What Are The Politics Of The Internet?

First in a series of two essays today on freedom and the Internet. Next: Google, Sci-Fi And The MTA.

Late last Friday, news broke that the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, an online discussion board and community commonly referred to as the WELL, was on the verge of being shut down. Founded in 1985 as a dial-up BBS, the WELL is an enormously important part of internet history, both as a place where things happened and as a model for how discussion and community should work on the web; the comments system below this post owes its existence, in many ways, to the WELL. The site’s ethos was one of open access and general personal freedom mixed with more than a slight whiff of hippiedom: it was a meeting place for Deadheads, and was titularly and organizationally linked to the Whole Earth Catalog.

Did you ever possess a print edition of the Whole Earth Catalog? If so, you are probably over the age of 30! For those unfamiliar, think of it as a sort of a print-edition Etsy for left-wing survivalists—or like a Michael’s for people who wanted to make geodesic domes and/or ham radios. It was, as you might expect, a popular item in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Vermont, and Humboldt County, and in communes, co-ops, and electronics-filled garages everywhere. The Catalog’s first edition, in 1969, began with a mini-manifesto, declaring:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.

“Power of the individual” is a fine idea when applied within the context of something like Drop City, the legendary Colorado commune that Catalog and WELL founder Stewart Brand used as an inspiration for his ideas about community. It might even work on a small, isolated web community—the WELL only had a few thousand members at its height, and coexisted not with open, linked forums but with other closed communities like AOL or BBSs. But applied to an internet that is no longer a like-minded community with shared values, it means something else entirely. What happens when this countercultural ethos becomes less counter and more the culture itself?

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We’re accustomed to thinking of the internet as being a neutral place, a blank sheet upon which we are free to write and do whatever we desire, whether liberal or conservative, corporate or anarchist, commercial or free. The internet is just a tool, and it is up to us what we do with it. But tools are not neutral. In a great book called Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (2004), Alexander Galloway argues that the values of a tool are not only determined by the people using it. They are also embedded in the tool’s design, and shape the way it is used. In the case of the internet, this control is embedded in its basic functions (TCP/IP, domain names) as well as later developments in web and app design. The development of the internet and of web culture, in other words, partially determines how it is used.

What does that development look like? We can draw a line from the San Francisco hippie culture that inspired the Whole Earth Catalog through to the WELL and to the online discussion boards and social media on which we talk, organize, and produce online. But in the course of that movement, something changed: the people living off the land all of a sudden got a lot of money. And once a company changed from that scrappy, personable startup or nonprofit venture to a profit-seeking enterprise, all those nice ideas about serving users often go out the window in favor of a nigh-irresistible economic imperative.

In 1994, a multimillionaire named Bruce Katz, who made his money selling Rockport shoes and the walking lifestyle, finalized his purchase of the WELL, paying almost a million dollars for the service. A WELL member since 1989, he nevertheless set out to turn it into a thriving business, proposing satellite WELLs, enlarging the membership base, and changing the forum’s software without consulting with the members. He also fired the existing general manager, a longtime member with the login “mo.” The users revolted. Katz backed off, and instead attempted to monetize the company through other ventures. The community splintered. Katz’s stance was that he couldn’t possibly do the wrong thing—after all, he was a hippie like the rest of the WELL’s members. “The fact is that in 1969 I came out here and I lived in the Haight in my truck,” he told Wired in 1997. “I lived in Berkeley. I went to all the rock festivals. I took all the same drugs. So I kind of felt like these were my people.”

By the logic of protocol, we’re now assuming that everyone is “my people.” The WELL’s linear comment system and persistent logins became the models used by media websites everywhere. John Coate, a WELL member, ported the system over to The Gate, the online presence of the two major San Francisco daily paper, and that was the first online newspaper to offer public forums. If Galloway is right, then he also ported over the WELL’s values. Members had to register with their real name and pay for access, and had a persistent login id that was always displayed next to their posts. This individual, persistent identity was strongly linked to those comments: you could remove a post yourself, but it would leave a notification that you had done so. Founder Stewart Brand’s saying “You own your own words” signaled that regulation was to be avoided in favor of personal responsibility.

Those values might work for a community like the WELL, but they don’t necessarily scale. The principles that “you own your own words” and that anyone should be allowed to speak are great, but in practice they’ve slipped into a blanket denunciation of any attempt to restrict content or access, even when to not do so is demonstrably harmful and exclusionary. On the WELL, you could delete your own post, but it would leave a marker that you had done so. As a value, the feature communicates that an incredibly offensive post is less worthy of notice than someone altering content. It makes it easier to say anything you want than to change your mind. Self-responsibility carries with it the assumption that everyone has an equal opportunity, and that loosing restrictions will let the best rise to the top. But that’s not really how the world works. Some pigs are more equal than others.

