In the shadow of the New Colossus

Mike Hoye is the Director of Developer Engagement at Pluralsight and a consultant to DTI.

If you’re going to go somewhere else, you need somewhere else to go and some way to get there. This sounds pretty obvious, but sometimes it’s useful to write down your axioms.

It’s been a long time since “the internet” and “real life” were meaningfully distinct to anyone participating in both. I’m sure to everyone born after 1990, who’ve grown up with the reflexive sense to curate their alts and mind the sanctity of the group chat, the idea seems incredibly naive. But once upon a time it was a whole, real thing.

You can embark on whatever sociocultural archaeology expedition you’d like to confirm this, or you can just take my word for it, but the idea of “getting dooced” - of losing your job for Something You Said On The Internet - turned 21 last year. It had its own word! Does anyone remember how weird that was? And then how weird it was that we ever thought it would be weird? Shoutout to my fellow olds, we were so not-old then.

I hope you’re at peace, Heather.

In retrospect the whole idea that “the internet isn’t real life” seems pretty childish; it feels like one of those things you could believe with your whole heart in your last year of grade school.

Kinda cringe, as the kids say.

But when the extremely-online of us talk about the internet and real life like they’re the same thing, I think we’re blinding ourselves to some important truths, or at least important frames for approaching some occasionally useful truths. So the second axiom I want to propose here is that the internet and real life aren’t the same thing at all, they just happen to be cohabitated by most of the same people and, therefore, end up playing out through most of the same power structures.

Overlapping ideas and how they show up in our power structures are on my mind a lot these days, I can’t imagine why; particularly when both share a bunch of similarities that tail off and end at the margins, that fall apart at the seams. At borders, you might say; because weirdly, borders are where the network and the real reverse their natures, each taking on the aspect of the other.

Out here in the physical, a border is a shared fiction. It’s a made-up line on a made-up map. All the industry around it, every border post, road sign, bridge or checkpoint emerges from that agreed-on imaginary line.

This imaginary line drawn across this abstract rendition of the territory is so powerful, so important, that it justifies any violence waged against those who cross it unsanctioned. It’s all incredibly expensive, and I’m confident once we’ve put the death throes of a century of greed, racism and lead poisoning behind us this is another idea that’s going to seem pretty childish.

Out in the virtual, though, nothing could be further from the case. There is no crossing, no portage between islands that can exist unconstructed; even those places where bridging can happen accidentally needed to be constructed. Without deliberate effort to the contrary, the borders between these services are extremely real, and impractically high walls aren’t just a choice but the natural default settings of the virtual landscape. There are no deer trails between services, no paths of desire; any relationship that exists, deliberately or not, was constructed.

This sounds very abstract, and I’m sure that by now you’re all thinking, “ok, you minored in philosophy, we get it. You know what else we’d like to get? To the point.”

Out in the Fediverse over the last few months - where the work of bridging and built pathways was done up front - we’ve seen a couple of notable instances become unstable or go dark, and as an outsider on the periphery of many of those communities, the collective response is always about the same shape, and always beautiful. Signs are seen and shared, options are considered, remedies attempted - some succeed, some do not. Then, warnings are sent out, either by site administrators or invested community members, of escalating urgency. Around these tottering instances, other instances are opened up or spun up, new options are created, revealed and shared, migrations begin. Entire communities and subcultures get up and move.

The system isn’t flawless; it’s manual, lossy (my old posts!), and occasionally brittle. We have work to do. But it’s not a data dump to nowhere; it’s not just that people can carry themselves across the borders. Communities, relationships and maybe even cultures, the thousands of pockets of unique human interaction can find their way to new homes.

This isn’t, I think, just beautiful; it isn’t just self-evidently meaningful and maybe even sacred.

I think the other thing we can call this is “practice”.

It’s not clear what the next century has for us. The world is still beautiful, and we’ve still got a shot at keeping it that way, but it isn’t going to be an easy century. And I think one of the ground truths of this century is going to be that people are real, and borders are not. We’re going to see today’s too-big-to-fail start to shift and eventually, maybe, crumble. And I think we’re going to learn - again, finally - that safety, security and maybe even prosperity aren’t things we just have - they’re products of our cultures, communities and continuity.

And a part of that, maybe a small one and maybe a critical one, is that when the day comes that we need to get up and move, we aren’t carrying a dump of random baggage with us; we can, we are bringing the seeds of a reconnected, rejuvenated community along for the journey.

That’s the point, I think. The internet isn’t real life, but it can tether us to each other here in real life. So when the day comes and we need a place to go, if we have the tools, we’ve practiced and we’re a little bit lucky, we can get there together.

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