Is the Internet a failed utopia?

LONDON—At Shoreditch Town Hall on Thursday, at an event hosted by Intelligence Squared and Vanity Fair, the longevous British broadcaster Jeremy Paxman of University Challenge fame asked the audience of few hundred: “Is the Internet a failed utopia?” He asked us to vote on the matter by raising our hands. About two-thirds of the audience disagreed with the statement, a fair few (including myself) were undecided, and only a smattering of people actually thought the Internet was a failed utopia.

It was then the turn of four panellists, in the style of an electoral hustings or stump speech, to change our minds. In the failed-utopia camp were Andrew Keen and Frank Pasquale; in the not-a-failed-utopia faction were Peter Barron and Beth Noveck. They took it in turns to deliver quite rousing speeches.

The naysayers obviously had the harder job from the outset—we were at an event that was specifically tailored for fans of the Internet, after all—but they did a good job of reminding us that the Internet, as it stands, is not the elysium that we were all promised at its inception. Keen warned us that, while we think the Internet is an idyllic plateau where everyone is on an even footing, where two guys in a garage can compete with the monolithic, infrastructure-owning giants, we’re all deluding ourselves: just like the real world, the Internet is now ruled by big corporations.

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