The internet began its life as a small taxpayer funded “adults-only” environment. There was a high level of trust and mutuality of interest among the early pioneers. In a famous Ted Talk, given in 2013 Danny Hillis brandishes a book published in 1982. It is a slender volume containing the names, addresses and telephone numbers of everybody (literally) who had an email account. There were two other Dannys listed. Hillis knew them both.
At some point in the early to mid-1990s, following the release of the first web browsers, the internet began its long march towards the mass consumer market. Yet in some influential circles much contemporary discussion about the internet remains rooted in the idea that all users are fully competent, literate, numerate adults who could have been one of the three Dannys. And if they aren’t that is not their problem because they ought to be.
Any attempt to accommodate the presence of a non-Danny is regarded as introducing an imperfection, an irritating, resented departure from purity pressed on the unwilling by politicians and other low lifes (people like me).
However, in 2015 for the first time it was documented that children make up 1 in 3 of all human users of the internet. It hovers around 1 in 5 in the higher income countries but soars to approximately 1 in 2 in many lower income nations.
Children are now an important component of the funding models that keep the internet going. Isn’t it time we called out the dinosaurs who refuse to recognise or accept the internet has changed?
Isn’t it time we established a new narrative? One that proceeds from a recognition that the internet is a consumer product with benefits, rather than a political project with regrettable, not really wanted encumbrances to be dodged, defeated or minimised?
Another way of saying the same thing is to recognise that for far too long the internet has tried to be too many things to too many people with too many diverse, even opposing interests. The myth has become an obstacle to clear thinking. The world cannot continue to be corralled by a set of values that grew up on the West Coast of the USA, fuelled by a voracious appetite for money marketing itself as selfless virtue.
Yet even as we speak, pleading an intention to protect privacy or free speech rights, commercial interests are rallying behind a declared intention to recover the Utopian vision of some of the internet’s founders. Dracula goes vegan? Possible, but unlikely.
There must be a better way.