"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Can you remember the moment when you first suspected that there was something wrong with the internet? Was it when you started to get creepily specific targeted ads? Was it when you realized that you had lost track of time while partaking in the infinite scroll? Was it after reading about one of the many scandals that have surrounded the big tech companies in recent years (especially in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election)? Was it after you received, or witnessed, a vicious deluge of trolling? Was it after you learned of the ways that algorithms are further entrenching and reproducing oppressive hierarchies? Are you one of the few who have always felt wary of the utopian hopes that were pinned on all things internet? Was it when you saw a celebrity shilling cryptocurrencies and NFTs? Or was it after reading about one of the many scandals that have surrounded the big tech companies in recent years (especially in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election)?
Regardless of what the specific cause was (and the above list is hardly all-inclusive), there probably was some moment when you suspected that there was indeed something wrong with the internet.
Depending on when you were struck by this suspicion, you might have decided that it was best to keep it to yourself. After all, not all that long ago if you dared to openly criticize the internet you were quickly derided as a technophobic Luddite who really wanted humanity to go back to living in caves. In recent years, especially in the wake of the many well-publicized screwups by large technology companies, it has become somewhat more acceptable to offer critiques of that which the Internet has wrought. Where once Mark Zuckerberg was the boyish face of technological hope (who always meant well, despite his frequent missteps) and his company was hailed as proof of the Internet’s democratizing potential, today Zuckerberg is the roundly mocked and loathed face of Silicon Valley hubris while Facebook is seen as a decidedly uncool cesspool boiling over with misinformation. And even as plenty of criticism falls on specific platforms and their executives, these critiques tend to maintain a certain hopefulness about the internet itself, acting as though these platforms and their executives have pulled the internet off course.
Yet this is just to raise the difficult question: if the internet has been pulled in the wrong direction, what would the right direction be? What should the internet look like? It is a lot easier (and more fun) to mock Zuckerberg (and his ilk), than it is to offer genuine alternatives. Considering the extent to which many of these platforms have become the essential infrastructure of our daily lives, it is not as simple as just saying “let’s turn them off.” Especially in this moment when so many tech companies are busy sketching out their visions for the future of the internet, it is more important than ever to present alternative ideas for what its future might be. And with Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future, Ben Tarnoff presents an engaging and hopeful manifesto for a possible internet.
Part history, part critique, part vision—Internet for the People provides a highly readable account of the internet’s origins, an unsparing description of the internet’s current state, and an outline for a possible internet that balances the utopian with the eminently possible. While considering the technological issues, Tarnoff consistently emphasizes that this is less a story about technology than it is about people, as he puts it: “Particular choices brought us to this point. We have the ability, collectively, to choose differently” (xi). Tarnoff’s account of the internet’s problems is deeply couched in a political critique, one that targets not just this or that tech company (or this or that executive) but the economic model currently underlying the internet, as he puts it, “To build a better internet, we need to change how it is owned and organized” (xv). In Tarnoff’s estimation, our current technological morass—the one wherein so many of us find ourselves thinking that there is something wrong with the internet—is a product of an internet driven by the pursuit of profit, but Tarnoff encourages his readers to consider what an internet guided by a different set of values might look like. Though recognizing that creating a “democratic internet can only be discovered through a democratic process” (xvi), Tarnoff’s Internet for the People is an invitation not to see ourselves as the powerless victims of the internet but rather as the collective stewards of its future.
The origin story of the internet is often presented as a tale of counter culture types building their dream by tinkering in their garages, yet as Internet for the People makes clear the true origins are about government funding and Cold War military priorities. Given the cost of computers in the 1960s, networking emerged as a way for DARPA to ensure that expensive computing resources spread across the country were not being wasted. In establishing how computers could communicate with one another—through things like packet-switching and the development of protocol—the ARPANET laid the foundation for much of what was to follow, and it was able to do this in an environment flush with public funding, and without significant pressure to turn a profit. Granted, the guiding principles of ARPANET had less to do with posting cat pictures than meeting military needs, in particular the need to not just create a network but to figure out how to communicate between computer networks. And the protocols that were developed to meet this need, known as TCP/IP, still represent “the lingua franca of the internet…without its rules, the world’s networks would be a Babel of mutually unintelligible tongues” (11).
