I like to make things as difficult for myself as possible, so first, I decided to become an independent-minded female immigrant in a parochial and patriarchal nation; then, when that got boring, I decided to become a woman in tech, where I found myself giving conference talks to rooms of professionals who could, technically and biologically, be my grown adult children.
Then, when that got boring, I pivoted out of code tech to policy tech, where I now find myself in much more forgiving company. Which is to say, for the first time since my non-tech career, I work alongside and in partnership with other Gen Xers.
Insert any number of Buzzfeed listicles here about what it’s like to be a GenXer in tech: we learned on floppies and dialup; we coded out of print magazines; we sowed our teenage wild oats on the parental tether of nothing more than a coin in a pay phone; we lived entire years of our student lives without a single photograph being taken of us; we navigated 9/11 on dumb cell phones which had antennas; we now live datafied existences, raising datafied children attending datafied virtual schools, in a world where everything we were raised to believe would sort us for life turned out to be boomer bullshit.
All of those formative experiences give us (cough) fortysomethings a perspective on the internet which the boomers who birthed us lack, and which the millenials who followed us will never know.
In fact, we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the trope of the internet being threatened by elderly politicians who don’t understand it, or us. And that trope, for the most part, is as true as it ever was.
I can count on one hand the number of boomer-aged Parliamentarians in my network who well and truly understand the internet and its culture. They’re good folks who have my time, anytime. The rest, sadly, have more in common with the editorial board of the now-unreadable Glasgow broadsheet which issues weekly diatribes against the internet and all those who sail in her: every word steeped in all the offended sense of entitlement that bitter old men can muster, every rant beating the same dead horse against an internet which took away the newspaper readership that should, in their opinions, be hanging on every word that comes out of their privileged white Scottish male mouths.
So goes it for lawmakers, who – by nature and by privilege – have been insulated from the social and economic changes which necessitated the shift from the web as a geek hobby to the web as democratised culture. The ones who legislate aginst the web as if trying to restore an old world which existed before it, a world which only ever benefited people who looked and sounded like them.
Those lawmakers were who I expected to spend most of my time dealing with after my full-time pivot to policy.
The reality has been a lot more mind-blowing to comprehend than that.
When I was in my early twenties, in the late 90s and early 00s, running work missions across downtown Washington DC – pop into the Capitol complex here, run a folder to the White House there, drop off something for the Secretary of State on a long lunch break – everyone I encountered looked like me. The same age, the same countenance, the same Scully red hair (hey, it worked on me). Government may have been directed by professional politicians, but its actual daily mechanics were run by kids just out of university who had all the energy in the world and nothing and no one holding them down.
That’s universal, and it hasn’t changed. Government and policy – the mechanics and grunt work, not the media showmanship – are powered by an army of hard-working, very young people who have all of the academic knowledge and very little of the practical experience. Those young folks, now, in 2021, who were in nappies when I was on the Hill, now run whatever corridors of power they (virtually) travel through, in professional support of those older politicians.
And it’s these young professionals – not the boomer career politicians – who are setting the tone of internet policy.
And here’s the thing.
We – the GenXers – think of the internet as the open web. The land of dialup telnet Unix systems, the days of table layout, the days of dot com, the days of early tech startups, the days of the internet as a connector, the days of the internet as a business opportunity, the days of the internet as a path to social justice and revolutions, the days of the internet as a light in the darkness. That’s all we have ever known.
Today’s policy facilitators – the millenials – think of the internet as MySpace and Facebook. The closed web. The land of always-on broadband and wifi, the days of content management systems, the days of tech bros, the days of the internet as a divider, the days of the internet as an acquisition for the giants, the days of the internet as a path to radicalisation and hatred, the days of the internet as petrol on a spark. That is all they have ever known.
And that is what they draft policy briefings, proposals, and legislation against.
Laws on freedom of speech. Laws on privacy. Laws on encryption. Laws on private surveillance. Laws on state surveillance.
The truths I held to be self-evident are things they have never known.
And, politically, they are in the driving seat. They are running the show.
Not me. Not the old folks. Them.
Just like I was, a long time ago, with my Scully hair, in my Unix dialup world, a world before the TV signal briefly went out because the antenna which controlled the TV signal was on top of the tower with the plane-shaped hole in it, the hole which turned one of my university classmates into a centimetre-long fragment of a finger recovered 18 months later.
Today’s young tech policy professionals are are, quite rightfully, responding to the only internet in the only world they have ever known. The awful one. The one where the internet was and is a handful of billion-pound companies. The one where the internet has only ever been petrol on a fire. The one where the internet has been essential infrastructure like water and heat, not a thing you had to request and master. The closed internet made for them. Not the open internet I got to make.
So if you think that the biggest threat to encryption is elderly politicians who still need their secretaries to print out emails for them, it’s time you found yourself in a meeting with someone under the age of 30 who is going to war against encryption because he has never needed encryption in his life.
If you think that the biggest threat to internet freedom is old white men who hate the internet because it does not allow them to attack anyone who does not look or sound like them, it’s time you found yourself in a meeting with someone under the age of 30 who is unabashedly in favour of mandatory identity verification for all users of the internet to protect people who look and sound like her.
And if you think that the biggest threat to freedom of speech on the open web is a tech billionaire in California, it’s time you found yourself in a meeting with someone under the age of 30 who sees a legislative victory against online freedom of speech, cloaked in the mantle of a victory against the tech billionaire, as a useful stepping stone to his political ambitions.
Those old Thatcherites still in politics, the elderly dames in the Lords, the newspaper editors with the offended senses of entitlement, they can whinge all they want about how the internet has changed the world they knew. And you can continue to waste your time on them, and their tropes, if it makes you feel better about yourself.
But political power, now, rests in the hands of young professionals who are – rightfully – legislating to change the only internet they have ever known.
The shitty corporate one.
The open web we let slip through our fingers.
And maybe, just maybe, the best things standing in their way of their spite and their avarice and their political aspirations are the Gen X fortysomethings who saw something better about the open web, and comprehended what was on their screens in a way that nothing has ever touched them since, and still believe in what the open web can be, and understand where things went wrong, and have an idea of how to put things right, and know how to create and use and fork the tools to make it so, and know the north stars they navigate home by, and have never, ever forgotten them, and who need a little bit of reminding, in chaotic times, of what it was like to telnet into a blank screen which contained the entire world.