<MoneyLab> Brian Lehrer's brief history of the New Internet (a fragment)

Geert Lovink geert at xs4all.nl
Fri Dec 8 17:13:05 CET 2023

A Brief History of the New Internet


The New Internet that's in question here probably began to coalesce in the early 2010s. At first, it emerged slowly, stewing in the public discontent that grew out of an increasingly powerful and extractive tech sector. Just as much as it was a professional stance, the reaction was a visceral one. Many users of the internet were beginning to notice how it felt different to use. It had changed from something that in the early 2000s was reliably home-brewed and weird, to something increasingly frictionless and consumer-friendly. Entrepreneurs had always been using the internet to make money but during this time, the gospel of Y-combinator-styled startups supercharged e-commerce and advertising's profit potential. For the startup crowd, the pursuit of disruption was exhilarating, but for a certain set of end-users this transformation felt more like devolution than evolution.

Latent discontent towards the internet began to materialize into direct rebellion. Eruptions of undersea volcanoes were giving way to tiny islands peaking above the ocean. As is the case with most progressive movements, first came the artists, activists, hackers, critics, and theorists. We saw the construction of new frameworks and buzzwords for rallying detractors around. Platform capitalism, surveillance capitalism, the attention economy, the stack, cybernetic theory, fully automated luxury communism – each of these phrases would have their moment in the sun, as would the provocateurs who would sling them around in tweets, essays, and downtown parties. Theorizing didn't just emerge from the political left either. As was evidenced by creeping accelerationist and neo-reactionary movements, a darker vision of technological reform was desired by some who saw the internet as a means of not increasing equity but swiftly consolidating political power.

Around the year 2015 and soon thereafter, theories of change started to take shape into material solutions. Namely, the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) software movement, which had existed for decades but stepped into the background after the decline of torrenting networks like Limewire and Napster, came back to life as a full suite of internet applications that allowed enthusiasts to self-publish their own data and content online. This was the moment that we saw the most specific conception to-date of an entire new internet. Dat, IPFS, Scuttlebutt, and their counterparts were not just one-off apps and protocols but a discrete 'P2P web' that was different from the web you access Instagram on. Be it a naive fantasy or a grassroots revolution, the P2P web replaced the era's cynicism with sincere excitement. But just as this sub-movement felt like it was gaining momentum, attention shifted elsewhere.

Promptly sucking up all the oxygen from the P2P movement was what we now call crypto. From roughly the years 2017 to 2020, technological reform became inextricably connected to and consumed by various blockchain networks and their contained projects. The details of this cannibalism are complicated. The condensed story is that free-flowing, ideologically-supercharged investment capital captured the attention of young technologists who otherwise would have carried the torch of the P2P web forward. In crypto, an entire generation of alienated tech workers saw potential to have their cake (create a better, decentralized internet) and eat it too (get very wealthy).

The recent history of crypto has been defined by surreal highs and crippling lows. When cryptocurrency prices were up, it seemed as if crypto was poised to take over the world. When prices were down, crypto precipitated historical acts of corruption, fraud, and eventually prosecution. Even if it can find a way to crawl out of its latest downturn, the story with crypto over the last several years remains the same. It's not a story about coin prices themselves but the mania that can come out of obsession over coin prices. The more the crypto industry leaned into a self-described 'degen' sensibility, the more its focus seemed to shift from revolution to modest reform. Decentralization turned into Decentralized Finance. In the process of doing so, crypto captured an entire generation of tech workers and lured them far away from the values that attracted them to crypto in the first place. Ultimately the broader new internet movement, which had become nearly inseparable with crypto, was left stranded in a place it never intended to go.

In the present day, the Real Heads of decentralization are still around, still carrying forward the torch originally lit by the cypherpunks over two decades ago. But this crowd increasingly feels like its efficacy is structurally compromised by tokenization logic. 'Governance tokens,' which only a few years ago seemed to usher in a new era of funding for open-source technology, turned out to be more of a trojan horse than a panacea.

It remains to be seen whether any of crypto's well-intentioned tribes can regain control of the narrative. At the very least, can crypto produce a popular consumer application whose popularity isn't connected to finance and specifically, the buying and selling of crypto tokens? At the very most, can crypto still usher in a decentralized internet that's used by more than just purists?

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