john_markoff's picture
Pulitzer Prize-winning Reporter, The New York Times; Author, Whole Earth

It's been three decades since Les Earnest, then assistant director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, introduced me to the ARPAnet. It was 1979 and from his home in the hills overlooking Silicon Valley, he was connected via a terminal and a 2400 baud modem to Human Nets, a lively virtual community that explored the impact of technology on society.

It opened a window for me into an unruly cyberworld that at first seemed to be, to paraphrase the words of computer music researcher and composer John Chowning, a "Socratean Abode." Over the next decade-and-a-half I joined the camp of what I have since come to think of as "Internet Utopians." The Net seemed to offer this shining city-on-a-hill, free from the grit and foulness of the meat world. Ideologically this was a torch carried byWired Magazine, and the ideal probably reached its zenith in John Perry Barlow's 1996 "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" essay.

Silly me. I should have known better. It would all be spelled out clearly in Brunner's Shockwave Rider; Gibson's Neuromancer; Stephenson'sSnowcrash, Vinge's True Names; and even less-well-read classics like Barnes' The Mother of Storms. Science fiction writers were always the best social scientists and in describing the dystopian nature of the Net they were again right on target.

There would be nothing even vaguely utopian about the reality of the Internet, despite preachy "The Road Ahead" vision statements by — late to the Web — luminaries like Bill Gates. This gradually dawned on me during the 1990s, driven home with particular force by the Kevin Mitnick affair. By putting every human on the planet directly in contact with every other, the Net opened a Pandora's Box of nastiness.

Indeed, while it was true that the Net skipped lightly across national boundaries, the demise of localism didn't automatically herald the arrival of a superior cyberworld. It simply accentuated and accelerated both the good and the bad, in effect becoming a mirror for all the world's fantasies and foibles.

Welcome to a bleak Bladerunner-esque world dominated by Russian, Ukrainian, Nigerian and American cyber-mobsters in which our every motion and movement is surveilled by a chorus of Big and Little Brothers.

Not only have I been transformed into an Internet pessimist, but recently the Net has begun to feel downright spooky. Not to be anthropomorphic but doesn't the Net seem to have a mind of its own? We've moved deeply into a world where it is leaching value from virtually every traditional institution in the name of some borg-like future. Will we all be assimilated, or have we been already? Wait! Stop me! That was The Matrix wasn't it?