsey and Zuckerberg and Bezos and the Googlers and Y Combinator.
I don’t know how it was that we decided that “everyone should code” and that “the most important skill you can learn is being able to code” and all that sort of nonsense. There’s plenty enough in Silly Con Valley that doesn’t rely on code, and I guarantee you none of the names above have made a significant contribution to their company’s Github in years. Because it’s not really about code, and it’s not really about everyone knowing how to code. It’s about establishing “code” as a shibboleth for the technical elite and “coders” as inherently special people who deserve an exalted place, as if system administrators and technical writers and support agents aren’t equally critical in making the Valley go. It’s about collecting and consolidating privilege. It’s like the parable of the man who thinks the one thing he knows is the only thing worth knowing. And it’s of a piece with Gibson’s character of Cody Harwood in the Bridge trilogy: a person who wants a new world while ensuring that he will retain the same power and privilege he possessed in the old.
Which actually is itself of a piece with things like the so-called dark enlightenment. Or the Six Californias nonsense of Tim Draper, or the New California nonsense of whatever Infowars deviants cooked that up over the weekend. It’s about saying that the present system needs to be changed in such a way that I will automatically enjoy greater puissance under the new regime than I presently possess…which means removing power from anyone I don’t like. Women, Democrats, brown people…come to think of it, this is all of a piece with the assorted VRA shenanigans and “voter fraud” suppressions that Conservative, Inc has been flogging for twenty years.
And we’re back to the early 90s. I’m pretty sure that history will record 1994 as a nodal point, when the South managed to get astride the American future and scream “STOP” while simultaneously signaling that “do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Two decades of a culture explicitly bending toward the notion that you don’t have to know or care that other people exist. Two decades of making sure we don’t get any further than we were. Two decades of ending up right back where we started from. Actually, in 1995, we at least had a reasonably capable human being in the Oval Office and didn’t have to worry about ballistic missile alerts. I don’t know what I’d give just to be back where we started, instead of going in reverse.
If there’s a lesson from the last year – or the last twenty-five years – it’s that you should never say something is unthinkable, because everything is possible. And things can always, always get worse.