And so, as a soldier in the trenches, my message to this conference is caution and concern.
Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good. There are a billion tiny experiments, some of them great. But we should be honest: we are not gaining ground. Our schools, our libraries, our parks—they are very, very small and they may or may not sustain. We certainly have no information-sharing participatory Garden of Eden, the promise of the internet that we all originally believed in. Though we are not lost, we are losing.
I say this because it’s easy to come together for a conference like this and get excited about awesome experiments and interesting breakthroughs. It’s worth doing! We want to celebrate success! But if you’ve read Tim Wu‘s Master Switch, if you’re reading Robert McChesney‘s Digital Disconnect, you know that the insiders are winning. We are not.
The internet needs serious help if it is to remain free and open, a powerful contributor to the public good. That’s what I’m hoping you’ll discuss over the course of this conference. How to create an ecosystem of parks and libraries and schools online … that supports participation, dialogue, sharing.
“How we are losing the war for a free and open internet,” Sue Gardner, 2013 MIT-Civic Media Conference.
I met Sue Gardner in 2008 when I was working at the Knight Foundation. Knight foots the bill for the conference where she gave this talk last week (btw, I link to this talk on Quartz only because I like the Qz text styling - it’s also on her blog). The event is where the latest winners of the Knight News Challenge are announced, and it’s cool for the winners [some amazing people over the years] because good makers need cash money to make more things, and it’s pretty damn cliquey because it is, and it’s full of excitement about what might be possible in the future because there are a lot of smart people in the same room in the real world. All to say: this is quite a sober warning to give to this group. I am even more a Sue Gardner fangirl now.
And, on a related note, I have been thinking about this idea of public spaces online (in 2013) that function like parks as I continue to read the excellent From the Forest by Sara Maitland and learn about Forest Law and how that played out for commoners, governments, and private corporations.
This is earlier in the talk:
The internet is evolving into a private-sector space that is primarily accountable to corporate shareholders rather than citizens. It’s constantly trying to sell you stuff. It does whatever it wants with your personal information. And as it begins to be regulated or to regulate itself, it often happens in a clumsy and harmful way, hurting the internet’s ability to function for the benefit of the public.
And it reminds me on this passage in the book:
This was a brand-new development – a forest, or indeed any other large space, whose primary function was to provide recreational space for people who did not live in it.
The passage is about how Epping Forest developed into an area that people can use and visit (and without leaving London) even when they are not, as before, trying to extract resources from the area or live full-time in it. Feels useful for how we could think about creating online spaces for us to play within and have the group members take responsibility for the upkeep. It does concern me that everything is monetized now - it wasn’t always this way.