Anna Shams IliWe view young people as digital natives, because they never had to learn to use the internet. For those of us who perhaps remember ethernet cables but did not grow up analogue, we know a world where the internet has become, or simply has always been, ubiquitous. Perhaps that’s why the idea of a 'vision' for the internet to start conjures up a lot of nothing. Best emphasised by the Musk Twitter acquisition and ensuing debates, the 'internet' as a concept for connection seems like both a natural and inescapable truth—something you have been told all your life, but which also seems far removed from control or personal ownership.
Tracing the original purpose of the internet seems like another world compared to Zuckerbergs vision of an 'embodied internet'. Networking technologies were necessary for computers to talk to each other during the Cold War, and thus the purpose of the 'ARPANET' (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was to connect research and military institutions to further military advancement. However, it turned out that even researchers and military officers have a social need. As the network grew, the need to send messages turned into e-mail, which turned into mailing lists connecting people across hobbies and domains. Community erupted organically, from a want to connect with others.
When Tim Berners Lee established the World Wide Web, it was still strongly connected to CERN and the purposes of research. However, his ideas of the potential of the World Wide Web expanded far beyond this, recognising the communities it could enable. In his 'very short personal history' of the Web, he describes this as a vision of "a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize." The idea still lives with the World Wide Web Consortium, where the website itself looks like a time pocket: flat, simple, hyperlinked, and without any ads. The visions highlighted surround ways that the internet brings people together. In times where social media platforms are meant to be the most social part of the web experience, the idea feels (in the face of misinformation, radicalisation, polarisation, and other bad-sounding '-ations') laughable at best.
In their mapping of early internet communities, one group of researchers describe early internet communities as primarily connected through chat rooms, bulletin boards, and games. While 3D environments seem like a thing of the future, virtual 3D gaming environments started in the mid-90s. What characterised a lot of the features of the early web communities, was the idea of community at its centre. Developers worked to make gaming environments more accessible by using lower bandwidth, and the open source movement connected people through goals of making close to everything that could be digital freely available. Whilst the late 90s saw the beginning of the internet as profit, there was a large and active community which believed in the potential of the internet as a place to connect with others across the world.
The idea of connecting different users across the world in the mid-90s, where most users were still somewhat affluent and mostly Western, was a utopian idea. Early internet community theory often imagines the internet as a city, which in the book "Digital Cities II," published as early as 2003, is a metaphor that works in three ways: the representation of physical cities, the information infrastructure which mirrors that of a city in rapid growth, and the systems that reflect community organisation. Within the same book sociologist Barry Wellman reflects on the emergence of 'computer-supported social networks': "This is a time for individuals and their networks, and not for groups."
Although bleak, Wellman's general idea of the social network as simply reinforcing existing connections reflects the transition away from a vision primarily by developers and nerds to a professionalised network. The dotcom bubble, a sharp sudden rise of (over) investment in web-based companies in the late 90s, showed a glimpse of an alternative use of the internet—for profit, and when combined with the popular use of the internet as a place for communication, it is perhaps not hard to follow the trajectory to today's social media landscape. Instead of an internet ‘by and for the people’, popular networks are usually connected to a single (straight, wWhite) man, and so big that it is easy to feel completely detached from the structure and politics behind them.
And we’re back to the ubiquity of the internet and digital natives who are supposed to run the digital world of tomorrow. The supposed tech savviness that everyone born after 1997 is meant to be born with seems, however, to primarily mean being able to move the mouse when playing a video, or setting up an iPhone faster. When it comes to better understanding how the technology works, young people, just as older generations, still 'passively soak up information'.
Of course, there are areas where this is changing. Young people both passively and actively are aware of algorithms, and change their language to accommodate this. But this is still within the constraints of large platforms. There is some level of awareness that the algorithm affects marginalised groups more on platforms such as TikTok or Instagram—but is there any drive or hope to change this? There has been some change in the recent app landscape, with apps such as BeReal or Dispo, which claim to take back concepts such as sharing images with friends by creating less polished and more intimate spaces for these exchanges. Similarly Clubhouse was rumored to start a revolution in how we think of social media when their sudden popularity led, speculatively, Twitter to adopt audio notes. However, rethinking user experience or mission statements are not necessarily changes that lead to something actually new.
Perhaps, however, this signals a change in the social media landscape to come. New social media app Somewhere Good also takes an audio-based approach, but in its initial marketing (the app only recently released in the US) puts a strong focus on creating a space where marginalised voices can thrive. How the technology will support this is yet to be seen, and will probably be the actual test. The current discourses on 'the web' are focused on the centralisation of power on 4-5 platforms which are controlled by large corporations and where data is the currency powering ads. Whilst our experience of the web may be communicative or connective, the reality is that it is largely driven by e-commerce and advertising of those services. The convenience offered by most platforms is in reality far less valuable than the data we give for free (and in cases of smart devices, even pay to give up).
