The evolution of media as portrayed by many flows along an accelerating timeline with flashpoints featuring the camera, the telegraph, the radio, the television, etc. The evolution follows a particular narrative that runs with one of economic and material success, demonstrating the fruits of modernity. We see the evolution of media as a progression of complexity and ubiquity in our ability to mass transmit ideas, and we see the outcome of these media as predominantly benevolent, intellectually and culturally spurring and convenient. Nevertheless, by creating a timeline that merely shows an increase in technical capability and the novel ways of being they create along a linear axis, we rid the technologies of their context; we ignore the political, legal and social ramifications of the technology and the contested, contemporary debates surrounding who is at the mercy of their control, who is being affirmed in their power.
Moreover, seeing evolution in a medium as a new way in which you are positioned toward one another does away dangerously with the agency of pre-existing structures that have particular aims. These previous modes of thinking become more one-dimensional and muddled when one is left to consider the true essence of the internet. The internet complicates all previously ordained principles of what a medium ought to be. No longer do you have the recognizable relationship of broadcaster to receiver on either an individual or a mass-level, and no longer do you just have the simple relationship between producer and consumer.
The internet has freed the citizens from their “passive ways” and has made them active participants in the formulation and shaping of our political discourses in ways unfathomable; additionally, the internet has outright created a myriad of novel social spheres and methods of consumption to the point where people often have to distinguish between their digital-selves and “real life.” The complexity and whirling nature of the internet precludes its inclusion in the timeline of media. On the contrary, the internet ought to be seen as an institution, a dangerous one at that – an all-encompassing, highly-organized body that dictates its own politics, economics and culture. One borne out of an unquestionable faith in both the unshackling nature of technology and the free-market.
The philosophy upon which the internet was built can find its roots in 1950s cybernetics and the 1960s counterculture, which such prescient essays as “Selfishness” and “The Californian Ideology” outlined in the 1990s, and Fred Turner in his book “From cyberculture to counterculture” outlined in the early 2000s. By the time the internet began to escape the binds of universities and government oversight in the late 1980s, a rationale concerning the role of the internet in a public sphere had already been formulated. The internet, as envisioned and promoted by such magazines like Wired and earlier iterations such as Whole Earth Catalog, was to be a space like no other.
The internet would be the forerunner in a number of technological feats, created in order to strengthen personal freedoms hampered by ineffective media, to create a post-scarcity economy where little human labor would be needed to sustain a materialist wonderland and would rid the world of useless, bureaucratic government oversight. Politics would not be needed in this new world under the stewardship of technological utopists. Nevertheless, this logic of optimistic technological determinism, coexists with and is often supplanted by an ardent faith in a libertarian ideology that finds regulation only capable of stifling innovation that will free us. This ideology can be found today in the complicated, often narrowly practiced and critiqued “Longtermism” championed by the likes of Elon Musk and Peter Theil.
For, while the tech-enthusiasts in Silicon Valley were propagating their liberating ideas; back in Washington, by the early 1990s, Congress and the courts were slowly being convinced that they ought to get out of the way of entrepreneurs looking to commercialize the internet. Ultimately, the internet owes much of its success to NSFNET, the National Science Foundation Network, funded by the United States government to promote research and develop public networks, and the only body at the time to run networks. Nevertheless, in 1992, the private sector was able to get the NSF to decommission the NSFNET and allow for commercial Internet service providers to flood the markets at a time when the internet began to materialize for the average citizen. What follows is a mingling of the two ideologies of techno-utopianism and libertarianism: the dot-com bubble of the 1990s and 2000s, reliant on a faith in the loose ideas of start-ups and low-interest rates provided by the Clinton administration, as well as the production of Web 2.0 by 2004, and the introduction of advertising and user-generated content which paved the way for social media giants to form.
Now, what we are left with is a lawless and profit-oriented institution that centers itself in the activity of all. With government oversight being thrown out of the window in favor of an economic order that continues today and lapsed politicians unable to figure out how to deal with such a ubiquitous force, we are left with a powerful conglomeration whose activities are dictated by private companies.
In October of 2021, Mastercard, one of the largest credit card firms, feeling the weight of external pressure from its customers and a righteous sense that change must occur, was compelled to order various pornographic websites that Mastercard was being used for purchases on to censor material and review questionable content. Whether or not one agrees with the decision, the underlying logic that a large-scale company is able to absolutely regulate the growth and substance of another company without government oversight is worrisome. A firm, in this instance, while filling the role of a governing body which looks to serve the public good, is merely responding to a public relations threat which may hurt their image and, thus, profits. Such a company with blatant ulterior aims should not command the role of regulator. We have seen the sweeping power that such social media companies have over who on their platforms are able to create an argument, with Twitter, and over what argument will create most the clicks, with Facebook.
And, while the rampant lawlessness of the internet may be less worrisome if its reach was short or its impact recognizable, the internet has already taken on a life and culture of its own. The internet holds no body, yet, in reality contains the most formidable and historically-determined infrastructure to ensure its encompassing reach. Hundreds of internet exchange points and data centers, connected by fiber optic cables, follow the same lines as many telegraph and telephone lines as well as overseas shipping routes from hundreds of years ago. With the advent of the smartphone, the internet developed an ability to always be present and always contain a foothold in the lives of its users. Its immaterial nature, fostered by a growing connectivity across the world, makes it a medium like no other. The internet has become so decentralized that its power as a cohesive institution has become dispersed, resting in the hands of landlords for data centers and managers of tech companies who now determine the strength of a medium the world has become reliant on for commerce, communication, and culture.
While the internet may have assumed a life of its own in the last thirty years, a medium never simply enters into the public sphere without the acknowledgement and allowance from a governing body. When the radio first entered into the hands of lucky enthusiasts, university-sponsored programs, brilliant tinkers and private companies, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, radio broadcasting did not begin until the early 1920s. The legal world had already attempted to regulate who or what was being transmitted over radio in the Radio Act of 1912. Furthermore, President Woodrow Wilson, afraid of the unchecked power of the radio on the US efforts in World War I, in one of the most absolutist points in American history, ceased all private transmitters from 1917 until the war was finished in 1918. By the time broadcasting became a public striving in the 1920s, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover had issued several Radio Conferences, culminating in the Radio Act of 1927, which stated that aspiring stations ought to show they were acting “in the public interest, convenience, or necessity” to be granted a license. Hoover, throughout these conferences, signaled his belief that radio ought to be a public service, fit with rules and regulations, and not a service whose interests were purely commercial, going so far as to give favorable radio frequencies more to university-sponsored stations than to private stations in the mid-1920s. While the Radio Act of 1927 indirectly favored private stations, the efforts of awareness and direct supervision are worthwhile and responsible efforts for the internet—even in a world where many now see it as responsible for a decaying democracy, a surveilled way of life and a corrosive, commodified world.