Like many of you, I suspect, I have a love hate relationship with the internet. I love the access it gives me to all sorts of information, and how it connects me with people I would have never been able to hear from before. I hate how it also contains spaces for people to easily gather to abuse and harass people. I have made great, deep friends on the internet, and I have also wanted to burn the whole thing down.
A few months ago I talked to Finn Brunton, a digital historian at NYU, for an episode of my podcast Meanwhile in the Future. The episode was all about why we might, voluntarily and collectively, decide to abandon the internet. It’s a fun one, and you should listen if that kind of weird future speculation intrigues you. But Brunton also said something that didn’t make it into the podcast, but that I think about a lot now. It was an analogy for the internet, and how future us might think about our current internet world. Maybe, he said, the internet is like lead pipes in Rome.
Here’s how the story goes: Lead was discovered by humans a long time ago, as far back as 4,000 B.C. according to the International Lead Association (yes, that’s a real thing). Lead is soft and easy to work with, which made it useful for artists. But early cultures generally preferred copper (it was shinier) and iron (it was stronger) over lead. Until, that is, the Romans came along.
The Romans liked lead because it’s extremely resistant to corrosion, which makes it great for things like water pipes, tanks, and aqueducts. In fact, the word “plumber” comes from the Latin word “Plumbum” which also lends its letters to its symbol on the periodic table: Pb. And around 300 B.C. the very wealthiest Romans started to install plumbing in their homes. That plumbing was made largely using lead pipes.
As you probably know, lead is not good for you. According to the EPA lead poisoning can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, decreased kidney function, reproductive problems, and more. There are a whole slew of rules and regulations about how much lead can be in things like paint, waterways and soil, all of them aimed at reducing exposure to the hazardous metal.
And in fact the Romans knew that lead wasn’t good for them. Several doctors and writers talk about the lead poisoning they saw in metal workers. Hippocrates himself described metal colic in 370 B.C. but didn’t realize it was related to lead. By the 2nd century B.C. doctors accurately described lead poisoning for the first time. By the 1st century B.C. they knew that water that flowed through lead pipes wasn’t very good for you.
But having plumbing was a status symbol. It was key for the wealthy. And many of them continued to use lead pipes. In 1983, a chemist named Jerome Nriagu published a book called Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity, in which he argued that this lead poisoning, and the sickness that came with it, is what ultimately lead to the demise of the Roman empire. Other historians don’t buy that claim, but it is clear that lead is bad for you, and it’s likely that wealthy Romans were consuming more of it than they should have been. According to one paper, the water that came from these rich Romans’ pipes had 100 times more lead in it than surrounding spring water.
So what does any of this have to do with the internet, you’re probably wondering? Well, Brunton and I were talking about how people might remember our current time, and specifically our current technological time full of social media and vast interconnectedness and online harassment and food delivery and GIFs. Here’s what he said:
“Maybe people will look back on what we think is the really important part of the internet, all the memey stuff and the social networks and the places where people are making all this money, and they will look back on it the way we look back on the use of lead plumbing on the part of the aristocracy in ancient Rome. Which, to them this was like ‘Oh my god this is the sign you’ve arrived, this is where the action is, we have plumbing and it’s awesome!’ And it was! It was this amazing technological infrastructure. It was beautifully made, it provided them with an incredibly high standard of living and it also slowly, gradually made them irretrievably sick and insane*. It poisoned them day by day.
And we look back at it now as this thing that was simultaneously a fascinating part of how their culture worked, and the invention of a new kind of urban living but also as something that was slowly but surely making the ruling class into people who were desperately ill with terrible impulse control without ever realizing it or understanding why.”
In other words, what if in 2000 years we look back on our current internet, and think of it as a fascinating but heartbreaking tale of hubris. A moment in time where people were consuming a type of technology they knew wasn’t good for them because it conferred status and prestige. And that thing they craved so much was slowly making them lose their minds.
I think about this analogy a lot now. Some days it feels way too alarmist to me. And other days, it feels just about right.
*There’s actually debate among scholars as to just how much the lead in the pipes impacted the Romans. Nriagu obviously thinks it led to the entire collapse of the empire. Others think that it might have had nearly no effect. But it’s hard to even tell how much lead these Romans were consuming. Modern day diagnosis of lead poisoning requires a blood test to figure out how much lead a person has in them. But you can’t do blood tests on dead people who’ve long ago run out of blood. This is all to say that we don’t really know just how insane the lead pipes made the Romans. But this is an analogy, so let’s not get too bogged down in the details.
Image of Roman lead pipe from Wellcome Images