And so the values curdled. You must pay for access, one way or another: the WELL asked for cash money, the modern web asks for ad attention, tracking, and targeting. The idea of having a persistent identity trackable across forums—the WELL allowed you to see a user’s posts in different discussions, the modern web allows your activities to be traced from website to website—makes it nearly impossible to hide without devoting a large amount of time and attention to doing so. And hiding is important. For civil rights to exist requires a private sphere, an ability to shield a part of your life from public view. The web’s desire to expose everything about users (and nothing about corporations) opposes the privacy rights that lie at the heart of individual liberties. The innocent have nothing to fear from surveillance, and the meritorious have nothing to fear from brutal competition. In short, by moving from an openly expressed ideology up for debate (endless, endless debate) to a background ideology, that utopian hippie ethos soured into something that looks a lot more like social Darwinism.

If you’ve spent any time around the comment sections of political blogs (which, sorry!), you know that they’re frequented by a lot of people boosting Ron Paul or calling for drug legalization. We tend to think that the problem is that those people are libertarian. But Galloway’s argument suggests another possibility. It’s not that a lot of people on the internet are libertarian. It’s that the political ideology of the internet itself is, in some deep way, libertarian.

But it’s a strange kind of libertarian. The individualist freedom that inspired the Whole Earth Catalog, as exemplified in California communes like Drop City, has become the individualist capitalism as embodied in someone like Steve Jobs. It doesn’t seem to involve many of the things we’ve come to associate that Californian left with—things like social justice, pacifism, and equality. Instead, we get a lot of shockingly high-minded rhetoric about innovation and the internet’s magical ability to fix everything if just left alone. The ideology of the internet advocates throwing all the resources we can at those few people and companies that succeed, and telling everyone else “you’re on your own.” Maybe if you’re lucky, a video will go viral and you’ll get a few hundred thousand dollars in donations. Otherwise—well, I guess you just didn’t innovate hard enough.

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This ethos of personal freedom coexists with a digital environment dominated by huge, multinational, oligopolistic corporations: Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. That they use their power to manipulate users for their own gain is unquestioned. What the ideology of the internet allows is for that manipulation to be seen as in our interest. What’s communicated by open standards and cooperative development is that the best thing will win out, and that innovators must be allowed to continue to innovate—which is to say that our objections to the actions of the powerful are simply an expression of an erroneous preference for lesser options. The internet has been so built up rhetorically that it has approached utopian status itself, a commune that never ends. Any problems will be solved, generally by users spontaneously getting together to fix it and then dispersing. We spend a lot of time concentrating on the instances when that did happen. We don’t generally pay attention to all the times when it didn’t.

The internet has chosen, time and time again, efficient corporate power over any form of (visible) state control. The government can’t regulate what kind of content is available, but Apple can. The government can’t impose a universal identification system on the web, but Facebook or Google can. We do this because those corporations have been very good at convincing us they’re not those sort of corporations. They’re different. That Steve Jobs was able to convince well-meaning liberals that buying a tablet from one of the biggest multinational corporations in the world was an act of moral daring is certainly an impressive achievement, though I don’t know if it’s an admirable one. The rhetoric of the corporations mingles with the rhetoric of the users, because of course those corporations just want to do right by the users, don’t they? The economic theories of Clayton Christensen are pervasive among tech companies, and one of the things they dictate is that any successful innovator will be opposed by representatives of the status quo, who will complain about this new way. It’s a fancy way of saying “hi hater,” but it’s insidious: any criticism becomes evidence that your strategy is a good one.

This is not to argue that the internet is bad, though it would be great if we stopped thinking the internet is entirely and always good. Rather, it’s to suggest that if you are the kind of reader who thinks the government is, generally speaking, better than corporations, we might apply that to the internet as rigorously as we do the offline world. Governments in China, Pakistan, Egypt, and sure, even America have intruded on our legitimate rights online, but that doesn’t mean governments are inherently hostile to online activity. It just means we need to work harder to make sure those decisions are responsible and just. We’ve been trained to think the government is bad online, because it designs shitty websites, whereas tech startups are good, because they design nice websites. But maybe usability isn’t actually a marker of moral worth. We used to be against a labor arrangement where the workers (us!) identified more strongly with management (tech companies!) than with each other, but that’s what we’re encouraged to do online: libertarianism for you, oligopoly for us. We used to think that strong, persistent collective organizations dedicated to protecting our rights were the best way to ensure we weren’t trampled on by moneyed interests. Now we think everything will be OK if we flip out on Twitter en masse, or change the background color of our avatar. That’s fine for now, but if the internet really is becoming a central part of our lives and a place where we conduct our most important activities, then maybe we should have the same protections there as we do when we’re not on our computers.

John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a WELL participant (it’s where the EFF founders all met), legendarily once said, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Again, a nice idea! The problem is its implication: anything not routed around is therefore not censorship. If a thing on the internet is successful, by that metric of meritocracy, it must not be bad. Pangloss would be proud. But as a person on the internet, I certainly think this way sometimes! Don’t you? You spend all day interacting with (and on, and through) the WELL’s descendants, and you start to assume such triumphalist epigrams are right. And sometimes they are. But the utopian individualism that lies at the root of our online tools is an expression of a particular political ideology, one that you might not agree with. If you don’t, it’s important to be aware of when you’re confusing the (material, solid) structure of the internet for the (contestable, provisional) belief system that underlies it. The tool shapes the user too. How has it shaped you?


Related: Free The Network


Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.