Somewhere Good is an app aptly named for an age where a lot of internet users are looking for something better. It is easy to forget that sites, such as independent blogs, that are not Instagram profiles or Facebook groups also exist. One radical attempt at an alternative is the web hosting service NeoCities which copied the iconic (dead) mid-90s platform GeoCities in a flat web structure, requiring only basic HTML and CSS skills. And similar to these sites, mailing lists are still well and alive, and can be formatted individually. It is difficult to imagine a space outside the current data economy, but just as autonomous spaces have always existed offline, so can they be carved out online.
Modern visions of the internet are often seemingly dominated by a discourse on Web 3.0 and immersion. However, we are arguably already immersed, and have been so without much discussion. In the process, the democratic conversations about internet ideology seem to have been forgotten. Instead new technologies are pushed by product and profit optimisation, such as a VR social media platform that lets you replicate physical experience whilst capitalising on your social interactions. The focus seems to have switched from the relational networks Berners Lee envisioned to entertainment. Both can easily co-exist, but it requires us to expand our imagination beyond using Facebook as a landing page, through which other companies and organisations catapult, lure, and hyperlink us to the next site aimlessly.
It is a false claim that the internet is a free-for-all (if this idea even still exists)—by operating within the capitalist system, big sites that can transform data into sales will always have more power. However, if we believe in the metaphor of the digital city, we must believe in the best part of the city: The public library. A space that is free to use, not for profit, and which in many instances hosts volunteer-driven, community-based events. Coincidentally, this is also where a lot of physical communities are connected through a need for internet access. The fight for the internet cannot be one about who should own twitter, or how Facebook guidelines are unfair. Whilst these are important fights, they do not offer an alternative vision. And in times of bleakness, considering a web that is more like the library than the theme park or convenience store, is exactly what is needed.
by @kateHCIThe growing prevalence of conversational agents in our daily lives requires technologists to ensure the privacy, safety, integrity and well-being of their users is adequately protected for us to live in a thriving AI-enabled society. At a time when most of us are willing to transfer our autonomy to Alexas or Siris, how might we create an equitable future for all?
The design fiction film presents an always-listening personal AI secretary branded under the name "Spora" that uses data captured from the environment to generate context-appropriate and hyper-personalised email replies. The design fiction film deliberately shows a technological future that reveals various ethical and social issues arising from Spora's mainstream use to start critical debates about the possible futures of voice-enabled Internet.
Can agents like Spora normalise passive listening in voice assistants because of the convenience it brings to people's lives? Are we running the risk of our potential disconnect from everyday reality if we choose to design a world dominated by devices providing growing levels of automation? And what about the degree of control a device should have over a person's life? Are some tasks better left unautomated?
Credits: Icons8, Business 3D Illustrations. 2022. [Online]. Available: https://icons8.com/illustrations/style--business-3d.
Ana Meisel in conversation with Camila Galaz
Image from Our friend, the computer
Before starting the podcast ‘Our Friend the Computer’ with artist and writer Camila Galaz, I had been running an online gallery (External Pages) for a couple of years. In 2020 a sudden incursion of web dev requests struck me and the gallery got funding for the first time. With this money, I was able to commission a few projects, one of them being Camila’s interactive website REDES: bread and justice, peaches and bananas about Chile’s protests and the history of Cybersyn - a socialist cybernetics project initiated by the Allende Government in Chile in the early 70s. REDES is an interactive video essay that documents Chile’s 2019–2022 demonstrations within the framework of Cybersyn’s Opsroom. This depiction of how technological tools shape our political experiences was a perfect fit for External Pages - a space where artists explore abstract internet potentials through its current functionalities. We continued to be friends after the project had launched, and about a year later Camila approached me with the idea of making a podcast about pre-Internet networks such as Cybersyn. She said there were many more to be explored…
I obviously bit 👅. While this is the topic of our first season, more generally the podcast is about computing histories and their relationship to society; what political agendas there are and were behind such big state tech projects, what had failed and what was a success. We are now aiming to expand this research and practice in other ways and the podcast, Our Friend the Computer, continues to evolve.
Hi Camila! As a developer and part-time e-girl with 0 attention span, I like quick projects. Code something and automate it to spend as little time as possible sitting by the computer. I find evolving and long-spanning projects very counterintuitive to my workflow and something that I’m still learning from you. The fact that you are, in a way, continuing REDES, and the fact that Our Friend the Computer is finding new alleyways of existing as a collaboration is quite synonymous with your practice style, I think.
So I want to know, first of all, what made you research further into other Cybersyn-like projects and how did that develop into finally contacting me about making this pod?
