PETER LEWIS Webtopia: The world wide wreck of tech and how to make the net work. Reviewed by Kurt Johnson
Peter Lewis examines the history and impact of the internet in Australia, and what might happen next.
It is curious how often the story of the Soviet Union is invoked to anchor the story of the internet. There are many parallels between the two. For one, their narrative shapes are similar. In the beginning, startup founders advance grand narratives for humankind with a sense of destiny and dogmatism worthy of the most steely-eyed commissar. Then comes the subtle and insidious crisis, imperceptible at first but over time undermining and hollowing out initial promises of a new liberated utopia. Instead, so the stories go, we discover new forms of bondage and oppression. In the end the hallowed vision threatens to collapse, the villain identified not as some external agent but a corruption deep within our coding as human beings. The obvious difference between the two stories is that we only know for sure how one of them ends.
It is here that Peter Lewis’s Webtopia begins. As a 23-year-old cadet journalist on the dawn shift at the AAP broadcast desk, he witnessed the first glimmers of a new capitalist dawn in the Red East. It was at his discretion whether the end of the Moscow-backed puppet government in Poland, an event that eventually triggered the fall of the Berlin wall, was newsworthy or would be spiked as a distant event in some foreign nowhere. Luckily for him, Lewis filed and was vindicated.
This introduction seamlessly transitions into the first of four parts of Webtopia. In the first, ‘The way the world was’, the author reminds us of life BT (Before Technology). It’s a necessary choice, but a brave one, liable to turn an easily distracted reader off. But then again, in 2019 why would such a person be reading a book at all?
At the risk of overplaying the Soviet connection, Lewis discusses the pre-tech past with the nostalgia of a political exile. He argues that the institutions of our analogue past, those that enabled human connections and brought us together, organically formed a bulwark against government and corporate overreach. He’s right, of course, but it’s a tough argument to frame without coming off like an old fuddy-duddy. News to me was how the evolution of the consumer market tracked the maturity of baby boomers. A fascinating story in itself.
Part 2, titled ‘How the world would be’ begins as a brief on cyber utopianism. It’s an eerie feeling to look back only five years and see a world similar in form but utterly remote in tone. It’s like possessing a before shot of your childhood family home in which everything was neat and tidy, then looking up to see it ravaged after some horribly debauched party.
Lewis’s arc is couched in well-worn tales of Google, Netscape and Linux so well-known, most could recite them by rote. The familiarity, and ubiquity, of these pieces of internet lore are curious features of their era: the first moment when online media began to regard itself and faithfully record its own development. It’s only today we realise how very wrong we were about it all.
Moving on, the most important portion of the book is the Australian side of the internet story. Here Webtopia really hits its stride. Lewis weaves his personal story about the digital news platform Workers Online with that of Stephen Mayne’s Crikey and shows how the low bar to entry and responsiveness of online media began to shape politics in Australia:
Unattributed gossip was one of Crikey’s founding principles too, with Mayne always ready to facilitate conflict. He called it the ‘Don King principle’ – if you had a fight he’d host it. An array of insiders from across the political spectrum made Crikey their home for airing grievances and whipping up controversy, writing under pseudonyms like Hillary Bray and Betty Branch Member from the right, and Delia Delegate and Bob the Boilermaker from the left, made Crikey essential reading for insiders. When the Australian Democrats imploded in 2002 over their support of the GST and Natasha Stott Despoja’s leadership, all sides were waging their fights on Crikey.
Following that is the story of Labor senator Kate Lundy who, as late as the early 2000s, foresaw the potential of the internet in Australia long before the Cretaceous-era politicians who surrounded her and was roundly ignored. It is a story of opportunity squandered, and it is an important one, as we are still living with the legacies of our politicians’ digital illiteracy, in particular those on the ‘business friendly’ Coalition side, whose incompetence, bog-ignorance and cynicism continue to manifest themselves in the ham-fisted execution of the NBN and the blatant cash-in that was ‘innovation nation’.
These yarns are vital for the Australian record, not just because they are worthy in themselves but because they highlight how, for so much of our own national digital history, we have simply imported the American internet story while cringing or ignoring our local myths. Like our national politics, this side of our history can be drowned out by the slicker production values and obscene budgets of the self-obsessed American narrative. True, the story of the internet is at heart an American one, but we have a need for our own stories within that. We did invent wi-fi after all. For all their adornments, it’s not American stories that hold our politicians to account, explain how our society has changed or describe the decline of our media. Lewis is to be credited for bringing these stories to the fore in Webtopia.
The delicate balance between Australian and American stories is continued throughout Part 3, ‘The way the world is’. Here Lewis looks at the world we have arrived at in 2019. I read the section where Lewis describes raising his children in the digital age while sitting opposite a father and daughter on a train as they played a loud game on Dad’s phone. Lewis describes how the first generations of digital natives have had their entire psyches moulded by technology, with the side-effects of widespread anxiety, poor attention spans and difficulties in forming relationships IRL. As our train glided on a raised portion of track we looked over the city skyline. Dad tried to divert the daughter’s attention from the phone, failed, and Lewis’s thesis became instantly validated.
It’s worth pausing here to consider Lewis’s writing. It’s really good. He treats weighty subjects like Fukuyama with a lightness and lack of pretension that’s refreshing. He does not get bogged down in technological exposition, bamboozled by the hype, or pitch his arcs with too much grandiosity. Most of all for someone discussing a subject in such a crowded field, he offers new things – the Australian side of the story, yes, but also the penetrating and subtle insights found in the book’s final part: ‘The way the world could be’. Here he advocates a bold rethink of the relationship between humans and the internet. What’s more, he delivers this idea with a sense of humour. My favourite zinger was on data and machine learning:
Without a higher purpose we are vulnerable because if all we are is a set of observable, measurable and predictable desires and transactions, then maybe we are replicable, ripe to be programmed out of existence. We need to keep exercising our sense of wonder and shared humanity if we want to protect ourselves from robots. It’s no longer a question of whether androids dream of electric sheep, it’s whether humans still have the capacity to dream at all.
It takes the utmost intellectual courage to try to place the current era within the context of history and commit it to the printed word. Webtopia does a fine job without falling into the trap of being consumed by the loftiness of the task. Lewis keeps it light without becoming glib, local without becoming parochial, broad without becoming pompous.
When I travelled throughout the former Eastern Bloc I discovered that some ex-Soviet citizens still existed in a state constant befuddlement. They were dealing with the aftermath of everything changing overnight, irrevocably and totally, as the world they had known became antique and redundant in an instant. What helped others overcome their historical displacement was the telling of stories. This is why Webtopia is an essential addition to the Australian record – it helps us begin to make sense of our place within tumultuous times.
Peter Lewis Webtopia: The world wide wreck of tech and how to make the net work NewSouth 2019 PB 288pp $32.99
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