The internet promised to feed our minds with knowledge. What have we learned? That our minds need more than that
by Dougald Hine
On my morning bus into town, every teenager and every grown-up sits there staring into their little infinity machine: a pocket-sized window onto more words than any of us could ever read, more music than we could ever listen to, more pictures of people getting naked than we could ever get off to. Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable, this cornucopia of information. Those of us who were already more or less adults when it arrived wonder at how different it must be to be young now. ‘How can any kid be bored when they have Google?’ I remember hearing someone ask.
The question came back to me recently when I read about a 23-year-old British woman sent to prison for sending rape threats to a feminist campaigner over Twitter. Her explanation for her actions was that she was ‘off her face’ and ‘bored’. It was an ugly case, but not an isolated one. Internet trolling has started to receive scholarly attention – in such places as the Journal of Politeness Research and its counterpart, the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict – and ‘boredom’ is a frequently cited motive for such behaviour.
It is not only among the antisocial creatures who lurk under the bridges of the internet that boredom persists. We might no longer have the excuse of a lack of stimulation, but the vocabulary of tedium is not passing into history: the experience remains familiar to most of us. This leads to a question that goes deep into internet culture and the assumptions with which our infinity machines are packaged: exactly what is it that we are looking for?
‘Information wants to be free’ declared Stewart Brand, 30 years ago now. Cut loose from its original context, this phrase became one of the defining slogans of internet politics. With idealism and dedication, the partisans of the network seek to liberate information from governments and corporations, who of course have their own ideas about the opportunities its collection and control might afford. Yet the anthropomorphism of Brand’s rallying cry points to a stronger conviction that runs through much of this politics: that information is itself a liberating force.
This conviction gets its charge, I suspect, from the role that these technologies played as a refuge for the Californian counterculture of the 1960s. Brand himself embodies the line that connects the two: showing up to meet Ken Kesey out of jail in the opening of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) – ‘a thin blond guy with a blazing disk on his forehead… an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher’s coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it’ – then creating the Whole Earth Catalog, the bible of the back-to-the-land movement, or, as Steve Jobs would later call it, ‘Google in paperback form’.
Before there was a web for search engines to index, Brand had co-founded the WELL (the ‘Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link’), a bulletin board launched from the Whole Earth offices in 1985. Its members pushed through the limitations of the available technology to discover something resembling a virtual community. At the core of this group were veterans of the Farm, one of the few hippie communes to outlast the early years of idealism and chaos; in the WELL, these and other paisley-shirted pioneers shared their experiences with the people who would go on to found the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990 and Wired magazine in 1993.
This line from counterculture to cyberculture is not the only one we can draw through the prehistory of our networked age, nor is it necessarily the most important. But it carried a disproportionate weight in the formation of the culture and politics of the web. When the internet moved out of university basements and into public consciousness in the 1990s, it was people such as Brand, Kevin Kelly (founding editor of Wired) and John Perry Barlow (founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) who were able to combine the experience of years spent in spaces such as the WELL with the ability to tell strong, simple stories about what this was and why it mattered.
information took the place of LSD, the magic substance whose consumption could transform the world
The journalist John Markoff, himself an early contributor to the WELL, gave a broader history of how the counterculture shaped personal computing in his book What the Dormouse Said (2005). As any Jefferson Airplane fan can tell you, what the Dormouse said was: ‘Feed your head! Feed your head!’ The internet needed a story that would make sense to those who would never be interested in the TCP/IP protocol, and the counterculture survivors gave it one – the great escapist myth of their era: turn on, tune in, drop out. In this new version of the fable, information took the place of LSD, the magic substance whose consumption could transform the world.
The trouble is that information doesn’t nourish us. Worse, in the end, it turns out to be boring…