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How 9/11 affected the Digital Future
One of the most striking things I’ve found while reading the early WIRED back catalog is how quaint the discussions of governmental surveillance were. The magazine directed limitless outrage at any attempt by the government to regulate, censor, or surveil online behavior.
This was, with hindsight, the interregnum period: post-Cold War, pre-9/11. All they knew at the time was that the Cold War had ended. The Baby Boomer generation, which had grown up under the implicit threat of nuclear Armageddon, was convinced that a new day was dawning.
They could imagine terrorist incidents (the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, etc), but they couldn’t yet conceive of a terrorist attack. The Cold War was over. Capitalism was ascendent, globalizing, unleashing a tide of prosperity that would surely lift all boats. There were no villains left to fight.
The outrage dial was turned to 11 any time the government contemplating regulating online communications. Take the Communications Decency Act as an example. WIRED treated it as a five-alarm fire. The magazine ran a monthly “Cyber-Rights Now” column, documenting every twist and turn in the debate over the CDA, and urging readers to take action. WIRED insisted that the CDA was blatantly unconstitutional, and that the best way to regulate the internet was no regulation at all. (just let companies and their customers work it all out!)
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the bill was, in fact, blatantly unconstitutional. But that effectively made it less of a threat. The courts immediately enjoined the bill and struck most of it down. The only part of the CDA left standing was Section 230 (later hailed as “the twenty-six words that created the internet”). The same folks who wrote the Cyber Rights Now column would go on to herald Section 230 as one of our most important protections of online speech.
WIRED was right to sound the alarm, but probably set the dial too high. And the residual anger lingered for years. Bill Clinton was depicted as a villain because he directed the Justice Department to defend the CDA in court. After it was struck down, the government kept trying to find ways to regulate the internet, instead of just leaving businesses to work it out on their own.
The same tech libertarians who were constantly outraged by the intrusion of government into online spaces saw nothing wrong with corporate surveillance. Companies gathering data on consumers was a necessary precursor to online advertising replacing broadcast advertising. And the argument for surveillance capitalism was simple and compelling: we’ve gotta justify the valuations of these internet companies somehow! But government data-gathering was inherently suspect. What possible legitimate interest could the government have in tracking online conversation or the flows of online money?
I particularly noticed this while reading an October 1996 interview on the “future of money” with banker Walter Wriston. Wriston complains about government regulators stalling “innovation” in the global financial sector, by preventing international banks from deploying the same type of strong cryptography that is used for battlefield communications. He explains it as an almost bureaucratic rationale:
Imagine you're Secretary of Whatever and your red phone rings. The president says, "You're in charge of preventing terrorism in the United States. The first plastique that blows up, you're out of here, buddy." The means to prevent terrorism is intelligence. How do you do that? You tap people's phones, and you don't want their messages encrypted with anything the NSA can't break. *Wired *has one view on encryption, and the secretary charged with antiterrorism has another(…)
It’s not that Wriston is wrong about the dynamic here, but what’s striking today is how cavalier and dismissive Silicon Valley thinkers were. All of those early legislative and regulatory debates were happening at a time when the prospect of a sustained terrorist attack was simply unthinkable. It isn’t just that, post 9/11, we end up with the Patriot Act (which is 200x more intrusive than the Clipper Chip). It’s also that the idea that you could dismiss terrorist threats as just big-government paranoia went from totally reasonable to holy-shit-so-tone-deaf.
That all changes on 9/11, and that never really changes back. You can see it in a December 2001 essay by Adam Penenberg. Penenberg is writing as a critic of mass government surveillance. But even as a critic, he asserts: “Worrying is a waste of time. Surveillance is here. It was inevitable. But the surveillance state is not.”
The monthly Cyber-Rights Now column is gone by 2001. WIRED doesn’t try to galvanize opposition to the Patriot Act the way it tried to oppose the Clipper Chip, and the CDA. The ground has shifted at that point. There were, in the public imagination, real threats and real villains again.
The result was an era of bifurcated administrative capacity. There was, in the years that followed, a voluminous surveillance state. The NSA, FBI, and CIA had limitless funding, their own court system, bipartisan political consensus, and willing defenders in elite opinion circles. All other government agencies — the FCC, FTC, FEC, DOJ etc — were still red tape in need of cutting/meddlesome regulators/a beast that needed to be starved so that innovators could innovate.
And for 22 years, that status quo has barely shifted. Edward Snowden didn’t shift it, though the foundations did tremble for a little while. The techlash didn’t shift it, though tech journalists did turn more critical. January 6th didn’t shift it either. We are still, haltingly, paying lip service to reigning in the surveillance state and maybe-kinda-sorta investing in reinvigorated administrative capacity.
Today we live in the aftermath of this uneven expansion. The U.S. government has trouble reining in Elon Musk, because SpaceX’s satellite network is just-too-essential to surveillance efforts. Musk himself is the ideal-type of entrepreneurial success under this model — enriched by government defense contracts/untaxed and unfettered by government regulators. (Musk’s colleague and sometimes-collaborator Peter Thiel being a close second).
Most of the time, when I’m reading 90s tech optimism, what’s most striking is how similar it is to contemporary tech evangelists. Surveillance is the one exception.
We will need to unwind this mess. I don’t have a roadmap for how to do it. The surveillance state is too big, the rest of the administrative state too small, and the most powerful economic actors have no interest in seeing that status quo altered.
But today, on the anniversary of 9/11, I think it’s worth remarking on that change. There was an innocence to the optimism of the early tech boom. It was an innocence borne from the end of an era, and the heady belief that everything would get easier from here on out (because unfettered capitalism needed no guardrails or protections).
It’s the one part of the dominant digital imaginary that has dramatically changed in the intervening decades. And the change has not been a good one.