[...] A sharper tone prevails in the New York Times and on Fox News, in statehouses and on Capitol Hill. Criticisms once confined to scholarly circles, or to more oppositional outlets like The Baffler and Valleywag, have become conventional, even banal. One could be uncharitable about the heavy Kool-Aid drinkers who abruptly sobered up — there is no shortage of annoying figures among the late converts to tech critique — but the techlash has been a very good thing. We are at last having a more honest conversation about the internet. The long 1990s are over. The old gods are finally dead.
Who are the new gods? This is what makes our moment so interesting: the conventional wisdom is cracking up but its replacement hasn’t quite consolidated. As James Bridle says, something is wrong on the internet — and something is wrong with the way we have thought about the internet — but there is not yet a widely accepted set of answers to the all-important questions of why these things are wrong, or how to make them right.
Different camps are now competing to provide those answers. They are competing to tell a new story about the internet, one that can explain the origins of our present crisis and offer a roadmap for moving past it. Some talk about monopoly and antitrust. Others emphasize privacy and consent. Shoshana Zuboff proposes the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the new kinds of for-profit monitoring and manipulation that the internet and associated technologies have made possible.
These analyses have important differences. But they tend to share a liberal understanding of capitalism as a basically beneficent system, if one that occasionally needs state intervention to mitigate its excesses. They also tend to equate capitalism with markets. Sometimes these markets become too consolidated and need to be made more competitive (the antitrust view); sometimes market actors violate the terms of fair exchange and need to be restrained (Zuboff’s view). But two articles of faith always remain. The first is that capitalism is more or less compatible with people’s desire for dignity and self-determination (or can be made so with proper regulation). The second is that capitalism is more or less the same thing as markets.
What if neither belief is true? This is the starting point for building a better story about the internet.