In the Winter 2023 issue of The New Atlantis, lawyer and author John Ehrett points out that the bloom of enthusiasm that greeted the advent of the internet has now faded from that particular rose. There is now a consensus that the negative effects of social media in particular, and also the whole economic basis of “free” services that charge by taking time-slices of one’s life, may have begun to outweigh the positive effects. The question is, what to do about it?
Rather than simply parrot various policy ideas that are floating around—as he puts them, “prevention of censorship” or “limitation of corporate power”—he begins with the legacy of an almost completely obscure Russian thinker named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov (that’s the way Wikipedia spells him, anyway). Fyodorov published almost nothing during his lifetime (1829-1903), but he knew or influenced a lot of people who were or became well-known for their writings and discoveries, including Leo Tolstoy and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian scientist who discovered many of the founding principles of rocketry.
Ehrett picks up one thread of Fyodorov’s thought, which was saturated in a conservative Russian Orthodoxy that viewed God as the eternal constant presence behind the shifting sands of visible experience. In Ehrett’s words, “A conservative futurism must root itself in the principle of eternity, mirroring that divine timelessness where possible.” It’s hard to think of a mindset more diametrically opposed to the “move fast and break things” motto of Facebook, and indeed of the entire software-centric Big-Tech world, which seems to be driving us toward a future that changes much too fast for us to get used to.
The proposal Ehrett makes that I’d like to examine concerns the internet infrastructure, broadly defined: not only the hardware (backbone, wired and wireless networks, etc.) but the software-based hosting, payment transfer systems, and everything else that makes the internet work the way it does. By now, the internet has made a place for itself in modern society that has become well-nigh essential, just as essential as electric power, water, and sewer systems. The latter three are regarded as public utilities.
A public utility is like a similar category in the transportation regime, a “common carrier,” in the sense that anyone with the money to pay for the service must be entitled to the service, regardless of the individual’s particular characteristics. My electric company doesn’t inquire into my politics or religion before connecting my service drop. But politics or religion have been the cause of many discriminatory actions by social-media operators against certain users.
Suppose a miracle occurred, and there was universal agreement that we would henceforth treat the internet as a public utility. Local political units—towns, counties, states—get to regulate their public utilities. So the nature of the internet services provided in a particular locale might well depend on the sensibilities and inclinations of a certain region. The internet as viewed from Pocatello, Idaho, might look very different from the view it would present to a penthouse apartment in Manhattan. Not better or worse, necessarily—just different.
We have gotten so used to the idea that everything on the internet must necessarily be global—it’s even built into the old name “the WorldWideWeb”—that it’s hard to get one’s mind around the idea of controlling it locally. But hey—one of the boasts of software developers is that they can make their machines do virtually anything you can imagine, and we can imagine an internet that is tied to geography, just as construction practices and architecture vary from locale to locale.
And that’s another thing that Ehrett’s conservative futurism would promote: a renewed emphasis on the physical as opposed to the virtual. The “slap together today, tear it down tomorrow” attitude that software developers seem to have taken an oath to enact has bled over into other areas of life, notably construction. More and more parts of the world are beginning to resemble downtown Houston, where they put historic plaques on structures that have endured as long as five years (I exaggerate, but only a little). Why have past cultures (Venice in the 1400s, for example) created structures whose beauty has endured to the present day, whereas the architecture and building practices of the twenty-first century seem determined to move us all closer to our origins in tent-dwelling nomadic tribes?
All these ideas are good ones, but they rest on the foundation of a worldview that acknowledges the importance of eternity. Historically, the leaders of a culture have had to embrace such a view for it to have much of an effect on the culture’s direction. For reasons too complex to go into here, we are going through a period in which the notion of eternity is ignored at best, and more likely scorned or mocked. As philosopher Richard Weaver said in a book title back in 1948, ideas have consequences. And the underlying beliefs of those who call the shots in the halls where important economic, political, and social decisions are made do not presently harbour ideas that are favourable to conservative futurism.
Nevertheless, the idea is out there, and I find it encouraging that Mr Ehrett seems to be fairly young—he was in Yale Law School as recently as 2016. If an idea doesn’t appeal to young people in large numbers, it doesn’t stand a chance. As old duffers like me pass from the scene, the ideas that will survive are the ones that young people are attracted to. And they are not bound by old habits of mind that are very hard to break out of.
The obstacles blocking the progress of conservative futurism seem insurmountable. Imagine the howls of outrage from Silicon Valley if the town councils of a thousand burgs all voted to restrict their internets in the ways described above. But there was a time back in the 1970s when Ma Bell seemed like the only possible way to do US telecommunications, and we’ve managed to overcome that preconceived notion, despite AT&T’s struggle to keep what it termed a natural monopoly. So maybe it can happen. But if it does, it will be because of the efforts of young people like John Ehrett and his ilk.
This article has been republished from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics.