Spotlight On – WHAT DOES INTERNET MEAN TO YOU
May 21, 2011 § 2 Comments
(Originally posted on December 17 2010)
Recently I wrote an article about the cultural origins of trolling, starting with the Greek Sophists and ending with a discussion of dirty pictures shared via Xerox machine. Trolling is new and weird, the argument went, but it isn’t new; people have been engaging in trollish behaviors as long as there have been arguments to win, and machines to play with. In one section I discussed the original definition of the verb “to hack,” which in the 60s simply meant a cool and elegant tweak of some preexisting system. In this sense, every technological advancement is a hack—something new, something cool, something that makes whatever old thing better or more accessible to more people. I added to this definition the concept of instrumental entitlement—which in a nutshell states that people can do new stuff with emergent technologies and so they do. I used as an example a brief exchange between two colleagues on ARPANET, well before the Internet was regarded as a social/networking tool. A programmer had been in England for a conference; in the rush to pack he’d left his razor at the venue. When he got home and found the razor missing he hopped online, looked up his friend who was still at the conference and asked if a third friend could bring the razor home (Hafner and Lyon 1996). This was in 1972, when ARPANET was all Serious Business (as opposed to srs bsns, a different kind of seriousness entirely). Nearly twenty years later, the programmer recounted feeling giddy, like he’d done something naughty. Because he had, in some ways—the Internet wasn’t designed to facilitate idle chatter between colleagues. It was designed to transmit sensitive scientific and military data over a decentralized, secure network. It was designed to survive nuclear attack. It was designed to be a thing that people—and only certain kinds of people—used, not something average people could play with.
And yet, here we are.
This, ultimately, is what Internet means to me—it is quite possibly the greatest hack ever conceived, the ultimate in user-generated content. The Internet is what it is today because dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people discovered new and interesting ways to utilize a technology that simply wasn’t intended for them. But that didn’t stop anybody from trying, since god the technology was cool. Ultimately, that’s what I find so fascinating—the Internet is us. The fact that it’s weird, that it’s made of cats, that it’s stuffed to the gills with things that cannot be unseen, that it’s both an increasingly liberating and restrictive space, that it’s a hotbed for aggression and profound care…for better or worse, all these things are reflective of the hacks upon hacks upon hacks that brought us to where we are today. To summarize, the Internet does what it does because that’s what we wanted it to do. We made the Internet, and in turn the Internet makes us.