Yet even as the technology was developed with the battlefield in mind, that was not where it stayed, as the ARPANET increasingly became a tool used by researchers working at various connected institutions. As the perceived usefulness of ARPANET led to more researchers requesting access, amidst a further deluge of public funding, what emerged in the 1980s was NSFNET, and though more and more people were certainly now getting on the network this publicly funded network was still not genuinely available to the broader public. With NSFNET the government had long planned for this technology “to eventually pass into private hands” (14), but the technology’s popularity pushed this shift to happen sooner than anticipated. Though the NSFNET prohibited commercial traffic, by the early 1990s commercial networks were popping up that demonstrated an interest in online services that transcended research. With the birth of the World Wide Web, and the spread of hyperlinked pages, the look and feel of the nascent net continued to shift and become more accessible. While it was obvious that the NSFNET was being outgrown, the government’s role in creating/funding the proto-net put it in a position to determine what would come next. Yet amidst the deregulatory atmosphere of the 1990s it seemed as though the options “were to preserve the system as a restricted research network or to make it a fully privatized mass medium” (19). And though these were not really the only two options—there were calls for a “public lane on the information superhighway” (21)—control of a publicly funded technology was handed over to the telecoms.
Which, more or less, brings us to the internet as we know it—a system that is “not just a mass medium but an essential infrastructure” (24). And in order to access this “essential” technology users (at least in the US) are largely at the mercy of four large internet service providers (ISPs), Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T, who maintain control over the key infrastructure that allows users to get online. In the early days of the internet—the days of modems and dial-up that used the phone lines—users had a few more options, but in the days of broadband/cable ISP options are constrained. And few upstarts can afford the tremendous costs involved in building the massive infrastructure networks over which the current ISPs already reign. That a few ISPs dominate is in line with a situation wherein a handful of companies dominate most internet traffic (Google, Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon), with those companies committed to ensuring users have access to their corporate content while having little real interest in ensuring users have access to other options. The situation is one wherein, “Americans pay some of the most expensive rates in the world in exchange for awful service” (30), with many US adults relying on smartphone access alone to get online, even as many others find themselves living in places where a single ISP enjoys a monopoly. The internet has become “essential infrastructure” but control of that infrastructure, and the quality of that infrastructure, is privately controlled (and frankly, not all that good).
If you are looking for high-quality high-speed internet in the US, you should consider Chattanooga, Tennessee. There you will find some of the “fastest broadband service in the country: 1 gigabit per second” (39), and you will find it courtesy of the Chattanooga’s municipal broadband network. While the four large ISPs are dominant in much of the US, alternatives do exist in some locales, where “community networks offer a model for what it might look like to reorganize the pipes of the internet around human need” (42). Though community networks are not currently the norm, they already exist as object proof that the ISPs are not the way it has to be, even as these community networks often come under attack from the ISPs (and the politicians the ISPs lavish with campaign contributions). Yet one of the reasons many of these community networks have survived is that they are popular, providing users with excellent service at a reasonable cost—which is likely why they are seen as such a threat by the big ISPs.
Proposals to expand the number of community networks were a part of both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns in 2020, with both having proposed billions in grants to expand and create public broadband. With such ambitious sorts of thinking setting the framework for a future in which “an internet connection would cease to be a commodity and become a social good, provided to all as a matter of right” (51). And this shift, elevating people over profit, through delivering benefits at the local community level, can only truly sustain itself if enshrined in public policy. As Tarnoff argues, the point here is not to make a pitch for more competition, in which community networks would compete with the ISPs, but to recognize that the companies that have been profiting off the digital divide cannot be counted on to fix it. Considering how essential internet access has become, guaranteeing access seems a logical step, and to ensure that this technology works in the public interest it is necessary to restore public control. Of course, when it comes to the internet, and wielding influence therein, it is important not only to think of the infrastructural pipes that people use to get online, but the platforms with which people interact once they are online.
If the ISPs are comparable to “slumlords” (“gouging users while letting their infrastructure rot,” 84), than the platforms themselves (borrowing a concept from Jathan Sadowski) are a lot like “shopping malls”—they “are nothing if not privately owned public spaces” (86). Like the “shopping malls” of the physical world these platforms make some of their profits by “taking a cut of the transactions they facilitate” but what is far more significant is how they “collect those digital traces generated by the activities that occur within them” (86). Here the question becomes one of which platform can best capture “those digital traces” and use them as a foundation for the extremely profitable pursuit of selling advertisements. Google is largely the “apex predator of this ecosystem,” the biggest of the malls, as it commands a significant share of the US digital ad market (93), and yet it is not the only mall hoovering up people’s data. Granted, these malls “look a bit different” from one another—after all, for “the online mall of social media” the goal is ”to keep users locked inside of it as long as possible” (94). While selling online ads is extremely profitable, there is reason to believe that online advertising is not really all that successful, nevertheless the various “online malls” have realized the value of cultivating and capturing attention.
