The common myth around the invention of the internet was that it was created by the U.S. military’s DARPA as a secondary means of robust communications in case of nuclear war. But what really is the internet was created by hippies, and part of that was social media. In the 1970’s. The military saw the strategic value and enhanced it. Telecoms companies at the time, such as AT&T, saw no commercial value at all and were more frustrated at the internet thing than supportive. It took nearly two decades before they saw monetary value. But it’s the hippies around the world and especially in the San Francisco bay area, that guided those early years.
In those days, one would log-on, find the various bulletin boards one was engaged with, download the text and consume the contents for later. Staying dialed up was not easy and blocked ones only landline phone. One would read the stated arguments and discussions and prepare a response, which would then be uploaded later. If someone was abusive, ignorant or just misbehaved, they were easily kicked off and banned. It was, for all intents and purposes, egalitarian and productive. One of the hotspots was a digital extension of Stuart Brand’s paper Whole Earth Catalogue, established in 1985 and still running today, known as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. It is a thriving community today. Later would come online forums, a form of which many are familiar with today, known as Reddit. To this day, the Well does not charge membership fees, doesn’t collect personal data, doesn’t sell personal data and has no advertising revenue. The values of the hippies have held for nearly four decades. Very ancient history in internet time.
As a digital anthropologist, the evolution of social media and digital communities and how humans are adapting to technology, the Well has been a wonderful source of insights and an example of how humans can get it right. Another example of a more recent social media platform that has got it right is Pinterest, with the highest positivity rating of all social media sites. One also notes that over 86% of it’s audience is women.
My point is, the hippies wanted to create a digital environment whereby people really could connect, that was decentralized at its core and fostered creativity and open thinking. This hope even persisted into the 1990’s with Tim Berners-Lee and the evolution of the World Wide Web. Today, the World Wide Web and the internet have become synonymous, even though, technically, they are not. In the 1990’s the word internet use a capital “I”, today, it does not. Nor does the word web. It was the subject of raucous debate but was dropped in 2004 by Associated Press and Wired Magazine. You can read more here.
In the mid-90’s the internet started on the road to commercialization and the companies took over. It has become highly centralized and today, who who controls the data, controls the internet, or the infosphere. It’s not all bad, in fact, it’s mostly very good and if it hadn’t progressed, curious profession titles like mine would be purely science fiction.
So why wouldn’t hippies like the metaverse?
Quite simply because unlike the grass roots evolution of the internet and web, the whole metaverse, originally a science fiction term created by Neal Stephenson, is being commercialised right from the start. The concept put forward by Mark Zuckerberg is purely commercial with the intent to be profitable. Others tech giants are thinking the same way. This is not wrong, it’s perfectly fine.
But those hippies who are still around and the grandfathers of the internet such as Berners-Lee, Kevin Kelly and Stuart Brand are, I suspect, rather suspicious of just how the metaverse would roll out. Especially given Facebook’s history with handling its platform and its role in a global society. The current shaping of the metaverse claims to be decentralized and that creators will flourish, although it seems rather limited to NFT exchanges, cryptocurrencies and games and extending the workplace so toss out work/life balance. That is not much a metaverse.
There is so much potential in the metaverse, but for now, I suspect the hippies would likely use one word to describe it. Dystopia.