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50 Years of the Internet: Cause for Celebration?

On Oct 29, 1969, human connection was suddenly and permanently transformed.  When internet co-founder Leonard Kleinrock sent the first internet message, it was supposed to read “LOGIN,” but the computer system crashed and only sent “LO.” Looking at the results, Kleinrock remarked, “LO and behold!” Fifty years later, UCLA’s Internet 50 event brought together a wide array of panelists to commemorate this accomplishment – but what occurred throughout the day might be better defined as an examination of the internet’s “dark side” than a celebration of its longevity.

While everyone applauded the technological breakthrough that the internet represents, Leonard Kleinrock quickly set the trajectory of the event. Recounting his experience, he explained his dismay as he watched the internet that he helped create become a “powerful shopping machine, gossip chamber, social club, and entertainment channel” where community was replaced by competition. A succession of panels then explored a wide variety of its negative side effects. Jamie Dimon, Mark Cuban, Ashton Kutcher, and Tom Leighton were just some of the speakers who took the stage to discuss topics like economic distortion, disruptions, and privacy threats caused by the internet. 

Notable entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel questioned the assumption that innovations in connectivity have significantly enhanced our lives. Citing the current expectation that the younger generation will face harder job prospects and be less successful than their parents, he argued that the narrative of improved connectivity may be disguising the alarming reality that meaningful innovation in America has stalled. 

The societal impact of the internet was also examined by Patrisse Kullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Katelyn Ohashi, renowned UCLA gymnast. Both discussed the negative implications of giving every individual a free, instant, and anonymous voice. Speaking specifically about social media, Ohashi explained how it has not only contributed to a  false perception of reality, but has also created a disconnect. Put simply, everyone is able to say what they want but “no one has to listen.” The celebration closed with a look toward the future of the internet: what should we expect from this technology in the coming years and how might we find our lives further altered by it?

While the day succeeded in producing a rare moment in which a diverse group of people came together to praise the ingenuity of the human mind, it was overshadowed by one uncomfortable realization: the onset of the internet has created a host of problems that have and will continue to disrupt not just society as a whole, but the lives of specific individuals. It is these problems that prompted multiple speakers to promote reform rather than simply revel in accomplishment. Leonard Kleinrock charged the audience to find ways to help “return [it] to the internet I once knew,” while Thiel emphasized how important it is that we “find a way to get back to the future.” However, considering its rapid growth and proliferation across the globe, it seems unlikely that the internet will ever return to being isolated from the commercial sphere. Rather than trying to go back to simpler times, the focus must now be on educating and inspiring future generations to use the digital “megaphone” they have been granted. Only then will they be empowered to forge a path of change that acknowledges the achievements of the past and looks towards a more meaningful future. 

By: Payton Schwesinger
Class of 2021

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