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Chronocentric circles

We wrapped up 2018 with a friend's observation that there was no excitement around technology any more; we conclude the Year of the Bedbug with the regularly heard complaint that the Internet isn't *fun* any more. The writer of this last piece, Brian Koerber, is at least a generation later in arriving online than I was, and he's not alone: where once the Internet was a venue for exploring the weird and unexpected and imagining a hopeful future, increasingly it's a hamster wheel of the same few, mostly commercial, sites and services, which may be entertaining but do not produce any sense of wonder in their quest to exploit us all. Phillip Maciak expands the trend by mourning the death of innovative web publishing, while Abid Omar calls today's web an unusable, user-hostile wasteland. In September, Andres Guadamuz wondered if boredom would kill the Internet; we figure it's a tossup between that and the outrageous energy consumption.

The feeling of sameness is exacerbated by the fact that so many of this year's stories have been mutatis mutandis variations on those of previous years. Smut-detecting automated bureaucrats continue to blame perfectly good names for their own deficiencies, 25 years after AOLbarred users from living in Scunthorpe; the latest is Lyft. Less amusingly, for the ninth year in a row, Freedom House finds that global Internet freedom has declined; of the 65 countries it surveys, only 16 have seen improvement, and that only marginal.

Worse, the year closed with the announcement of perhaps the most evil invention of recent years, the toilet designed to deter lingering. "Most evil", because the meanness is intentional, rather than the result of a gradual drift away from founding values.

Meanwhile, the EU passed a widely disliked copyright-tightening bill. The struggle to change it from threat to opportunity burned out yet another copyright warrior; now-former MEP Julia Reda. It appears increasingly impossible to convince national governments that there is no such thing as a hole - in a wall or in encryption software - that only "good guys" can use (and still less that "good guys" is entirely in the eyes of the beholder). After four years of effort to invent mechanisms for it, age verification may have died...or it may come back as a "duty of care" in whatever legislation builds upon the Online Harms white paper - or in the EU's Audiovisual Media Services Directive. And, nearly three years on, US sites are still ghosting EU residents for fear of GDPR and its potentially massive fines. With the January 1 entry into force of the California Consumer Privacy Act, the US west coast seems set to join us. Hot times for corporate lawyers!

The most noticeable end-of-year trend, however, has been the return of the decade as a significant timeframe and the future as ahead of us. In 2010, the beginning of a decade in which people went from boasting about their smartphones to boasting about how little they used them, no one mentioned the end-of-decade, perhaps because we were all still too startled to be living in the third millennium and the 21st century, known as "the future" for the first decades of my life. Alternatively, perhaps, as a friend suggests, it's because the last couple of years have been so exhausting and depressing that people are clinging to anything that suggests we might now be in for something new.

At Vanity Fair, Nick Bolton has a particularly disturbing view of 2030, and he doesn't even consider climate change, water supplies, the rise of commercial podcasts or cybersecurity.

I would highlight instead a couple of small green shoots of optimism. The profligate wastage exposed by the WeWork IPO appears to be sparking a very real change in both the Silicon Valley venture capital funding ethos (good) and the cost basis of millennial lifestyles (more difficult), or "counterfeit capitalism", as Matt Stoller calls it. Even Wired is suggesting that the formerly godlike technology company founder is endangered. Couple that with 2019's dramatic and continuing rise in employee activism within technology companies and increasing regulatory pressure, particularly on Uber and Airbnb, and there might be some cause to hope for change. Even though company founders like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin and Larry Page have made themselves untouchable by controlling the majority of voting shares in their companies, they won't *have* companies if they can't retain the talent. The death of the droit de genius ethos that the Jeffrey Epstein case exposed can't come soon enough.

I also note the sudden rebirth of personal and organizational online forums, based on technology such as Mastodon and Soapbox. Some want to focus on specific topics and restrict members to trusted colleagues; some want a lifeboat (paywall) in case of a Twitter ban; WT Social wants to change the game away from data exploitation. Whether any of thesewill have staying power is an open question; a decade ago, when Diaspora, tried to decentralize social media, it failed to gain traction. This time round, with greater consciousness of the true price of pay-with-data "free" services, these return-to-local efforts may have better luck.

Happy new year.

Illustrations:Roborovski hamster (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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