The future’s so bright, I gotta wear blinders

By Nick

“This is only the beginning,” writes Kevin Kelly in an essay in Wired‘s 25th anniversary issue. “The main event has barely started.” He’s talking about the internet. If his words sound familiar, it’s because “only the beginning” has become Kelly’s stock phrase, the rhetorical device he flourishes, like a magician’s cape, to draw readers’ eyes away from what’s really going on. Back in 2005, in a Wired story called “We Are the Web,” Kelly wrote, “It is only the beginning.” And then, his enthusiasm waxing, he capitalized it: “the Beginning.” He doubled down in his 2016 book The Inevitable: “The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning.” And then: “The Beginning, of course, is just beginning.”

I predict this sentence will appear in the next thing Kelly writes: “The beginning of the Beginning will be beginning shortly.”

This is not the beginning, much less the beginning of the beginning. We’ve been cozying up to computers for a long time, and the contours of the digital era are clear. Computers have been around for the better part of a century, computer networks have been around since the 1950s, personal computers have been in popular use since the late 1970s, online communities have been around at least since 1985 (when the Well launched), and the web has been around for a quarter century. Text messaging on mobile phones started in 1984, the first BlackBerry smartphone was released in 2002, and the iPhone arrived in 2007. The social network MySpace was popular fifteen years ago, and Facebook started up in 2004. Last month, Google turned 20. In looking back over the consequences of computer-mediated connectivity since at least the turn of the century, we see differences in degree, not in kind. 

A few years ago, the technology critic Michael Sacasas introduced the term “Borg Complex” to describe the attitude and rhetoric of modern-day utopians who believe that computer technology is an unstoppable force for good and that anyone who resists or even looks critically at the expanding hegemony of the digital is a benighted fool. (The Borg is an alien race in Star Trek that sucks up the minds of other races, telling its victims that “resistance is futile.”) Those afflicted with the complex, Sacasas observed, rely on a a set of largely specious assertions to dismiss concerns about the ill effects of technological progress. The Borgers are quick, for example, to make grandiose claims about the coming benefits of new technologies (remember MOOCs?) while dismissing past cultural achievements with contempt (“I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away”).

To Sacasas’s list of such obfuscating rhetorical devices, I would add the assertion that we are at “the beginning.” By perpetually refreshing the illusion that progress is just getting under way, gadget worshippers like Kelly are able to wave away the problems that progress is causing. Any ill effect can be explained, and dismissed, as just a temporary bug in the system, which will soon be fixed by our benevolent engineers. (If you look at Mark Zuckerberg’s responses to Facebook’s problems over the years, you’ll find that they are all variations on this theme.) Any attempt to put constraints on technologists and technology companies becomes, in this view, a short-sighted and possibly disastrous obstruction of technology’s march toward a brighter future for everyone — what Kelly is still calling the “long boom.” You ain’t seen nothing yet, so stay out of our way and let us work our magic.

In his books Empire and Communication (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), the Canadian historian Harold Innis argued that all communication systems incorporate biases, which shape how people communicate and hence how they think. These biases can, in the long run, exert a profound influence over the organization of society and the course of history. “Bias,” it seems to me, is exactly the right word. The media we use to communicate push us to communicate in certain ways, reflecting, among other things, the workings of the underlying technologies and the financial and political interests of the businesses or governments that promulgate the technologies. (For a simple but important example, think of the way personal correspondence has been changed by the shift from letters delivered through the mail to emails delivered via the internet to messages delivered through smartphones.) A bias is an inclination. Its effects are not inevitable, but they can be strong. To temper them requires awareness and, yes, resistance.

For much of this year, I’ve been exploring the biases of digital media, trying to trace the pressures that the media exert on us as individuals and as a society. I’m far from done, but it’s clear to me that the biases exist and that at this point they have manifested themselves in unmistakable ways. Not only are we well beyond the beginning, but we can see where we’re heading — and where we’ll continue to head if we don’t consciously adjust our course.

Is there an overarching bias to the advance of communication systems? Technology enthusiasts like Kelly would argue that there is — a bias toward greater freedom, democracy, and social harmony. As a society, we’ve largely embraced this sunny view. Harold Innis had a very different take. “Improvements in communication,” he wrote in The Bias of Communication, “make for increased difficulties of understanding.” He continued: “The large-scale mechanization of knowledge is characterized by imperfect competition and the active creation of monopolies in language which prevent understanding and hasten appeals to force.” Looking over recent events, I sense that Innis may turn out to be the more reliable prophet.