Eventually, the downsides of sharing your opinion online will become so great that people will turn away from the internet. This is the argument made by Geert Lovink, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Amsterdam (AUAS) and the University of Amsterdam in his new essay Internet Extinction. While Lovink’s previous research focused on the critical counterculture and possible alternatives, such as more equitable social media platforms, he now sketches a future in which the internet (partially) disappears and we are forced to abandon our dependence on technology.
Lovink has maintained his reputation as an internet pioneer since his involvement with The Digital City, an internet precursor. Its founders envisioned it as a decentralized network, maintained by citizens, for citizens. “We lost this battle spectacularly,” summarizes Lovink. The fact is that the Internet and addictive apps are in the hands of Big Tech, with little regard for individual rights or society as a whole.
In his essay, Lovink shares insights gained from 30 years of internet criticism and counterculture research, a time during which he has worked with art historians, artists, scholars creatives and meme-makers. He researched Wikipedia, search engines, social media and cryptocurrencies and their profit models – always from the perspective that the internet is down, but can and should be fixed (as has also supported Waag founder Marleen Stikker in her book).
Over the past six months, however, Lovink has begun to change her mind. Can the Internet, in fact, be fixed? “There may come a time when this is no longer possible, after which the adverse consequences can no longer be controlled. The internet is heading towards a point of no return, and Big Tech is probably already aware of this as well. Mark Zuckerberg walked away from his social media platforms and launched Meta, as if nothing had happened and we could start all over again, but it’s clearly already broken.
Opinions have consequences
Lovink sees that tipping point approaching, as now even “ordinary” users increasingly have to pay the price for our internet addiction and addiction to social media and apps. “This price is primarily psychological. Not only do many young people suffer from distorted self-image and anxiety disorders, but there is also an outsourcing of functions: certain critical functions of our brain are under-processed. Our short-term memory deteriorates and our attention becomes increasingly fragmented and very specifically directed.
At the same time, social control intensifies and users are closely monitored. “Our so-called freedom of speech doesn’t really exist anymore,” Lovink says. The consequences for those who share non-traditional opinions online, for example with regard to their work or their circle of friends, have now also reached the Netherlands. “We are already starting to see indications that people are posting less and less of their opinions.”
Repercussions are also to be expected here as control becomes increasingly sophisticated. “In China, it’s already the case, you can’t get on a train if you have a ‘bad’ opinion. In the United States, you must share all of your social media profiles if you wish to apply for a visa. Things don’t look so bad in Western Europe yet, but your online activity is so traceable and visible now that there’s a real possibility that at some point people won’t be able to travel or get a mortgage or a insurance.
This sophisticated control will eventually become so pervasive, even here in the Netherlands, that people will eventually turn away from the internet, Lovink thinks. “I think people are going to start running away from technology.” He draws a parallel with the climate crisis: “Climate emergencies have reached an irreparable point. People have started mobilizing en masse because individual actions like installing solar panels are no longer enough.
If we look a little further, things get even more dramatic. Lovink sketches out a scenario he calls “Internet Shutdown.” It may sound like we’re all going to disappear, but that’s not what he means. However, he envisions a future in which some services will no longer be available – also in light of the geopolitical situation and the climate crisis – and this in turn will lead to reduced access or disconnection from the internet.
The idea of losing Internet connection may seem inconceivable, especially for young people, but we need to take a critical look at the future. “A year ago the prospect of being gasless was unimaginable, yet it is now a distinct possibility given the situation with Russia. In the same way, given the climate emergencies, it is also possible that the necessary infrastructure, such as electricity, will fail and the Internet will fail with it. With the entire population depending on it, people like Elon Musk are sure to come up with a very expensive and exclusive satellite connection.
Although this has dramatic consequences, Lovink believes we can finally free ourselves from the clutches of the internet. “I think it is possible for us to wean ourselves off of it. Different software or other constructs might arise that would make us less dependent. It is good to reconsider the efficiency argument. How important is it to us that all bridges are remote controlled? Why do bridge operators have to be transformed into hotel rooms? What is the argument for this new efficiency? And how convincing is it?
The Netherlands in the clutches of big business
Although many other countries still regard the Netherlands as a free port, our country is in fact completely controlled by large corporations. Lovink: ‘And we’re proud of that too. Recently, however, we seem to have reached a turning point, when the proposed large data center in Zeewolde was rejected. Residents rightly asked the question: why should we use our green energy to power Facebook’s data center? At a certain point, the corporatist argument is no longer convincing. The question we ultimately have to ask our government is: why have you become so dependent? And can you still sell this to us as progress?
The long winter is behind us
In his essay, Lovink looks back to the early 1990s: a naïve phase in which the Internet was seen as decentralized public infrastructure, otherwise known as the “short summer” of the Internet. After 9/11, a repressive phase began in which the Internet was increasingly used as a control mechanism. Meanwhile, emerging market forces have led to an increasing trend of individualization in the Netherlands. By 2011, social media had secured its grip on society, and Lovink began criticizing it through campaigns, research, and countermovements on the social media platforms themselves. Many people are now familiar with this review. “We were also working on alternatives to social media at that time, but it was precisely in this area that we could not make much progress. We are coming out of a difficult period. This long winter of 19 years, during which we suffered many setbacks, is part of my story. On the positive side, it is promising that there has been a real shift in awareness over the past three years of our position. There has been a fusion of movements around Occupy, #MeToo and the climate. Now that the emergencies are such that our ranks have swelled, we have left the long winter behind us.