"Happily, the Web is so huge that there's no way any one company can dominate it," wrote Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web (WWW), in 1999. In retrospect, this statement might seem naïve. But early adopters—both developers and users—truly saw the internet as a decentralising and democratising force, while traditional media at the time scoffed at it as nothing more than a hipster sub-cultural obsession. That being said, was that utopia ever within grasp? What if the internet was never a post-racial, egalitarian space to begin with, and only recently did its many problems balloon out of proportion due to its pervasive presence in our lives?
In Lurking: How A Person Became A User (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), author Joanne McNeil prods at this question as she charts a history of the internet from the early days of AOL forums and CompuServe chat rooms to today's Facebook and WhatsApp, from the vantage point of an early user.
As a 'lurker' in the early 1990s—which in internet parlance is a silent observer who explores the conventions and norms of an online community before deciding to actively engage—McNeil witnessed the internet when it was compartmentalised like walled gardens, and the primary objective of AOL (the first ever ISP) was to keep its users engaged solely with its own content. Back then, a person's identity online was plastic. Tethered only to a username, the chance to reinvent one's image on the internet seemed limitless.
However, after the dotcom crash paved the way for surveillance capitalism to become the modus operandi in Silicon Valley, online visibility was forcefully tied to the user's real-life identity under the guise of authentication. But authenticity, taken to its logical limits, becomes an act of totalisation. Google has assigned a user identification number to every single human being on earth. Facebook, in classical Orwellian fashion, refuses to acknowledge those who do not use its platform by calling them "unregistered" users. And with visibility on the internet now fastened to a person on the ground, cases of online harassment and exploitation are skyrocketing.
This book is notoriously difficult to pigeonhole. At times it reads like an autobiography; other times it is historical, socio-political, and philosophical, all the while providing a critique of the internet. It tries to shoehorn so many things into its 300-page breadth that several key points were bound to suffer from under-analysis. The author exacerbates the problem by constantly employing '90s East Coast metaphors, and not the ones accessible to a larger global readership, like Seinfeld or Friends.
However, as she volleys past Friendster and Myspace in the early 2000s and arrives at present-day internet, she hones her critical tone to a near-perfect pitch. She presciently points out that stringent regulation can only accomplish so much when the individual shares such a lopsided asymmetry of power in favour of the tech giants. Similarly, promises of self-regulation by the Silicon Valley executives can only yield superficial changes rather than address deeply ingrained structural problems. Breaking up social media behemoths without de-commodification of the user can only serve as a stopgap, while nationalisation would augur a Big Brother-esque scenario in which government bodies like CIA would have access to users' personal data.
She occasionally gives vent to her resentment at the traditional media for not intervening earlier with sharp criticism of the Big Tech. But how much of the fault lies with the news media is open to debate. Any critical piece in, say, the NY times would have been counteracted by scores of blog posts and YouTube motivational videos that slavishly celebrate the genius of the near-mythical "entrepreneur" (think of the millennial obsession with Elon Musk). In any case, it is unrealistic to expect hard-hitting analyses of Silicon Valley unicorns when the angel investors that back them also own all the major media outlets. These companies succeeded with their anti-competitive practices because proper regulatory bodies that could have checked them from the outset failed to emerge as surveillance capitalism rode the coattails of early '80s neoliberal economic policies. Blaming it all on the press reveals the obvious blind spots in McNeil's analysis. Her enduring achievement, however, is demonstrating that the present-day internet is basically the white cis-male monoculture foregrounded to the mainstream, especially after the dotcom crash purged all other alternative avenues like Café Los Negros. The meandering tone of the book might be an issue for the casual reader. Otherwise, it is worth a read.
Zihad Azad works as a research assistant at the BUET nanophotonic research group, with primary focus on plasmonic nanolasers.