In the days of ARPANET a computer was a massive machine that occupied an entire room, but two decades into the twenty-first century “the computer is everywhere” (111). With the explosion of wireless internet, smartphones, the cloud, and the internet of things—the unblinking eye of the online malls is everywhere, “making digital surveillance as deeply integrated into our physical world as it is in our virtual one” (112). While the early Cold War thinking behind the ARPANET was linked to a dream of controlling distant battlefields, the everywhere internet brings computerized control (or its potential) to any space it touches as the expansion of the “gig” economy harnesses the massive data outpours in order to command poorly paid workers navigating those data streams (even as they continue to generate more data themselves). Yet the present moment starts to look like one of a society hitting a saturation point. Where once the internet was “ascendent” (this was when “the telecoms took control of the pipes”), and then the internet was “triumphant” (that was when “the internet was remade for the purpose of profit maximization”), at this point the internet appears rather “baroque” (“capital is so abundant and the potential returns so immoderate that investors can live on hope alone”)—rather than a space filled with upstarts it is increasingly one where a handful of dominant parties just buy up (or clone) any startups before they can threaten their dominant position (123-124).
Once the hopes of ascendancy and the thrill of triumph fade, it becomes harder to ignore the realities of the actually existing internet. For all their initial glitz, the online malls “are inequality machines” that “reallocate the existing distribution of risk and reward” by pushing risks “downward” while puling the rewards “upward” (129). What appears, drawing on the work of Tressie McMillan Cottom, is a form of “predatory inclusion” wherein “the excluded are included but only on the condition they absorb most of the risk and forfeit most of the reward” (133). While many of the early techno-utopian fantasies of cyberspace saw it as an immaterial realm that would transcend the oppression of the material world, what we now see is that cyberspace is “suffused with the bigotries that users brought with them” (134). Indeed: reactionary, fascistic, and conspiratorial content all found ready audiences in the algorithmic corridors of the online malls—considering that outrage sells, and that the online malls are all about selling, they have been quite content to sell outrage. And as with the ISPs, when looking for an explanation of the actions of the platforms, it is imperative to recognize that their primary interest is profit.
As the sense that there is something wrong with the internet spreads, it has carried with it calls for reform—with these often taking the form of calls for anti-monopoly action and other sorts of regulation. Yet, when it comes to the internet, whether talking about ISPs or the platforms, “making markets more regulated or competitive won’t touch the deeper problem, which is the market itself” (153). As “a privatized internet will always amount to the rule of the many by the few” (154) what is needed is a democratization of the pipes and the platforms. On the infrastructural level this will likely look like the community network, but on the level of platforms what’s needed is not so much a less-bad Facebook but “more experiments” that can model different online architectures entirely. What is needed is not just one or two alternatives, but a whole “constellation of alternatives,” that will make it so “technology ceases to be something that is done to people, and becomes something they do together” (157). The good news is that there are already “programmers and artists and academics” working on imagining, theorizing, and actively building “an internet beyond the online malls…where profit is not the priority and where users govern themselves” (158). And as we dream up new ways to make the internet a public good, we would do well to look at institutions like public libraries and public media that already provide us with models and approaches.
From many quarters the internet was originally presented as the solution to every problem societies faced. And in the years of its existence the internet has shown itself to be quite useful for creating new problems, and exacerbating old ones, as it proves to not quite be the panacea for all that ails us. Yet what is becoming clearer is that not all of our problems can be solved online, because not all of our problems are online problems. Here, “going on the offensive is more a political matter than a technical one” (170). That technology continually falls short of solving our problems, that technology so often creates new problems, should prompt us to recognize that politics are needed. Not just politics in terms of voting—but the work of organizing, community building, imagining alternatives, and creating alternatives.
That the internet would look the way it does was not inevitable, and what the internet will look like in the years to come has not been preordained. Nevertheless, “one thing is clear: to remake the internet, we will have to remake everything else” (171).
