The hut where the Internet began

Interesting, slightly elegaic piece by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, reflecting on the life and career of Doug Engelbart and the networked world that we have inherited.

networked computing technology has had a similar privileged spot in American life for at least 30 years. Networked computers democratized! Anyone could have a voice! They delivered information, increased the variety of human experience, allowed new capabilities, and helped the world become more open and connected. Computers and the Internet were forces for good in the world, which is why technology was so readily attached to complex, revolutionary processes like the Arab Spring, for example.

But a broad skepticism about technology has crept into (at least) American life. We find ourselves a part of a “war on terror” that is being perpetually, secretly fought across the very network that Engelbart sought to build. Every interaction we have with an Internet service generates a “business record” that can be seized by the NSA through a secretive process that does not require a warrant or an adversarial legal proceeding. 

The disclosure of the NSA’s surveillance program is not Hiroshima, but it does reveal the latent dark power of the Internet to record communication data at an unprecedented scale, data that can be used by a single nation to detriment of the rest. The narrative of the networked age will never be as simple as it once was. 

If you’re inclined to see the trails of information Bush imagined future scholars blazing as (meta)data to be hoovered up, if you’re inclined to see PRISM as a societal Memex concentrated in the hands of the surveillance state, then perhaps, we’re seeing the end of the era Bush’s article heralded.

At the very least, those with the lofty goal of improving humanity are going to have to explain  why they’ve chosen networked computing as their augmentation platform of choice, given the costs that we now know explicitly exist. The con side of the ledger can no longer be ignored.

He’s right about one thing: the narrative of the networked age will never be as simple as it once was.