Law in the Internet Society

Back End / Front End

The digital devices and services that we all use all the time are destroying our individual mental health, our social and political systems, and humanity’s future. Substitutes exist which supposedly provide the same utility without such appalling consequences. Yet, they remain the province of a bare fringe of technically-capable users.

Maybe too strong a word? What do you actually need to assert in order to make the draft relevant?

Why? There’s a growing awareness (especially among privileged users) that this stuff is bad. There’s a growing appetite to reduce it, too. Almost every internet user will report a desire for more privacy, less targeted advertising, less state surveillance and less mental pollution.

I and the people who read this are presumably among those most informed and concerned about the problem. And, while I have managed to extirpate most social media from my life, I still use it a bit. I still am fully dependent on Google services. I can hardly bring myself to switch from Chrome to Firefox.

Switch back, that is. In fact, I used to use Firefox – until sometime circa 2015 when it started to suck. Chrome was better, faster, cost me less time and hassle. And besides, Google had already delivered me a host of services that I experienced as transforming my life for the better. Google maps, in particular, was revelatory. When I was much younger I used to derp around on primitive websites hosting satellite photos to slake my curiosity about geography. I wanted to see my house from space, and my town, and the Rocky Mountains, etc. Now it was searchable, 3D, interwoven with information about everything. It was a utility – I used it to navigate unfamiliar areas or simply find efficient routes – but it was a diversion as well, a cultural artifact, and one that I continue to enjoy.

The theory of anarchist production and distribution that we discussed in class defines two categories of goods: cultural artifacts, chosen idiosyncratically and unaccountably; and functional goods, chosen for their superior functionality by rational actors.

But this division is too neat, to the point of being an analytical mistake (such is the peril of microeconomics). People are not rational actors, and they choose functional goods for many of the same (often bad) reasons that they choose music and movies and clothes.

Of course. But the incremental process of improvement that makes functional digital goods superior if produced anarchically does not depend on every user's making rational functional choices. Not everyone improves products to make them better for herself and her neighbors, but sooner or later every itch will get scratched by someone who wants to solve the problem, and sooner or later every improvement that works for some users will find its way to some of the users it will help. That's all that evolution requires.

The internet might have been different. Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web was but one contender for the role of global digital nervous system. Project Xanadu was another, and its failure is worth understanding. The full story is too long to relate here, and involves technical, organizational, financial, legal and interpersonal snafus. But the essence is that a group of idealistic programmers, in pursuit of the perfect hypertext system, failed spectacularly by elevating concept and functionality over usability:

“The Xanadu philosophy had always held that if a perfect back end could be created, the front end would take care of itself. While the Xanaduers paid lip service to libertarian ideals, they imagined a more traditional revolution in which all users would be linked to a single, large, utopian system. But in their quest for a 21st-century model, they created a Byzantine maze.”

So? It wasn't a failure, just a dead end. But the result of science isn't only the result of the experiments that "worked."

The implication is that while there are psychological barriers to people switching from parasitic technology to non-parasitic, these cannot be overcome by the mere functional superiority of alternatives. People need to like using them at least as well and probably better. I think that’s less a symptom of pernicious digital ensnarement than garden-variety human frailty and solipsism. These qualities are, for better or worse, essential to the human nature that we are supposedly trying to preserve, and we can’t assume them away.

This is a point, but which point is it? Design and appeal are unquestionably important in the evolution of technology. The King of the Undead, Now Dead, proved that beyond any possibility of dispute. This no more implies that technology must work against the human spirit than that it must work for human liberation: rather, we are encountering contingency in human affairs, the subject of the discipline called history. History will be made as a function of human choice, while also being about the tragedies of our choices. Such is what it means to be human.

The best route to the improvement of this draft is to come to that philosophical quandary directly, not through stories of one's own personal browser choices. That helped you to clear the brush, which is what makes this first draft a good one. But the next one will be good because it can reach the center of the issues.

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r2 - 01 Dec 2019 - 14:27:19 - EbenMoglen
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