It’s pretty easy to criticize the internet. After all, there are plenty of glaring issues to point at, numerous “tech bros” to mock for their hubris, and a steady deluge of news stories that make it clear that reality has outpaced anything that Black Mirror can try to throw at us. To say in 2023 that there is something wrong with the internet, is to say something that even the most ardent acolytes of the digital will likely agree with. Criticizing the internet is easy, actually having a proposal for addressing those criticisms is hard. And that is precisely why Ben Tarnoff’s Internet for the People is such a worthwhile read, for Tarnoff’s book is not a litany of woe over what the internet has wrought, but a serious engagement with the question of how the internet can be improved, and a vital gesture towards the deeper question of what kinds of technologies societies need.
Internet for the People presents a strong counter and corrective to many of the prevailing myths and narratives surrounding the internet and the platforms that are dominant there. Tarnoff begins his history of the internet by recounting the tales of the various proto-internets, thereby highlighting both the mix of values and priorities that went into those early technological systems, while drawing attention to the public funding that was responsible for so many of the internet’s core technologies. This is not the Silicon Valley friendly version of the internet’s history that elevates a handful of counter culture types, but is instead an account of the government funding and large institutions that could see a value in networking before that value was a monetary one. Refusing to romanticize either computer loving hippies or the researchers with access to the proto-internets, Tarnoff captures the moments in the early net’s history where things could have gone in a different direction, while emphasizing how the privatization of the internet’s infrastructure (its “pipes”) represents one of the most significant moments in setting the stage for the internet as we know it today. By framing the dominant ISPs in the US as “slumlords,” Tarnoff provides an evocative way of thinking about these companies, that breaks through the façade of innovative high-tech corporations to call out their practices. Though Tarnoff reminds his US-based readers that they pay more for worse internet than people in many other places, he holds up the examples of already existing community networks (and legislation that would create more such networks) as proof that the ISPs are not the only option.
As Internet for the People makes clear, there are important distinctions that exist between what various platforms do that should not simply be flattened out, and yet what unites these platforms is a drive for profit. Given the book’s emphasis on the way that the internet has become an essential part of many people’s lives, and the way that many of these platforms have laid claim to important territory within that essential space, Tarnoff spends little time commenting on the supposed benefits these platforms offer, instead emphasizing the way they prey upon and trap their users. Despite the promises of what “smart” this or “smart” that will bring, Tarnoff emphasizes the ways that the many promises made by the platforms have fallen short, even as these companies have become quite successful in turning every purchase and click into more information to feed into their ever expanding data troves. In Tarnoff’s description of them, the platforms are not benevolent behemoths, but gold-laden goliaths able to buy off any rivals and corner the market on slings and stones while simultaneously being increasingly loathed. As they appear in Internet for the People, the platforms are not so much in a dominant position by dint of their brilliant leadership and innovative technologies, but by having been in the right place at the right time to be able to corner (and maintain control) of an important part of the internet.
Central to the book is the perspective that the internet has become an essential piece of contemporary life, and the analysis put forth is not one that hinges on telling readers to delete their account from a particular platform or spend a day a week offline. While Tarnoff’s book, by its very nature, represents a gesture in the direction of the merits of being informed, the underlying argument is not one about personal action or personal responsibility but is instead about larger issues of politics and economics. As he notes, in discussing the platforms “The online malls are engineered for profit-making, and profit making is what makes them inequality machines” (153). Tech companies and venture capitalists may suggest that the promise of profit is what drives high-tech innovation, but the account presented by Internet for the People is one wherein the constant pursuit of profit results primarily in innovations regarding how to make people .02% more likely to click on an advertisement. Indeed, as Tarnoff’s narration of the early history of the internet conveys, the exciting and innovative atmosphere that gave rise to the internet (and many of the core technologies upon which the internet still relies) was one driven not by profit but by massive public investment. While Tarnoff’s book is not without suggestions and potential solutions (he clearly likes community networks), the account is largely a call for more imagination and more imaginative thinking. Seeing as “An internet ruled by the people is one where people directly participate in the making of the internet” (169), it is impossible predict precisely what “the people” will make, but the first step is to get them involved “in the making.”
