Every year my dad buys me the CBC Massey Lectures book, and last year was no exception! Reading Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society after the events of January 6, in which white supremacist and fascist Americans, incited by their own president, stormed their own Capitol Building, was a trip. As Ronald J. Deibert unpacked the problematic aspects of our reliance upon social media, all I could think about was the role social media played on and around January 6—the way far-right platform Parler was used to plan the riot, the way people on Twitter immediately began identifying rioters, and the way now, afterwards, social media has been used to discuss, dissect, and evaluate the event.
I joined “social media” in 2007 when Facebook opened up to non-college students. Graduating high school, it felt like a nice way to stay in touch with my peers (I barely talk to anyone from high school now, of course). The following year, I joined Twitter, which I would say is the main social network I use these days. However, I am old enough to remember the golden age of the web: after the days of walled gardens like CompuServe and AOL, but before the days of walled gardens like Facebook, Twitter, etc. (For an excellent read on how platforms have replaced protocols, check out the unfortunately prescient The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain.) I’ve lived through many iterations of social media and networks, some of which I’ve participated in, while others I have eschewed as not for me. I don’t think I would be alone in shuddering with the accuracy with which Deibert identifies our dependence upon not just our phones but social media in particular.
Oh, by the way, my best friend and I have a podcast and we released a two-part episode about The Social Dilemma (recorded before I read Reset). Listen if you want to hear more of my thoughts on social media—now for my thoughts on this book.
I’m always impressed by how variable the Massey Lecture books are in style. This comes with the diversity of speakers, of course. Some are telling a story; others, like Deibert, sound like they are lecturing on public policy to a group of university students. This is fine, but if you have regularly enjoyed the Massey Lectures in the past, you might find this one a departure in terms of density and jargon.
The first parts of the book will sound dire, especially to anyone who is new to the topics and ideas Deibert covers. I was already very aware of much of the surveillance Deibert mentions, so that didn’t faze me. Nevertheless, when you put it all together the way he does in this book, it forms a startling picture. We have abdicated so much of our privacy already, and one of the central questions of Reset is whether or not we can possibly reclaim that privacy in a meaningful way.
Perhaps one of the most important parts of this book, for me at least, comes near the end. Deibert addresses the environmental impact of how we currently use these technologies—from Bitcoin to Google searches, the Internet consumes power and water, and the devices that give us access demand an ever-increasing supply of precious minerals and dangerous substances. I love that he brings this up, because it is something we often overlook as a result of our view of the Internet as existing within “the Cloud”—the Cloud has a physical existence, albeit a distributed one, and it costs energy and resources to maintain. Deibert’s reminder that our technology problems dovetail with the larger problem of climate change is a nice way to help us understand how, to move forward as a civilization, we can’t just fix one thing. We can’t just fix the Internet without doing it in an environmentally responsible way—nor will we be able to tend to the environment if we continue to use the Internet like we do now.
At the end of the book, Deibert actually addresses what he means by the title, what he envisions as a possible future for our online lives. In doing so he slides from sociology and philosophy of technology over into political science and political philosophy. He gives us some basic tutoring in concepts of liberalism, republicanism, etc., before deploying these as foundations for reimagining our Internet society. Although I appreciate the connections he tries to make, this part feels rushed. Maybe I’ve been too lucky to read so many good history books that explore these ideas, but Deibert doesn’t do the topic justice. Moreover, in his attempt to ground his ideas for the Internet in a philosophical/political framework, he inadvertently erases certain layers of nuance. For example, his philosophy is inextricably Western in its foundations. Yet if we ever have hope of truly remodelling the Internet to be more equitable, more inclusive, and more privacy-centric, how can we do so if we don’t embrace Eastern, Middle Eastern, Southern, and especially Indigenous perspectives?
Basically, I think Deibert does an excellent job communicating the problems of our Internet, particularly social media. The solution frameworks he lays out are vague. This is not so much because he doesn’t seem to have ideas for improvement. Rather, whether as a result of space/time constraints or a flaw in his actual thinking, his solution frameworks are heavy on theory but light on nuance, practicality, and intersectionality.
All in all, this is a good read. But I think it really addresses this issue from a particular perspective. If you want to learn more about this stuff, you need to go further and read other voices. You need to hear from people who have been harassed online, and we need to listen to the voices of marginalized people, including Black people, Indigenous people, and LGBTQ+ people. I agree with Deibert that this is a battle to be fought at an organizational and governmental level—but Reset only provides a starting point, not a roadmap.