From a Scottish perspective, I can’t imagine a place so culturally opposite, so fundamentally different in weather and attitude than the 90s in Silicon Valley. The place served as a focal point for big ideas, with tech visionaries and computer wizzes swarming to the San Francisco Bay Area and dreaming up all kinds of software-based solutions to the world’s problems. The internet was still in its early stages, yet it was the subject of a lot of giddy excitement and positive speculation as the many possibilities it offered began to come clearly into view.
A lack of constant exposure to sunny weather probably contributes heavily towards it, and perhaps this highlights just how different the Californian psyche is to our own in Scotland, but I truly can’t imagine looking towards the world’s future and registering any sort of enthusiasm – nor does learning of the world’s problems inspire in me any other reaction than criticising and whinging in the form of a blog post. Yet these were the dotcom years, and a tide of New Age conviction brought with it an army of geeky CEOs who discussed at hot tub board meetings the coming techno-utopia and the central role they would play in making it a reality.
In 1996 John Perry Barlow – a cyber-libertarian, cattle rancher and eccentric even by Silicon Valley standards – published an email that has come in time to notoriously represent the sort of heady self-importance that still typifies Silicon Valley to this day. Modestly titled the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, the opening paragraph reads:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
Aside from the pretty nerdy overtones you can mostly forgive Barlow for truly believing that a new dawn was approaching for mankind. The internet promised to connect the world in powerful new ways, and whilst the internet of today would have been simply unimaginable to those of the dotcom era the magnitude of the technology was not lost on them, and they wanted to preserve it as a free and open space for all.
Like many people reading this article I was born in the late 90s, so the internet wasn’t so much an invention that arrived but rather something that has grown up alongside me: refining, expanding and proliferating as I’ve gotten older. I’m sure this will one day make for an amusing story for my future grandkids, but there really was a time only 16 years ago where the only computer in our house was a clunky PC running Windows 98, linked up to the outside world through dial-up and hidden away in the attic. Very occasionally I was allowed up the ladder to the top floor of the house and my dad would show me the BBC website, or I’d get to play a knock-off flash game version of Donkey Kong.
Over time our computer found its way down from the attic, and the internet really began to populate with a lot of exciting websites just as I was allowed more time to surf it by my parents. We always used to visit the Isle of Arran growing up in Summer, and I can remember begging for pound coins to pop in the hotel computers just so I could get an hour’s access to the island’s only available public internet. Most of my time back then was usually divided between Club Penguin, flash game websites like Miniclip and watching cringey ‘epic parkour’ videos at 144p on an early version of YouTube. The internet really was a utopia to me at that time, and it was made all the more appealing because of how restricted my access to it was.
A lot has changed since those days. And of course, it’s not exactly turned out to be the techno-utopia declared by Barlow – quite the opposite in fact. The last two decades tell a story not just of rapid technological change (and a lot of time spent playing flash games), but also of the unravelling of the utopian myth that has so often been heralded by New Balance-wearing, smarmy Silicon Valley CEOs. Barlow’s declaration that the internet will remain a democratic space free of the physical world’s rules and hierarchies seems laughably idealistic given some of the developments of this century.
There’s a reason nobody calls it the World Wide Web anymore. Increasingly it is fractured along national borders, with the governments of Russia, Iran and China unplugging and carving out their own segregated networks under the watchful eye of censors. In the West things are hardly much better – it’s pretty much common knowledge at this point that the UK and US governments are guilty of electronic eavesdropping. Even the youthful shine of the tech companies themselves has mostly worn off. Facebook has become implicated in everything from subverting elections to ethnic genocide, Google stands accused of harvesting our private data and selling access to advertisers and Twitter has descended into a political shitshow of mud flinging, bots and fake news.
Having arrived at the point of internet mass-adoption that Silicon Valley has long strived for since the 90s, with access to the web taken down from the attic and into our very pockets, the utopian dream has evaporated – disappearing like a mirage as we have drawn closer to it. Turns out, all the world’s ugliness and unfairness hasn’t been left behind in the physical world but instead has been uploaded online along with everything else.
The internet has advanced at such a dizzying speed it’s almost difficult to gauge just how far we have come. It now plays such an integral part in everything from our health to our economy, and from our social lives to our politics that it’s difficult to imagine life without it. In some countries around the world however imagination isn’t necessary, as restricting access to the internet has become the latest tool of governments trying to cling on to power and assert control.
In most cases, this takes the form of ongoing censorship of news and social media: like in China where any jokey comparisons of president Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh are scrubbed from the net, or in countries like Eritrea where virtually nothing is posted without first being vetted by censors. Increasingly, however, governments are turning to enforcing complete blackouts as a way of reasserting control over their citizens, especially when things have very much gotten out of control.
It was only in January that one of the world’s longest internet shutdowns ended in Kashmir. India’s government has initiated a crackdown on the disputed region and cutting off the internet for nearly 6 months formed part of a much wider campaign to bring the territory into line. The political motivation for this was clearly to stop unrest or opposition, and whilst it had the intended effect of stopping communications both within the region as well as with the outside world it meant that many Kashmiris couldn’t get their hands on needed medicines or contact loved ones during the military crackdown.