Internet for the People contains an important retelling of the internet’s history, and an engaging critique of the dominant platforms, but at core the book is primarily an intervention in the conversation about what the political left should make of the internet. This is a lively debate that has been playing out across articles, books, podcasts, social media posts, and in person exchanges for quite some time—and Tarnoff is the co-founder of Logic Magazine which has consistently been a vital forum for these discussions. This is not to say that one needs to share Tarnoff’s politics to appreciate the arguments put forth in Internet for the People, it is simply to acknowledge that this book is clearly an intervention in a political argument. And the core argument—that the profit motive is a major part of the problem, and that remaking the internet necessitates getting it away from the profit motive—is one that has less to do with making mild technical tweaks to algorithms, and more to do with the need for significant political change. Political change that goes beyond the technological, but which will hopefully be able to impact the technological. The book’s title makes it very clear that the book is about the internet, but the argument within the book makes clear that it is necessary to see the internet not as a technological problem but as a political one.
By 2022 most people on the political left have no problem with critiques of AT&T, Google, Facebook, Comcast, Uber, and Amazon. The left is far more likely to loathe figures like Zuckerberg, Musk, and Bezos than they are to lionize them. And yet, even while holding a certain critical contempt for the ISPs, the platforms, and tech company CEOs, much of the left maintains a generally positive attitude towards the basic technologies themselves. To put it simply: plenty of leftists hate Facebook, but they still love the internet; plenty of leftists dislike Apple, but they still quite like their smartphones; and plenty of leftists are ready to smash capitalism, but are not particularly interested in smashing computers. And thus, one of the challenges for many on the left is to figure out a way to maintain a level of affection for the underlying technologies, while also having a rigorous critique of how these technologies currently function in the world. Critics and commentators on the political left frequently respond to this tension by emphasizing that the problem is particular capitalist enterprises and the capitalist pursuit of profit above all else that drives these companies. Therefore, the problem isn’t computers (as such), but the way that computational power winds up oriented solely towards earning more profits; the problem isn’t the internet (as such), but what the big tech companies have done to the internet. Here the move is to survey the existing world of technology, and say that it did not have to be this way, that it does not have to be this way, to say that these technologies could have developed in different ways, and to place the bulk of the blame on a particular group of companies and on the economic values driving those companies.
Lest there be any doubt, Internet for the People is a pro-internet book. While elements of Tarnoff’s argument speak to a favorable attitude towards dismantling the current ISPs and weakening the hold of dominant platforms, the book is not an argument for dismantling the internet itself. In one of the most fascinating sections of the book, while emphasizing that “we need more experiments” (155), Tarnoff argues that the left critique of the internet has much to gain by thinking with the “framework for thinking” established by “the movement for police and prison abolition” (156). Drawing on those movements, Tarnoff emphasizes how these tactics point to a need “to open cracks in the enclosures” of the online malls and to seed “those cracks with all manner of invasive species” (157). What is required here is “above all, imagination” or even better imaginations, and this “demands looking at technology differently” (157). Nevertheless, it is essential to bear in mind, that what Tarnoff is talking about here is not the abolition of the internet itself, but “abolishing the online malls” (157). This is a provocative intervention, and in keeping his focus on “the online malls” Tarnoff preserves the potential of the internet. After all, it seems pretty clear that the fertile soil in which “all manner of invasive species” can be seeded once those “cracks” are opened in “the enclosures” created by “the online malls” is the soil of the internet itself.
The question of how to approach the internet is a challenging one for the political left. Certainly, there is the matter of capitalist enterprises and the profit motive regarding ISPs and the platforms—but that is not the only issue. There is the way that much of the essential physical infrastructure of the internet (undersea cables) reinscribes histories of colonialism. There is the way that the minerals needed for internet connected technologies relies on destructive extractive routines. There are the exploitative conditions of workers all around the internet (from miners to those who assemble gadgets). There is the massive problem of the distribution of e-waste where the toxic technologies of yesterday poison the communities that never enjoyed the supposed benefits of those devices. There is the question of whether the internet has been more of a boon to the political right than the political left. There is the matter of ever-expanding surveillance, of the corporate and the government kind. And the list goes on. To be clear, many of these matters do involve issues regarding capitalism and the pursuit of profit, but many of them point to a thornier question: not just what kind of technology is the internet (and by extension computers) for the left, but what kind of technology is the internet (and by extension computers)?
