Excerpted from the last chapter of WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, by Alexis Ohanian, Business Plus, 2013, all rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes and IndieBound.
The problem with the future is that none of it’s guaranteed. I debated how best to illustrate my vision for 2025, but everything felt a bit forced until my brilliant editor suggested framing it as a commencement speech for someone just finishing college in 2025. Now, it feels rather presumptuous to expect to be speaking at a college graduation, but I went along with it—after giving you nine chapters of optimism, I thought it might be important to give you a grim look at what could happen if we do nothing over the next decade or so.
Although it is only mid-May, the summer heat is suffocating. Alexis Ohanian lumbers over to the lectern, wearing the drab gray smock considered fashionable in this era of stifled creativity. He wipes the sweat from his brow, clears his throat, and speaks.
Dear Graduating Class of 2025: I owe you an apology. We screwed up the Internet, one of the world’s greatest innovations, and I’m truly sorry. Also, I’m really sorry about the climate change. Perspective is everything, though. I mean, look at how much more we appreciate the parts of the Eastern Seaboard that aren’t underwater now. Besides, who really liked polar bears, anyway?
As for the Internet, we had a chance, with all the momentum we gained from pummeling SOPA and PIPA back in 2012, to educate our politicians about how important Internet freedom is to every single one of their constituents. Every member of the House and Senate represented a digital district—it wasn’t a red or blue issue, but something that even the most divisive districts could agree on. Despite what you may’ve heard or read, it wasn’t just Silicon Valley that cared about this; it was all of America.
I hope you’ve read in your history books about Silicon Valley and all the burgeoning startup communities around the country at that time. We were one of the few sectors hiring back then; in fact, we couldn’t hire enough. Some of your parents might have even been part of that scene. Geez… hmm . . . this probably isn’t what you need to hear right now, given the bleak state of the economy you’re graduating into. Back in the day, software was eating the world, creating jobs and innovation, until we put protecting Mickey Mouse on a higher pedestal than protecting the free market. At least we’ve got that new 3-D version of Fast & Furious: Part XII. Seriously, they’re still trying to make 3-D a thing?
Anyhow, we were on the verge of major innovations across multiple industries. For one thing, your educational experience might have been very different if you had had access to a free Internet, no matter where or even whether you went to college. Imagine being able to take free classes from the world’s best instructors any time you wanted. That was happening. Nonprofits and for-profits alike were all engineering better ways for anyone with an Internet connection to get an education. It looked like universal Internet access for all Americans was becoming a priority for our politicians. I used to be able to look a person in the eye and say if she wanted to learn to become a programmer and build the next reddit, she or he could go online right now and get started. It was the same way Steve Huffman had learned much of what he used to build reddit and hipmunk. There were no gatekeepers.
But I can’t say that today. To make matters worse, your tuition payments rose to levels that have left most of you deeply in debt. Keep that in mind as you toss those mortar- boards in the air. Or don’t—actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think you’re allowed to do that.
But even if meaningful employment isn’t on the horizon for many or even most of you, don’t worry! One of the perks of unemployment is all the free time you’ll have to surf the GoogleVerizonComcastNet©TM from your parents’ basement. There was a time when we had competition and a flat Internet, where all links were created equal. We all thought of it as a sort of public utility back then—so quaint. Today, of course, the only search engine most of us can afford to use always gives us erection pill ads as the first page of results.
In case you find yourselves wondering what life was like back then, you can always fire up Gmail. Google hasn’t had to update it in nearly a decade because there’s no reason to— no startup can compete with them because they just block that competitor’s website or bury them in litigation.
Now, I’m seeing some funny looks out there in the audience. Yes, it’s true that bright young people like you used to build things all the time, and some of those projects turned into entrepreneurial endeavors—remarkable things that made the world suck less.
But I guess I’m really showing my age.
Just this morning I found a polite note in my Dropbox from the federal agent who investigated a “suspicious” photo I’d privately stored there from a family vacation. I’d done nothing wrong, of course, but he was just letting me know they had run a quick search. At least he left a note, right? Believe it or not, there was a time when we truly believed our digital storage was as private as our physical storage. Want to enter my home? Sure, get a warrant—same goes for my Dropbox. Those were the days. . . .
These days, of course, the government doesn’t need any due process to read our e-mail or search any of those formerly private messaging services, because they decided that the Fourth Amendment applies only to physical mail. Hey, remember when we used to have post offices and mailboxes and letters? No? Ask your parents.
Seriously, people used to think that digital privacy was just as important as physical privacy. That concept might seem antiquated to you all now, but when I was your age, if someone was illegally opening your mail, it was customary to punch them in the throat.
Back when I finished my first book, Without Their Permission, I really thought we were going to make the right decisions, too. The open Internet, as a platform, used to embody so many of the highest ideals of this country. Our Internet was filled with the true spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, helping yourself as well as others, and the freedom to connect whenever you want—as well as the right to privacy when you don’t. We could have been real role models for the world. Our bad, guys.
Well, now I’ve got a flight back to Shanghai to catch. It’s a shame I had to move my company there, but the level and quantity of science, engineering, technology, and math talent over there made it an easy business decision. It’s sad because of how much I loved not only this country but also the freedom to innovate and tinker, which encouraged so many of us back then.
I’m truly sorry. We had a great opportunity, but we failed, and now it’s you all, our future, who are left with the consequences. The irony isn’t lost on me—we all let it happen without your permission.
Yikes. That would have been a terrible way to end this book. Let me try again.
Here’s how we could do better. . . .
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