Forthcoming in the March, 2023 issue of Locus Magazine.

Cory Doctorow
10 min readJan 15

A room full of telephone operators at a switchboard; their heads have been replaced with hacker-in-a-hoodie heads. On the wall behind them is a poster ad for Facebook with the slogan, ‘Find Your Facebook Group.’ Atop the switchboard stands a small elephant with a bite taken out of its back.
Felix Andrews/CC BY-SA 3.0 (modified)

Within the very first year of operation, 1878, Bell’s company learned a sharp lesson about combining teenage boys and telephone switchboards…they played clever tricks with the switchboard plugs: disconnecting calls, crossing lines so that customers found themselves talking to strangers, and so forth.

-Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown

Advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers.

-Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

The internet succeeded where other networks failed. Where there were once many nets — cable, phone, leased-line — now there is just The Net, which runs over many of the same substrates but which has subsumed them all.

The secret of the internet’s success was to reduce, reduce, reduce. If we can’t agree on the right way to do x, perhaps we can agree on the right way to do y, upon which we might someday build x? Take a smaller step, agree on a foundation, keep decomposing a seemingly monolithic technological project into ever-smaller pieces until we find one that we can all agree on. Build that, then do it again, finding another step that everyone can get behind.

The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

It worked. Sometimes, we even figured out that we didn’t need to build the whole thing — sometimes a “partial” solution was sufficient. As one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies has it: “Be the first person to not do something that no one else has ever thought of not doing before.”

That’s what happened with email. For a long time, the Email Problem was how to validate senders, so that if you got an email from someone purporting to be me, you could be sure that it wasn’t an impersonation.

This would indeed be a wondrous thing, but to make it work, we would all need to agree upon an authority who would decide who was whom. We’d need a DMV for the Global Internet to issue Information Superhighway Driver’s Licenses to everyone in the world. Designing such an institution is a tall order, and we’re no closer to resolving this today than we were…

Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr