The Internet is made of plastic

We’ve all seen The Graduate, right? And we’ve all seen that famous scene where the old guy tells the young depressed guy that he should get into plastics, because there’s a great future in plastics? If you have been living in an underground bunker waiting for the end of the world for the past forty years and haven’t had time to brush up on your pop culture, here’s a refresher:

We all know why this scene is funny. It’s not because the old guy’s advice is wrong–on the contrary, plastics would be an excellent industry for a young college graduate to make money and build a solid career. Rather, it’s because it’s plastic, man. Plastic, the symbol of artificiality and artifice, of soulless corporate industrialism and estrangement from wilderness, the destruction of the environment and the victory of consumer conformity, the opposite of nature and freedom and apple pie and having sex with your girlfriend’s mother and all of the other good and wholesome things that The Graduate stands for.

However, not too many years before The Graduate, plastic had an entirely different connotation. In the 30’s and 40’s bakelite plastic was used in luxury items from jewelry to handrails–heck, vintage bakelite jewelry from those eras 30’s and the 40’s can still fetch a decent price on eBay. Disney World had a plastic demonstration “Home of the Future” in which almost everything was made of plastic (and which proved to be nearly indestructible, as described in the linked article). Plastic was touted as the material of the future for everything from furniture to footwear. But most importantly, plastic was new, plastic was The Future, and there is nothing more good, wholesome, and American than The Future.

A future housewife cleans her couch with a hose
The couch is made of plastic. At one point people thought this was a good idea.

The Graduate came out in 1967, putting it near the beginning of the backlash against plastic that grew throughout the 60’s and the 70’s, and which by now has simply become part of our cultural background. Today, we regard the old enthusiasm for plastic as quaint and naïve, or at worst slightly evil. (Plastic is bad for the environment, after all.) It took approximately 30 years for plastic to go from being The Future to being something a crufty old man tells you to get into at a depressing cocktail party. In 1952 being against plastic was to be a hidebound reactionary. (Are you against The Future?) But in 1967, being against plastic was to be a progressive, a man of good taste, and on the vanguard of things to come.

But I didn’t really come here to talk about plastic. Instead I want to talk about the internet. Because unlike plastic, the internet is new. The Intenet is The Future.

If you want to know why the internet is The Future, you should just read Clay Shirky. If you don’t have time to read all of Shirky’s articles, you could just read Jeff Atwood on Clay Shirky or Cory Doctorow on Clay Shirky, as they all say pretty much the same thing. Basically, things used to be terrible, because there wasn’t an internet. People had to consume mass-market media and professional journalism and had no place to put pictures of their cats. Now, however, we have an internet, so everyone can make videos on YouTube and be a blog journalist and amuse us with cat pictures, hilariously captioned.

And in reality, this is pretty cool. YouTube amuses me at least as often as network TV used to, Wikipedia is far more useful than any dead-tree encyclopedia, Facebook keeps me in touch with family that I would otherwise rarely talk to, I wouldn’t be writing a blog without the internet, and I’ve even been known to LOL at the odd cat every now and again. I don’t dispute the massive utility of the internet, and the advantages it offers over older means of communication. However, when I read the glowing, ecstatic pronouncements of the internet evangelists (and Shirky is only one, and not even the most hyperbolic), I get this queasy feeling of deja-vu. See, we’ve been promised The Future before.

So here’s my prediction: in the future, the internet enthusiasm of the 90’s and 00’s will seem as quaint and misplaced as the plastic enthusiasm of the 50’s.

Note what this does not predict. I am not predicting that the internet will go away or become less important. The people who predicted that plastic would be everywhere turned out to be correct: at least half of the things on my desk right now are made out of plastic, and I suspect that it’s literally impossible to go a day in America without using a plastic product of some kind. In the same way, the future internet will probably be more ubiquitous, more limitless, and more inescapable than it is now. But this very inescapability may destroy our earlier enthusiasm for it. Once the internet has ceased to be The Future and become the present, we’ll become keenly aware of its limitations and downsides, and attuned to the laments over what we’ve lost by giving in to a world of total connectivity.

The problem the present-day internet evangelists is that they believe too fully in the myth of progress, which is what makes them prone to believe that the internet-enabled future will be utopian, or at least a vast improvement over the present. You may find Shirky admitting that the change from the pre-internet to the post-internet age involves some painful transitions (this is his favorite line when it comes to the newspaper industry), but this admission does not cop to the possibility that the pain will simply go on forever, that the post-internet age will simply be objectively worse than the pre-internet age in some important ways. This is abundantly clear in Shirky’s “Thinking the Unthinkable”, which is refreshingly blunt about the way that the internet has vitiated the old model of journalism, but nonetheless optimistic that things will eventually settle down to a newer, better status quo. Little thought is spared for the possibility that journalism in The Future may just be more sporadic, more partisan, less reliable, and less influential than the journalism of the present–that the models which the internet breaks may never be put back together, and a suitable replacement may never be found.

This is part of the myth of progress: any amount of destruction in the name of progress is acceptible, as all is justified as a necessary step towards The Future. And because the myth of progress is so powerful in our society, almost every new technological advancement is greeted with this same starry-eyed adoration, and all criticism of the role and nature of that technology is powerfully marginalized, at least for a while. Only once a technological change is complete, once the handmaid of The Future has proven once more to be merely the whore of the present, do the forces of criticism, reflection, and conservation begin to come into balance with the forces of progress.

Hey, at least I ran out of staples

This is already starting to happen with the internet. Just in the past few months I’ve read an excellent, astute discussion of the social damage of Facebook, disguised as a movie review, a cranky reminder that the changes wrought by the internet are not as massive as we’d like to think, and an impassioned defence of secrecy in the face of Wikileaks. If the internet is plastic, then we’re in the mid 1960’s, when the backlash against plastic was beginning to enter the mainstream but hadn’t yet displaced the previous narrative of plastic triumphalism. And in these critiques it’s easy to see the outlines of a new consensus that may emerge once the internet has fallen out of The Future and into the present: a preference for intimacy and privacy over openness and publicity, a higher, nostalgic value given to face-to-face interations, and a distrust of the culture of the technologists that enable and promote this structure. The geeks will be the new suits, and the creepy guy telling you to go into plastics at a cocktail party will be Paul Graham.

It will be some time before the internet completely loses the sheen of The Future. Give it at least a decade. It is nonetheless inevitable—nothing can remain in The Future forever (except maybe the vaporous Singularity), and once the internet becomes firmly rooted in the present, criticism will become fair game. More importantly, once the internet becomes part of the status quo, the myth of progress will begin to work against it rather than for it, as the status quo is by definition not progressive. The open question, it seems to me, is whether internet enthusiasm will come to be seen as merely naïve, or actually evil.

Quaint is the best bet. The current crop of tech-lovers are certainly not evil themselves, and we haven’t yet seen anything that is both clearly evil and fundamentally tied to internet-enabled communication. Wikileaks, though, gives us an interesting glimpse at what may be to come. If a ponce like Julian Assange can embarrass the most powerful country in the world and get away with it, then it’s possible that someone who’s smart, ambitious, and evil could do something similar in a way that would be really disastrous. Our e-Hitler could easily get the sympathy of most of the world’s hackers and geeks, who would gladly participate in an open-source world-domination project written in Python if it were framed in the right way. And if that happened, you’d better believe that the rest of the world would turn against the tech-lovers right quick.

That’s pretty unlikely, though. Plus, who am I kidding? I’m a geek myself, I work for a tech company and I spend all day on the internet. I’m just part of the problem.

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