by Rhonda Aronwald
“To go forward […] we must return to the original principles of the web. To fix the future, we have to go back to 1995,” writes author and technology thought leader, Andrew Keen, in his book “How to Fix the Future.” It was a point Keen reiterated in his recent Town Hall Seattle talk moderated by Alex Stonehill, a multimedia journalist and head of creative strategy for the Communication Leadership Master’s program at the University of Washington.
I was drawn to Keen and Stonehill’s talk because I too have a queasy feeling about where digital technologies have led us, and where they might be headed. But I was surprised and struck by Keen’s specific mention of 1995, because it is a memorable point of reference for me and my career.
I remember the mid-90s very vividly because, as Keen describes, it was the time when the Internet emerged into the mainstream; we were on the threshold of the original digital revolution. As a college communications staff member, I had early access to e-mail and web browsers, compared with some of my peers. As a slave to interoffice mail and printed newsletters, I was excited by the potential of the Internet to add new dimensions to communications formatting (hyperlinks! Moving text!), to improve its access and efficiency, and as a tool for positive environmental impacts through reducing the use of paper. I dove in without any hesitation, and there was no going back.
Working with an ad-hoc team of faculty and students, we created the college’s first Web site. In 1995, we flew to San Jose for the Internet World Conference, where we attended hands-on workshops in building home pages, and presentations on VRML, the descriptions of which now make me smile: “Things are spinning at you. Logos, product shots, that’s just the beginning. Exciting, cool content is what’s going to make VRML take off this year.”
I was learning to code web pages and thinking about what this medium could do for communications. I loved new media properties like Outside Online, which used cyberspace to track the progress of the ill-fated Mt. Everest climbing expedition. Likewise, educators at my college were excited by the democratization of information and the potential to reach more students through online learning. In 1995, we could just see the tip of the iceberg of what was possible; we didn’t give a lot of thought to the potential dangers that lay ahead.
As Keen pointed out in his Town Hall talk, as use of the Internet evolved, the use itself became a product. Large centralized technology powers profit from our data as they attempt to track our every online move. In those giddy early days, I didn’t think about how the Internet could disrupt jobs and whole industries. I didn’t consider the potential for Internet addiction, the alienation posed by social media, or how much energy might be consumed by a worldwide avalanche of electronics. I have definitely lost the unrelenting enthusiasm I once had for the Internet, but as an eternal optimist, I still want to think that there’s hope. This is especially true as the aspect that I always loved most about digital communications remains as alive and well as ever–the ability to tell engaging stories and share them with many people.
That is why I choose to focus on the good news in Keen’s words: his belief in human agency—of remembering that humans are unique in their ability to be creative and achieve empathy; that technology in general, and digital technology in particular, is at its best when in service of humanity.
The communicator in me still loves the “gee-whiz” factor of digital communications. We have come a long way since the original Outside Online and sites like Mr. Showbiz, and I can’t help but be impressed by the potential of virtual reality to enable engaging storytelling. In short, I know that my world is enriched by the knowledge I have gained of the world online.
Keen believes we need a new wave of innovation. This wave includes regulation that moderates rampant greed and fosters competitive innovation; a sense of social responsibility that considers the human toll of technology on jobs; and a revised education that focuses on those qualities that make us all more human. He wishes to innovate in a way that reaches back to the past, that recaptures what made us excited about the internet in the first place: the democratization of information and the interconnection between people. He, like I, wishes for the continued opportunity to make the world smaller in all the best ways.