How the Internet Broke the Planet

I am not an optimistic person by nature. I’ve tended — pretty much through my entire life — to always be wary of how things could go wrong. In some ways, I’ve found this to be a useful skill — when writing code it’s important to cover the range of possible outcomes and error states, and properly provide for their handling in a program or app.

Then again, I’ve never been much fun at parties. When I went to parties. Which has been very infrequently.

Mostly, I’ve spent my adult life in front of computer screens of all sorts (and before that, various forms of teletypes, other teleprinters, and even the occasional 029 keypunch machine).

I started writing publicly in the early 70s at the Internet’s ancestor ARPANET site #1 at UCLA, often on the very early mailing lists like Human-Nets, MsgGroup, or SF-Lovers (yes, and Network-Hackers, too). I even monitored the notorious Wine-Tasters list — though not being much of a drinker I uncharacteristically didn’t have much to say there.

Back then there were no domains, so originally I was LAUREN@UCLA-ATS (the first host on ARPANET) and later LAUREN@UCLA-SECURITY as well.

Much of my writing from those days is still online or has been brought back online. Looking it over now, I find that while there are minor points I might change today, overall I’m still willing to stand by everything I’ve written, even from that distant past.

My pessimism was already coming through in some of those early texts. While many in the ARPANET community were convinced that The Network would bring about the demise of nationalities and the grand rising up of a borderless global world of peace and tranquility, I worried that once governments and politicians really started paying attention to what we were doing, they’d find ways to warp it to their own personal and political advantages, perhaps using our technology for new forms of mass censorship.

And I feared that if the kind of networking tech we had created ever found its way into the broader world, evil would ultimately be more effective at leveraging its power than good would be.

Years and decades went by, as I stared at a seemingly endless array of screens and no doubt typed millions of words.

So we come to today, and I’m still sitting here in L.A. — the city where I’ve always lived — and I see how the Internet has been fundamentally broken by evil forces only some of which I foresaw years ago.

Our wonderful technology has been hijacked by liars, Nazis, pedophiles and other sexual abusing politicians, and an array of other despicable persons who could only gladden the hearts of civilization’s worst tyrants.

Our work has been turned into tools for mass spying, mass censorship, political oppression, and the spreading of hateful lies and propaganda without end.

I have never claimed to be evenhanded or dispassionate when it came to my contributions to — and observations of — the Internet and its impact on the world at large.

Indeed the Net is a wonder of civilization, on par with the great inventions like the wheel, like the printing press, like penicillin. But much as nuclear fission can be used to kill cancer or decimate cities, the Internet has proven to be a quintessential tool that can be used for both good and evil, for glories of education and communications and the availability of information, but also for the depths of theft and extortion and hate.

The dark side seems to be winning out, so I won’t pull any punches here. 

I have enormous respect for Google. I have pretty much nothing but disdain for Facebook. My feelings about Twitter are somewhere in between. It’s difficult these days to feel much emotion at all about Microsoft one way or another.

None of these firms — or the other large Internet companies — are all good or all bad. But it doesn’t take rocket science (or computer science for that matter) to perceive how Google is about making honest information available, Facebook is about controlling information and exploiting users, and Twitter doesn’t seem to really care anymore one way or another, so  long as they can keep their wheels turning.

This is obviously something of an oversimplification. Perhaps you disagree with me — sometimes, now, or always — and of course that’s OK too.

But I do want you to know that I’ve always strived to offer my honest views, and to never arbitrarily nor irrationally take sides on an issue. If the result has been that at one time or another pretty much everyone has disagreed with something I’ve said — so be it. I make no apologies for the opinions that I’ve expressed, and I’ve expected no apologies in return.

In the scheme of things, the Internet is still a child, with a lifetime to date even shorter than that of we frail individual human animals. 

The future will with time reveal whether our work in this sphere is seen as a blessing or curse — or most likely as some complex brew of both — by generations yet to come. Some of you will see that future for yourselves, many of us will not.

Such is the way of the world — not only when it comes to technology, but in terms of virtually all human endeavors.

Take care, all.


Google Maps’ New Buddhist “Swastika”

I’m already getting comments — including from Buddhists — suggesting that Google Maps’ new iconography tagging Buddhist temples with the ancient symbol that is perceived by most people today as a Nazi swastika is problematic at best, and is likely to be widely misinterpreted. I agree. I’m wondering if Google consulted with the Buddhist community before making this choice. If not, now is definitely the time to do so.


UPDATE (November 16, 2017): Google tells me that they are restricting use of this symbol to areas like Japan “where it is understood” and are using a different symbol for localization in most other areas. I follow this reasoning, but it’s unclear that it avoids the problems with such a widely misunderstood symbol. For example, I’ve received concerns about this from Buddhists in Japan, who fear that the symbol will be “latched onto” by haters in other areas. And indeed, I’ve already been informed of “Nazi Japan” posts from the alt-right that cite this symbol. The underlying question is whether or not such a “hot button” symbol can really be restricted by localization into not being misunderstood in other areas and causing associated problems. That’s a call for Google to make, of course.