Separating alternative history from plain old history
Jack Shafer's nightmarish alternative history in which the FCC decides to regulate the Internet in 1993 and stamps its jackboot down on the soft face of the new medium suffers, I think, from an unusual flaw: an insufficient familiarity with alternative histories.
The key to the genre is that there has to be some reason something didn't happen in order for you to construct a world in which it did. For instance: The reason the South didn't win the Civil War is that there were no time-traveling racists who supplied the South with AK-47s. The reason the Axis and the Allies didn't stop fighting in 1942 and enter into an uneasy alliance against a common enemy is that no aliens saw fit to invade that year.
The problem with Shafer's history is that the reason the FCC and Congress didn't regulate the Internet in the early '90s is that ... the FCC and Congress didn't want to regulate the internet in the early '90s. They could've done all of -- or at least most of -- the things Shafer accuses them of wanting to do. They just, well, didn't.
Which suggests that a more rigorous alternative history in which the FCC did assert control over the Internet in the early '90s would probably be rather boring. Commissioner Reed Hundt -- a high school friend of noted Internet-booster Al Gore -- would've probably just done what he did anyway, and decide to leave the Internet alone because he was listening to tech geeks who told him that's what he should do.
Alternative histories are interesting, but there needs to be a good reason they're different than our history. Shafer doesn't really offer one. Indeed, the fact that our regulators weren't as cartoonishly awful as Shafer suggests they wanted to be -- and, let's be fair, as they have been at other points in our history -- is a fact worth thinking about. It shouldn't just be shunted aside to make a point about how bad imaginary regulators could've been.
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