Just a few weeks ago we have seen the latest example of an internet shutdown play out in Belarus. The country has been rocked by protests in the last month as its president Aleksandr Lukashenko has refused to step down from power after an election that most international observers have dismissed as rigged. Protesters were organising online and sharing video evidence of violent policing via the app Telegram, whilst local journalists were live streaming coverage of the events to the outside world. The government’s response was to pull the plug on the entire country’s connection.
When these sorts of blackouts are enforced, they hurt far more than troublesome protesters and journalists. As we’ve just covered, for much of the world the internet has come to encompass a whole lot more than just communication. Knocking a country offline now disrupts everything from emergency services to a massive chunk of economic activity (in Belarus’ case some believe this to be as much of a loss as $56 million a day), so throttling citizens’ access to the web isn’t just a violation of their democratic rights – it also represents a threat to their safety and finances too. With the internet becoming ever more indispensable, it has only afforded tyrants more leverage over the people who oppose them.
The larger the internet grows, the more important it becomes that people’s right and ability to openly access it is both expanded and protected from government interference. Expansion becomes increasingly important when you consider that about half the world still doesn’t have access to the web. That means that at every point in my life, even when our family desktop was squirrelled away in the attic running on the fumes of dial-up, I have enjoyed better internet access than nearly half of the world currently has today.
That’s extremely problematic. The internet might be a failed utopia, but at the same time in the modern world it is practically indispensable. Nowadays access to the internet is vital for international commerce, it’s a significant booster for education and along with transport, electricity and sanitation it really deserves to be considered an integral part of any country’s national infrastructure. The longer poor people (especially younger folk) in developing countries are left in the dark, the further we can expect global inequality to worsen as they are shut out from all the opportunities the net can offer.
Whilst particular focus should be paid to getting the Global South online, we can’t ignore the access inequalities that exist right here in the UK. This issue scarcely gets paid much attention at the best of times, but there have been two significant developments in the last year that have thrust it into the mainstream. The first of these was Labour’s landmark proposal during the election to offer free full-fibre connectivity to all, and the second has of course been the coronavirus lockdown which was only really made possible through bringing even more parts of our lives online than ever before.
Labour’s headline ‘free wi-fi’ proposal was totally laughed out of the room back in December: variously dismissed as “communist broadband” or made out to be part of some kind of socialist hand-out bonanza (“Why not throw in free Sky TV? Free iPhones?” asked the Daily Mail). Labour’s proposal may have been ambitious, but the fact that the Conservatives weren’t criticised more for their complete inaction and lack of vision on this matter speaks volumes about how backwards thinking and woefully incompetent the leadership of this country and its tabloid cheerleaders are.
Sadly, the lockdown period has only proved to me what I’ve long suspected: that Tories only appreciate the value of public infrastructure when there has been some kind of catastrophe that highlights how glaringly underfunded it is – right at the exact moment when it is expected to pick up the pieces. As schools have had their lessons taken online and office workers hook up to Zoom calls sitting in their jammie bottoms at the kitchen table, it’s obvious lockdown has been made immensely easier with internet access.
And yet, it has also held up a mirror to some severe access inequalities in this country. There is now serious worry that the existing attainment gap between public and private schooling will be widened further during the pandemic, as private school pupils have a leg up with far better access to technology and remote learning compared to those in public school. That’s really concerning, and it’s just one example of many illustrating how important it is that we ensure and expand equal access for all – we need to demand bold and forward-thinking action from our politicians to make sure that happens.
So whilst Barlow’s Declaration might lie in tatters – torn up by governments and irrelevant to the half of the world that still doesn’t have access to the internet all these years later – it’s actually worth referring back to that original vision that early tech pioneers clung to back in the 90s. It was a vision of connectivity, freedom and equality, and whilst that all seems rather woolly and naïve today it doesn’t mean it’s not a vision we should strive towards regardless. Yes, Zuckerberg might be the overlord of our personal data and Bezos makes billions as he harvests and drinks his workers’ tears, but if there’s anything more depressing to me than the fucked up reality we’ve found ourselves in it would be the thought of giving up on the dream altogether. The internet is dead. Long live the internet.
Words by Charlie Forbes
Cover art by Katy Bremner (Instagram: @katsbrems)
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
John Perry Barlow – ‘A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’:
WIRED – ‘It’s Been 20 Years Since This Man Declared Cyberspace Independence’:
WIRED – ‘Belarus Has Shut Down the Internet Amid a Controversial Election’:
The New Yorker – ‘The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism’:
Piero Scaruffi – ‘A History of Silicon Valley’:
This is a really superb podcast series on Silicon Valley by Danny Fortson, Ep.4 is particularly interesting:
BBC Future – ‘The global internet is disintegrating. What comes next?’:
Financial Times – ‘Google and the problem with microtargeting’:
comparitech – ‘Internet Censorship 2020: A Global Map of Internet Restrictions’:
The New York Times – ‘India Restores Some Internet Access in Kashmir After Long Shutdown’:
The Guardian – ‘Almost 50% of the world is online. What about the other 50%?’:
Labour’s outline of its election pledge for free universal broadband:
Daily Mail’s article on Labour’s policy (use an ad blocker so they don’t profit from your visit, comes with a content warning for being a heap of shite):
Internet access statistics for the UK (ONS):
Some academic resources:
Liberini, F., Redoano, M., Russo, A., Cuevas, A. and Cuevas, R. – ‘Politics in the Facebook Era: Evidence from the 2016 US Presidential Elections’:
Margetts, H. – ‘9. Rethinking Democracy with Social Media’: