Newspapers are filled with stories about how social media has been used to sway democracy, how internet companies have been fined billions for spying on people like you, how social media has been linked to emotional damage in teenagers and young people. To summarise: the internet has gotten really shit.
The most salient feature of the web now (writing in 2020) is the dominance of a few giant websites. I don't think many people will disagree with me on that. Instead of posting your photos, writings, news on your website, you post it on one owned by a third party: Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Youtube.
What are the drawbacks of these companies? Ads is an obvious one. Those are pretty annoying. Surveillance is a much deeper darker problem. Then there's all the endless debates about takedowns, bans.
I watch bemused when people argue about bias in Twitter's recommendation algorithms, or Twitter's decision to censor or not censor someone. Let's take a step back. Do we want Twitter, their management board, to have authority to make these decisions in the first place? How did they get that authority? They've conned you into forgetting that tools are tools. You think you need their services. RSS had solved all these problems in 2002. I'm unclear on what Twitter's value-add on top of that is supposed to be. Seriously, I have no idea.
For all the well-known and much-debated drawbacks of social media, what's the upside? What service do these companies provide? You don't need social media to post your stuff online. You don't need it to follow what other people post. You don't need communicate with people online. Unwalled Garden sum it up pretty well when they say that RSS is basically Twitter.
The internet was designed by Cold War military scientists looking for an untakedownable decentralised communication system. Arguments over whether or not a centralised platform should take down some hate speech are a sign we've engineered that system wrong. I don't care about any of these particular squabbles; the bigger question is why do these platforms have such authority in the first place? We need to fix that.
It's not about nostalgia. The internet has gotten better (it's fast enough for video, and it got encrypted about 2015 or so). It's as simple as using technology ethically, respecting human rights (like our article 12 rights).
I think that computers and internet technologies should be tools. When you buy a hammer, the hammer doesn't make you sign a contract to use it in a particular way. It doesn't charge you monthly subscription fees. It doesn't track your location, store the data indefinitely, sell that data to marketing firms and leak it to hackers by bad security practices. You can customise your.... darn it my hammer analogy isn't working well here – is there a hammer modding community I should know about?... you can customise your car without asking the manufacturer's permission.
Apple wouldn't let an app developer distribute his app that tracked civilians murdered by drone strikes, demanding to know "What's the point?" The correct answer to this is: "None of your business." My oven doesn't ask me to justify why I'm using it a particular way. I don't want my computer to either.
The thought experiment about pay-per-swing hammers is a good way of bringing this out.
On that note, someone once said: "A cyberpunk is a person who takes navigational control over the cybernetic and electronic equipment and uses it, not for the Army and not for the Government and not for the [corporations], but for his or her own purposes."
It's not about controlling computers. It's about controlling you. It's maybe about doing it through computers, but the aim is power and influence.