2021: Year of the Alternative Internet

In a Post-Insurrectionist Pandemic, does the customer need software, two-day shipping, or followers? Maybe. Or perhaps they need humanity most.

Written by Jory Des Jardins, CMO at The @ Company.

Black and white person sitting at computer with colorful streams bursting out of it
Illustration by Clark William Miller

Thanks to Clark Miller for the rather brilliant illustration, rendered with not a whole lot of direction other than: Make it about the Internet, and make it optimistic….

Ten years ago, I became a fan of the sci-fi TV show Fringe.

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No, not that Fringe.

I didn’t take to the show immediately; my husband, who had watched the show from the beginning, tried to catch me up on the premise, an FBI task force that investigates cases relating to fringe science, ranging from transhumanist experiments gone wrong to the prospect of a destructive technological singularity to a possible collision of two parallel universes.

“That’s not the real Olivia,” he’d explain to me, as I wondered why the main character, FBI agent Olivia Dunham, looked a little different and seemed more confident from one scene to the next. “That’s her doppelgänger in the other universe-’Fauxlivia.’”

A comparison shot of the two Olivias.
IMAGE: pbs.com

Alongside the “Prime” world was an “Alternate World” that contained a version of ourselves. In some ways this world was more technically sophisticated and more sinister. It seemed that the citizens of the Alternate World were better able to maneuver across boundaries and manipulate technological singularities, people and events, to its advantage in the Prime World. While the protagonists in the Prime World were just starting to understand that there was an Alternate World, leaders of the Alternate World had already established a plan for its supremacy.

The last few seasons of the show, which ended in 2013, were about the Prime World catching up to this Alternate World, without destroying the simple pleasures of humanity, and most important, the People of the Prime World.

In light of recent events, as we are literally grappling with conflicts arising from different socio-political realities colliding, I’ve been feeling disorientation, anger, and the odd glimmer of Optimism amidst the bleakness. The Pandemic has not so much been the cause of my disorientation as the instigator of awareness; a point of Singularity that has forced open a hole into another world that has been operating alongside the one I thought I was living in, operating under very different intentions, surreptitiously calling the shots.

The Internet has, in many ways, been our savior during a rough time, and yet there are pockets of overreach disguised as technological progress. Being a marketer I’m told implicitly and explicitly that the root cause of failure comes from not knowing enough about your customer-not having enough data, not leveraging the data you do have to meet demand at the point of optimal need. But in a Pandemic does the customer need software, two-day shipping, or followers? Maybe. Or perhaps they need humanity most. But I’m told not to trust my human instincts until I have proof points that can only be derived from the data: my likes, my bored meanderings on a Website with interesting light fixtures I’m not going to buy but that will now follow me around in Internet perpetuity.

Moments of fear and frustration I’ve had with tech I’m made to believe wouldn’t exist if I’d just deepened my commitment to it, surrendered all of my digital self to a few, technologically advanced stewards of it. Then, the thinking goes, my life would be easier. I’d have more likes! And that creepy surveillance personified on Fringe almost too well by the pasty, bald white men that viewers came to accept as part and parcel of the Prime World, called Observers: Get used to them. They are part and parcel of this new, upleveled game we’re playing.

Man in suit and black hat looks distrustfully at several men in front of him.

On Fringe, we got to see more and more of this other world and how it operated. It was devoid of any sense of morality or responsibility toward the Prime World, as it held its own technological superiority as proof of its “rightness”. It adhered to a cultural and technological Darwinism that the Prime World protagonists end up not destroying so much as co-existing with, closing up the holes of access to minimize its impact.

Like Olivia Dunham, once I saw the Alternate World, I could not unsee it. I had to accept I was surrounded by it, even aided and abetted it for my own convenience, and still do.

So then, what’s my relationship status with the Internet today? It’s complicated.

I love it still, just as I love two-day Amazon delivery. But I find small ways to wean myself off of the unchallenged use of my data and inconveniences I endure, thinking these are the price of progress.

The Alternative Internet

So then, why the Optimism? Because I’m not alone. There’s a Fringe unit making its way in the world. It’s not part of the Alternate World of the Internet; it’s shedding light on an Alternative online world, where we get to keep the parts we love about the Internet, but the pasty Observers can’t get in. Intelligence isn’t hoarded by any one side. It’s owned by all of us, and shared at our discretion when we’re asked.

The only “rule” is “Ecto gammat” which fans of the film The Fifth Element may recall means “Not without my permission.” The underlying value is trust.

Leeloo from the movie The Fifth Element points a gun at a man while snarling, “Ecto gammat.”

It’s the simple act of asking for permission that makes a difference. Sure, some of us will say no. But for many of us the simple act engenders trust and will tip us towards saying yes. And note that I wrote the “simple” act. Obfuscating that ask with legalese, 2,500-word user agreements, or tucking self-serving outcomes into that ask are indicative of bad intentions.

The Alternative Internet is just as technologically advanced as our present Internet, maybe even more, but it’s willing to ask hard questions of itself. Not “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” People comprise its North Star, not profits. But we believe that this North Star will inevitably become profitable, as more and more of the world insists on owning and controlling their digital selves online.

Where do we find glimpses of The Alternative Internet? I work at one, but there are many other companies who are building search engines, browsers, analytics, email clients, telecom services and policy that adhere to the same values of no surveillance, asking for permission, and enabling control and ownership of one’s personal data.

For now, how do we operate in the current world? Not through insurrection, but through cooperation. Through entertaining new ideas and solutions. By going back to a spirit of exploration, when we had no Facebook friends, no likes, no followers, and zero Google juice, but we were open to exploring and reveled in our small but important early adopter status. By insisting on solutions that provide the same level of experience without Observers. By poking small holes in the current Internet by trying new experiences from the Alternative Internet until the two are inseparable.

If there was any place where I wanted to be immediately following an anti-government insurrection it was on Joseph Jaffee’s CoronaTV. In this episode, he shared a powerful commentary processing the horrific events of last week, and then it was time to laugh, because, frankly, we need to laugh. We need “anti-content,” as my co-guest Mark Masters put it, to take us out of our heads. And we need “non-obvious diversity” (which Rohit Bhargava describes and which I interpret to mean an overall deeper awareness to anyone not like us), and Tom Morris’s mike-dropping analysis of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and how we can better influence through love (versus popularity). And I’m totally taking Angus Nelson up on his offer to up my Clubhouse game. Look out, yo!

And I shared my thinking on the Alternative Internet and, for my Show and Tell, I shared the portrait my sister had done of me and given to me for Christmas, care of The FierceWomenProject.

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A MESSAGE FROM OUR SPONSOR: The @ Company:

Cartoon of blue-haired woman holding an @sign in her hand and posing in front of a camera.

Stay up to date on our progress building the Alternative Internet. Whether you are a potential co-creator, startup, developer, early adopter, or just kind of curious, subscribe to @news, our monthly newsletter with updates on The @ Company and the Alternative Internet ecosystem.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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