The old, good internet deserves a new, good internet

A trio of public toilet stalls, each fitted with a pay toilet coin-op lock. The middle lock’s mechanism has been replaced with the menacing, staring red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ The space around and beneath the stalls is filled with a ‘Code Rain’ effect from the credit sequences of the Wachowksis’ ‘The Matrix.’
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers. –Socrates

Nostalgia is a toxic impulse. –Judge John Hodgman

I’m an official Old Person (I turned 52 last month). According to the AARP, that means that I am now officially entitled to complain that back in my day, things used to be better.

I am suspicious of this impulse! When I started dialing BBSes in the early 1980s, the Old Hands there told me that it was all downhill after acoustic couplers and that modems were degrading the noosphere into a fallen paradise.

When I got on Usenet a couple years later, every disagreement would feature some Unix Greybeard telling us that the Fidonet gateway had opened the floodgates for dumbass kids like me who were stinking up the joint and adding nothing of value.

By the time I joined The WELL in the late 1980s, it was too late: the rarified Athenian agora had been overrun by barbarians and the Age of Reason was over.

Then there was the Eternal September, the moral degeneracy of menuing systems and the wicked temptations of a GUI.

I even got in on the act, explaining “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either).”

Here’s the thing: all those other Cranky Olds complaining that we were on a greased slide to Hell were wrong.

I was right.

The internet really was better, back before it turned into “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of text from the other four.

The enshittification of the internet isn’t the result of which technology we use. The important thing about a technology isn’t what what it does, it’s who it does it for, and who it does it to.

The internet didn’t enshittify because the honorable UUCP Monks who served as the internet’s patrician guardians were replaced by venal tech bros out to make a quick buck. The moneygrubbers were always there (as were those selfless guardians).

The internet enshittified because we dismantled the anti-enshittification systems that kept the internet good: the antitrust laws that ensured that big, ossified companies couldn’t maintain their dominance by spending their way to glory.

We ended the cycle of renewal. Once, when a company grew so big thatit became a threat to our future, it collapsed under its own weight. Once, honorable hackers wielded interoperability, that elegant weapon from a more civilized age, to fell the giants who claimed dominion over our digital lives — only to be felled themselves, when they forgot their humble origins and took up the wicked practices of the giants they had helped to slay.

The internet didn’t enshittify because we got the wrong people. The old, good internet had lots of companies founded by mediocre cowards who would have bought out their competitors or dirty-tricked them out of existence in a heartbeat.

The internet didn’t enshittify because we got the wrong technology. The old, good internet had plenty of sticky traps and walled gardens.

The internet enshittified because we got the wrong rules.

We let companies merge to monopoly, so they had tons of money and the unity of purpose to spend it corrupting our political process.

Then, they used that lobbying might to buy policies that made it illegal to improve their products and services, so that no one could do unto them as they did unto their own forebears.

We let them create a system of Felony Contempt Of Business Model, and they used it to enshittify the internet.

Incentives matter, and impunity matters more.

I miss the old, good internet, but I don’t want to bring it back.

I want a new, good internet. One where users can’t be locked in because we make it legal to:

I want a new, good internet where we constrain the conduct of tech companies, banning unfair labor practices, deceptive marketing, corporate hostage-taking and other forms of rent-extraction.

I want a new, good internet where it’s both illegal to impose bossware on your employees, and where those employees can legally hack the bossware their bosses shove down their throats.

I want a new, good internet where creative workers and their audiences can reliably connect with one another, where news reporting isn’t held hostage to extractive processes.

I want a new, good internet where we seize the means of computation so that the digital infrastructure that connects our romantic, personal, political, civic, economic, educational and family and social lives is operated by and for the people who use it.

The enshitternet wasn’t inevitable. It was the result of specific policy choices: the decision to encourage monopoly formation, which created the corporate power and concentration that led to even more policies, granting the monopolist unlimited freedom to abuse us, and denying us any right to defend ourselves.

Anything that can’t go on forever eventually stops. The disenshittification of the internet isn’t a nostalgic bid to restore the old, good internet. It’s a plan to build a new, good internet, and to make the enshitternet a bad memory, a mere transitional stage between the old, good internet we had and the new, good internet we deserve.