In the realm of creativity, the ‘what if’ is our currency. It buys us access to an as yet un-imagined future, a future that is still ours to create. At university, though, I studied history, and as a student of history you are taught to resist ‘what if’s. In history ‘what if’s are not about peering into the future, they’re about looking back at what’s already occurred.
This is the counter-factual view of history – what might have been. What if Hitler had been killed in 1923. What if Lenin had lived for longer. This is pretty futile stuff, by and large. Too much has happened since, and it’s hypothetical anyway, but sometimes it can be useful. It’s said that history is written by the victors: you claim what you can name. The job of a historian, though, has always been to resist taking the victor’s word at face value.
The history of the internet is relatively short but full. So much has happened in the last 20 years it feels churlish to look back and ask what if something had gone differently. But for something so multi-faceted and ever-changing the internet has accrued a surprisingly coherent narrative. It’s also a narrative which contains an awful lot of untested assumptions that historians – or anyone with an analytic truth-seeking instinct – would find surprising.
Evgeny Morozov challenges these assumptions in a recent book, To Save Everything, Click Here (erm, click here). He asks us to recognise the ideology of what he refers to as ‘the internet’. There is no such thing, he says. Peer-to-peer forums have little to do with search algorithms in the methods and reasons that we use them. We have so conflated concepts like ‘sites’ and ‘networks’ and ‘open’ that our ideological perception of the ‘internet’ is highly unstable and yet at the same time incredibly resistant to anything that challenges the business models of the web’s most successful companies. We’ve been sold a benign lie by money-making organisations who use our desire to believe against us.
The evidence for the claims made by these businesses rests largely on the words and labels used to help us understand them. When I heard Morozov lecture earlier this year at the Royal Institution he reserved his greatest ire for those powerful metaphors that propagate the myth. Like ‘wiki’, for example, which prematurely and inaccurately elevates Wikipedia to a model of openness that it doesn’t warrant and that no-one is quite sure works yet. Or ‘cyberspace’, a term derived from urban planners and their fixation with the different spatial rules of virtual reality – seized on to understand and explain the internet, and now watchfully defended by an entire department within the US Dept of Defense.
I’m sure Morozov relishes being the killjoy, but his mission is a constructive one at heart. He wants people to interrogate more, be more suspicious, demand better accounts of the way things work. He wants people to think harder about the names given to things, and the claims people make on their behalf. He believes this will allow people to have a more honest and ultimately more fruitful relationship with the products and services they use on the internet.
In another new book on the history of the internet, Finn Brunton charts the history of spam. I was reading a review of it the other day when a passage leaped out at me.
It was not inevitable that malicious self-replicating code should have been called a “virus”; one researcher instead proposed the metaphor of “weeds”. That, Brunton writes, might have led us to think of “computers as gardens rather than bodies, with diverse software populations to be tended and pruned by attentive and self-reliant users [and] the professionals as agronomists, breeders, and exterminators rather than doctors at the cordon sanitaire”.
Here, then, is a metaphor that has truly shaped the way we conceptualise the internet. Not just as fearful and powerless users, but as expectant marketers too (“make me a viral!”). But there’s a fascinating counter-factual view here. What if it really had been different? What if ‘weeds’ had taken hold, so to speak. What if clients now asked us to create ‘beds’? What if popular content was said to have ‘been pollinated’? Or what if digital experiences were ‘landscaped’?
Well, they still could. We’re really not that far into this whole ‘internet’ thing. History’s ink is not yet dry – the declared victors of today have time enough to become the couldabeenacontenders of tomorrow. Replacement metaphors aren’t necessarily the answer, of course. But if Morozov’s iconoclasm shows us anything it’s that language remains as powerful as ever, even in a world of 1s and 0s.
We just have to look beyond what we’re told, to think for ourselves.