It’s easy to think the internet sucks these days. My day job is defending net neutrality and getting people to care about privacy and the like. From that perch, it more often than not feels like things are getting worse on the internet.
So, I thought I’d share an experience that reminded me that the internet doesn’t suck as much as we might think. In fact, in many moments, the internet still delivers all the wonder and empowerment that made me fall in love with it 25 years ago.
The experience in question: my two sons Facetimed me into their concert in Toronto last week, lovingly adding me to a show that I almost missed.
A little more context: my eldest son was back from college for Christmas. He and his brother were doing a reunion show with their high school band (listen to them on Spotify). I was happy for them — and grumpy that the show was scheduled for the one night over my son’s holiday visit that I had to be on a work trip. My son felt bad, but the show must go on.
While in Chicago on my trip, I got a text message. “Dad, can you be on Facetime around 9pm central?” Smile. “Yup,” I texted back.
I eagerly waited for the call at the appointed time, but was distracted by a passionate conversation with a colleague about All The Things We Need to Do to Save the Internet. I looked at my phone about 9:20. Gulp. I’d missed two calls. Frown.
I wished the kids well with the concert by text — and headed back to my hotel room. As I kicked back on the bed, the phone rang. I picked it up. There was Tristan. “Hey guys, here’s my dad, from Chicago.” He waves the phone over his head. I see the audience blur by. They scream and clap. I was at the concert!
Tristan then handed the phone to a young woman in the audience. She looked at me quizzically and smiled. Then she pressed the screen to flip to the front camera on the phone. She shakily held me through the last two songs of the show. Which, by the way, was great. That band is tight. Tristan grabbed the camera and waved goodbye. My version of the show was over as quickly as it began.
I felt so good for those 10 minutes. I was so proud and in love with my two sons. So grateful and impressed that Tristan had turned the challenge of me being away into a cool part of his live show schtick. And, so happy — and a bit reflective — about how skilled we’ve started to become as a society that loves and cares for each other using the internet.
At this moment, the internet did not suck. Far from it. Tristan and I each had powerful computers and cameras in our pockets with high speed internet connections. We were easily able to make secure, ad-free, flawless point to point television for each other. And, each of us, including the young woman in the audience, knew how to make all this happen on a whim.
Thinking back from my crazy activist camcorder days in the early 1990s, when I also heard the first crack of a modem, it’s hard to believe that we have built the digital world we have. And, thinking about it as a father in 2018, it feels like: this is an awesome way to be a family. This is the internet I wanted — and want more of. It is what drives me to do the work I do.
Yes, of course, there are lots of ways in which the internet sucks more than it used to. And, as the rest of the world (yes, all 7 billion of us) comes online, there will likely be an increasing gap between slower, ad-laden, compromised internet for most people, and a faster, private, secure internet for those who can pay for it. If trends continue, that’s where we are headed.
Still, there are so many ways that the internet does not suck. In fact, often, it enriches us. We need to keep our eyes on the prize: making sure the internet does not suck for as many people as possible for as long as possible. That’s the work we need to be doing. And we should do it not from a place of fear or despair, but from a place of joy.