That technologies have politics, and that technologies are not neutral, are points that scholars of technology have highlighted for many years—and these are points that most left-wing critics of technology have internalized. Yet there is a very real danger that in suggesting that the problem with a particular technology is what capitalism has done to that technology, that an argument that technology is neutral winds up sneaking back in. The risk is that by saying “Google is bad” or “Comcast is crap” or “Zuckerberg is a schmuck” that one winds up subtly suggesting that the internet itself is still good. But what if some of the problems with the internet (and by extension computers) are inherent in the technologies themselves? What if technologies that are an outgrowth of wartime demands and Cold War military priorities are at core technologies that are biased more in the direction of control than liberation? What if the internet can be used by the people, but can never really be for the people? What if, at the end of the day, the internet just isn’t going to be able to solve all of our problems
In recent years there has been an explosion of excellent scholarship by people in a range of fields engaging with these questions. There has been a great deal of vital work that has gone digging into the history of computing and the internet to make sense of how the internet as we know it came to be. Much of this scholarship, such as the edited volumes Your Computer is On Fire and Abstractions and Embodiments, features arguments that recognize the role that profit motives and capitalism have played, but there is also a great deal of attention to the very real limitations of computers and the internet. The history of technology provides plenty of examples of people projecting their hopes and their fears onto new technologies, and those dreaming of profits are not the only ones who have fantasies about what the internet might make possible. Writing in a register that skews towards the academic as opposed to the polemical, many of these scholars avoid offering straightforward solutions to the problems they identify, and yet many of the issues they identify require us to confront not what capitalism has done to the internet but the internet as a technology and a technological system.
With his recognition that “to remake the internet, we will have to remake everything else” (171), it is clear that Tarnoff’s analysis goes deeper than just a critique of capitalism. Alongside the scholars that Tarnoff draws on throughout his book (to say nothing of all the important work that Tarnoff has helped steward in his role at Logic), Tarnoff grapples with the meaning of the internet and with its various affordances. Repeatedly, Tarnoff emphasizes the need for imagination, the need to be able to imagine things differently, and the political willingness to make those imaginaries real. And it is in this emphasis on the imaginary that it becomes especially vital for readers—who ostensibly have a key role to play in that imaginative work—to themselves wrestle with the issues of the internet’s capabilities. In encouraging his readers to locate the proper “enemy,” Tarnoff emphasizes that “privatization is the right target” (175). After all, “if privatization meant creating an internet that served the principle of profit maximization, deprivatization means creating an internet organized by the idea that people, not profit, should rule” (175). It is likely that some readers, even among those who agree with his politics, will disagree with Tarnoff’s choice of an “enemy,” and some may argue that internet-connected technologies steady invasion into every corner of our daily lives (though certainly profit driven) represents the proper enemy. Given the degree to which the internet has become essential infrastructure the idea of “turning it off” is an outlandish, and unrealistic, proposal—yet it does seem that one way to counter the pursuit of profit is to argue that there are parts of our lives that do not need to be online. The political left is not immune to technophilia, and though we should be wary of romanticizing a pre-internet past, we should also be careful about falling in love with the internet.
With his invocation “that people, not profit, should rule” Tarnoff opens the door not just for the work of movement building, but for the work of imagination—while raising the question of what such an imagining entails. Imagining faster internet speed courtesy of a community network is one kind of imaginary, a decentralized world of numerous social media platforms that can seamlessly communicate with one another is a different sort of imaginary, and an internet that is focused on “people” one that is perhaps focused on human flourishing over corporate profits requires an entirely different kind of imagination as it requires us to consider what we mean by “human flourishing.”
Discussions around technology often hinge on questions of if it is “good for this” or “good for that,” but with Tarnoff’s emphasis on “imaginative work” there is a push in the direction of the far more provocative matter of “the good life.” And in assessing Internet for the People it seems that one of the underlying notes that plays like a leitmotif throughout the book is how the internet would fit, and what the internet would like, for “the good life.” While gestures in the direction of “the good life” are often treated as romanticized silliness, Tarnoff’s book features little if anything in the way of romanticization of the pre-internet past and he is a pointed critic of nostalgia for the internet that was. Throughout the book, Tarnoff soberly notes that the internet has become an essential feature of people’s lives, and Internet for the People is not an argument about getting offline but about transforming the online. Readers will likely have their own opinions of how a remade internet would fit within “the good life”—and present debates within the political left around eco-modernism and degrowth also tangle with these matters of technology and “the good life”—yet what Internet for the People establishes so clearly is the need to undertake this imaginative work. Will we all imagine the same internet? No, of course not. But if we want to transform the internet we will need to start imagining a different internet, a better internet, together.
If you can remember a moment when you suspected that there was something wrong with the internet, than you should make it a point to pick up Ben Tarnoff’s Internet for the People. After all, if you can remember when the internet felt wrong, you should start imagining what it would look like for the internet to feel right.
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