For those who remember the eighties and nighties and the introduction of dial-up modems, unlimited data transfer, AOL and Netscape, they will remember it as an era of new potentials and liberal freedoms. The world of the Internet and computing tech, often inspired by semi-reformed LSD hippies of the US, was a platform for bizarre and abnormal happenings. Your average webpage was a strange mishmash of fonts, garish background images, animated GIFs of stars and unicorns. Nevertheless the “Information Superhighway” came with the strange and sometimes eerie promises of fragmented identities, global connections with other nerdy weirdoes, and websites were simply these blanks HTML sheets which held the potential to do absolutely anything you could imagine and possibly more. In retrospect the online world of Second Life was the epitome of these kinds of shared liberties, hopes and ambitions. In the “Golden Age of the Internet” you were free to
Since the turn of the millennium however we have seen a slow nearly twenty year reform of this online world. These days I look at my Internet usage and I find my friends and colleagues posting the most formal photographs of themselves onto C.V. websites such as Academia.eu or Linkedin. Facebook no longer likes users fabricating their identities and requires from users a real name for safety measures. Free music downloads are – it seems – being steadily replaced by monthly subscription services such as Jay Z’s Tidal. Websites check you spelling mistakes, blog templates are standardised and professional, apps monitor how much food you eat or exercise you do, and horrible private companies and government bureaus monitor your online usage. It just feels as if slowly all the wacky, bizarre and crazy stuff that could be done is being replaced by regular and monotonous “real world” or work-related activities. Where’s all the fun and spirit of freedom and imagination going?
We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this. Classical sociologist Max Weber theorised about how social change can take place when charismatic leaders set new trends for societies. Steve Jobs springs to mind. Weber theorised that in the absence of the charismatic leaders then the new patterns and trends of social activity would slowly be commandeered by bureaucrats or formal, rational reformists. What was once a freedom and escape from routine would overtime be reduced to everyday routine, monotony and complete absence of charisma. As I observe the Internet slowly being commandeered by the traditional news networks (BBC, Guardian, Fox News, etc.) and free services transforming into subscription services, or individuals taking their online identities seriously while public agencies oversee social interactions and guaranteeing financial interactions, I wonder if Weber was right?