The Kindler, Gentler Web?

In the midst of configuring their new desktop, my parents decided we should embark on that most perilous of quests: sifting through the e-waste and detritus that tends to sneakily accrue when you’ve used the same computer desk since the 386 era.

Amidst the usual outdated instruction manuals, deprecated cable connectors, irrelevant media formats, and laughably small antique thumb drives, there were a few retro gems. Foremost among them was the setup and welcome packet from Bell’s Sympatico dialup service, its 1990’s provenance betrayed by its swooshy Screen Bean aesthetics and a shouty “THIS IS A COMPUTER PRODUCT” jumble of typefaces scattered throughout it.

The front cover of the Sympatico user manual/CD jacket.

As you might expect, this artifact from four desktops and four regional Bell corporate rebrandings ago offered nostalgia and some laughs. What I didn’t anticipate was how earnest and, in retrospect, naïve it was. Many of the basic selling points employed by our ISP’s haven’t changed–connect to family and friends, find entertainment, stay informed, etc.–but it feels like the way we talk about the internet has.

Description of the Sympatico dialup service.

“The global electronic community known as the Internet is not owned or controlled by a single company. It is a collaboration between companies, communities and countries…”

In today’s world of internet giants, pervasive tracking, and the balkanization created by geoblocking, filtering, and expansive subscription services, that declarative statement feels almost subversive to me. I’m sure part of it is just positioning or explanation meant to differentiate a true dialup service from what AOL was at the time, but it’s also a validation of what the internet was supposed to be. Even things like describing the community as “warm, friendly and comfortable” feels a little out of place. Today’s social networks talk about connection and position themselves as the centre of the discourse, but it’s rarer for them to truly advertise or touch upon basic friendliness.

The old Sympatico homepage with labels.

“We think you (meaning kids) need a place where you can go to talk about your concerns” 

The “Kids do Care” section also stood out to me. Obviously, there were abundant perils for children on the internet then, and there certainly are now. However, today, we praise kids for being technological savants while decrying them for ‘being glued to their devices’. As we fret about cyberbullying, sexting, overexposure, etc., there’s a bit more of a concern for what kids are doing and what is influencing them rather than what they actually feel. It seems odd to imagine a presumably heartless telecom saying “We think you (meaning kids) need a place where you can go to talk about your concerns” as one of the first things you’ll see when your modem stops screeching.

In many respects, the internet is more of a public square and more of a utility than ever–the United Nations’ Human Rights Council considers it to be a basic human right. However, perhaps the pervasiveness and (relative) seamlessness of internet access in much of Canada means that we don’t put thought into what it’s actually made of and what we should be doing on the internet as individual actors.