Camila: Hi Ana, thank you for these lovely words! Yes, so during the pandemic I’d been working on a film project about the 2019 Chilean Estallido Social and had been wanting to explore deeper into the use of social media by demonstrators. In my projects I tend to link the present with historical moments—in juxtaposition but also blending them, bringing them into the same time plane. ✈️ ✈️ ✈️ So when we began working on my digital project REDES for External Pages, I brought in the story of Project Cybersyn (Proyecto Synco) to highlight this continuity of history—socialist uses of computer networks before and after the dictatorship. This was a system that largely ran on Telex machines and connected factories to a central information hub. It was destroyed in the 1973 military coup d'état.
I found the tech history research and thinking about links to the present really fascinating, so I started looking into other similar stories. So our first season of the podcast, which explores computer networks that were developed before the Internet, was a natural progression from that original project. While my art and writing practice uses research as a basis, I also have been trying to find ways to make the research itself more accessible. A podcast seemed like a fun way to do that. And of course I absolutely loved working with you and wanted to keep doing so. The internet brought us together and it keeps us together! 💗 🤝 💗
Ana: Is this ✨continuous workflow✨ something that comes naturally to you or do you have to fight to stay inspired by the same thing over time?
Camila: Ok well I didn’t realise till right now that this is a different style of project for you haha. I think this is the way I naturally make work, but also I find that my research becomes quite expansive and I need to put boundaries on it and work out what I’m trying to say with the project. I think it’s made the podcast less intimidating for us to split it into season topics/themes. Though I feel like this first season, ‘Pre-Internet Networks’, could probably go on forever. What is nice about ‘Our Friend the Computer’, was once we started it felt like suddenly we had a container for all this research and I suddenly just wanted to fill it up with everything that I could. We’ve got so many fun things in the works! I’m excited to move onto other topics in the pod and to start branching out into other forms of collaborative creative research projects under the same ‘Our Friend the Computer’ banner.
Ana: Having reflected on these pre-internet networks, I find myself envious of the low-fi 📺 tech they had back then. I wish I wasn’t really connected, and that all I had was a videotex system to communicate and retrieve information or make digital purchases. I think it’s more than nostalgia though, and something we might actually need for a less preoccupied life (with work, mostly) 🌳. Do you feel the same?
Camila: Yes, it really made me realise that what we got was not what we were sold. I think we’re still chasing that dream of the digital somehow freeing up more time in our daily lives. That’s still how many applications and things like the metaverse are being positioned, but I just don’t think it’s in the cards anymore. Even though we are developing things which should on the surface provide us with more ease, it takes a lot of mental energy to engage with multiple types of platforms, interfaces, or ‘portals’ 🌀. It just adds to the ‘overwhelm’ of everyday life. The thing that really came through in the episodes about these early systems, particularly Videotex, was the way they were promoted or used early on. It was largely about the digitisation of specific life-min tasks - banking, buying train tickets, checking the weather, even remotely controlling home appliances. And they were contained in a cute terminal or via a TV adapter. It wasn’t something that came with you everywhere. (Though we did see with Minitel that people could become addicted to using it….). While there are good things about decentralisation, I still sort of want a functioning Jetsons house or just a flip phone to play snake and get scared when I accidently press the ‘internet’ button.
Ana: Which videotex system would you have in your home if you had to pick one?
Camila: I mean, it has to be French Minitel right? I wanna get into those chat rooms! lol
Though I suppose I’m choosing based on system uptake and service development. It was very functional and culturally connected. We’ve seen time and again that an aspect of a failing network or platform is often a lack of users. A reason that the French Minitel/Teletel system was so popular was that the network was introduced as a digital replacement for printing expensive telephone directories each year, so the government had motivation to make it easily accessible to everyone. The basic terminals were provided free of charge from the post office!
Ana: Do you think these projects can inform the future 🔮 of the internet and how?
Camila: I mean, that’s kinda the premise of our project—that there’s something to learn from this messy techie history. The thing that I find most interesting to tease out has been the utopian dreams that sparked the projects; the promise of the projects. Even if those networks ultimately failed or lost steam, what human hopes and dreams did they contain? I think it’s important to question how our expectations and the way we relate to technology have changed in the past half century. I know we’ve talked about this analogy before outside of this chat, but it’s sort of like going to therapy. You want a healthy future relationship so you look back on your previous ones to see what was good, what was bad, what went wrong, what you’d do differently. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right, or maybe you’re a different person now?
Ana: Do you think after web 3.0, we will finally regress to web 1.0 or dare I say, “web 0.0” aka videotex systems? 😈
Camila: lol I’m loving this web 0.0 concept you’ve been trying to start lately. I think there’s definitely a desire for a more simplified web, though I’m not sure we would ever return to Videotex. I saw in the recent Elon Musk Twitter news that quite a few people were advocating for a “return” to individual blogs and RSS feeds though (pour one out for Google Reader). I can see a world where web3 becomes so embedded in everyday life that perhaps another network more like web1.0 starts existing simultaneously. Something simpler, with a focus on expression and connection. I think no matter what happens, that dream never dies. We’re all just looking for the tools that give us the space to live, to laugh, and most of all, to love. 🙏