Cambridge Publishing Society

'You can't always get what you want': The social construction of the Internet – a talk by John Naughton

Review by Anne-Sophie Gagliardi

CAMPUS has started the new academic year brilliantly. Our first guest was John Naughton, who delivered a fascinating talk on the history of technologies in general and the internet in particular. John’s background in engineering, academics and journalism (he writes the Observer’s Technology column) gives him undeniable expertise on the social, political and cultural consequences of the Web. (See, too, his latest book, From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet.) It was good to see the room filled with people from different backgrounds, a diversity that probably reflects the one we find online!
The World Wide Web truly and fully reveals who we are today – warts and all. John described the internet as ‘disruptive’, as a ‘technology for springing surprises’; according to him, disruption (such as wild/viral surges in popularity of different sites or apps) is not a bug but a feature, and has been hard-wired into the software design of the network itself from its beginning.

Our speaker (perhaps nostalgically) alluded to two phases in the development of the internet as we know it today. In the first phase (1970s–1993) it was just a database reserved for an elite who mainly used it for research and knowledge-sharing – a utopian period driven by the ideal of pure free speech. The second phase (1990s–today) is marked by massive growth in use, accompanied by ‘winner takes all’ corporate stakeouts and monopolies. We have witnessed the rise of networking and new means of communications, the surge of new forms of creativity, music and art; but sadly we have also seen a rise in pornography, racism, misogyny, etc. An increase in images of violence online might be linked to online anonymity. At this point of his talk, John Naughton stressed again that internet had been shaped by us, and should be considered as a mirror – a reflection – of human nature, in all of its brilliance or darkness.

We were also reminded of our slave-like social networking behaviour, especially on Facebook. John Naughton pointed out that we Facebook users have agreed to a model of surveillance that provides a free networking surface in exchange for giving our personal data away for commercial ends. As engaged users we are responsible for this; we get the internet we deserve, an internet where a legal challenge on ‘the right to be forgotten’ actually means the right not to be found on Google search results.

Finally, John donned his political economist’s hat to assert that the internet’s initial raison d’être has been diverted from its original idealism; it has somehow been hijacked by the power of capitalism. He emphasized the need to exercise our citizens’ power to express our disagreement with (and even our resistance to) those big profit-driven businesses.

The publicity poster suggested that the social construction of the internet ‘isn’t entirely reassuring’; someone during questions after the talk mentioned the word ‘apocalyptic’! Rather than being pessimistic, though, John Naughton took a critical, active and campaigning stance on cyberspace. What have we allowed, as John said, to go on in there?

This exciting and inspiring talk gave us all plenty of food for thought. Afterwards there were lots of questions about online citizen activism today, the exploitation of personal data online, the implications for civil liberties, and the abuse of monopoly power to bypass regulation. There were also, as one would hope, articulate voices of disagreement.

Afterwards the animated and convivial discussion continued over some more drinks in the room (and, for some, the Free Press). Perhaps all of us who were there have the idea going through our heads today that we, the users of the internet, have more power than we used to think …

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