The Internet May Not Set You Free


One of the bedrock principles of digital-age utopianism is that the Internet, if left unfettered by pesky rules, will make people free. Encoded into the rhetoric of what I’ll call a post-progressive notion of liberty are recurring themes that reject legal systems, reject statehood, reject private property ownership; and espouse a world view based on the assumption that people interconnected by social media will naturally evolve into a freer and more enlightened existence.

Citizens living within presently authoritarian societies are expected to transcend their political, social, and even religious bonds. And as James Poulos observes in this article for The Daily Beast, the next generation in the already free United States are redefining liberty itself from an idea manifest through private property into one manifest by access without ownership. This last proposal about the future does have a disturbingly and naively Marxist aroma, but I’ll return to that because, in the present, the underlying faith in these utopian visions is what appears to fuel many defenses of permission-free behaviors online. And permission-free behavior isn’t necessarily freedom because it almost always tramples the rights of someone else.

In the physical world, of course, we still intuitively understand natural laws that define the boundaries of freedom; or at least most of us do. As I sit here in my local coffee house, I am certainly free to read what I want, to think what I want, to publish what I want on this blog; I am free to drink too much coffee even though it’s bad for me, and I am free to come go as I please. But I am certainly not free to pester the woman at the table next to me. I may not lean over her shoulder and see what she’s writing or take a bite of her sandwich or sit in her lap. In real life, freedom has rational limits, defined by the boundaries imposed by the natural rights of others.

But in cyberspace, we see these boundaries breeched all the time, though the techno-utopian tells us this is good thing because the greater social order they project is one in which people ultimately do the “right thing” because they want to, not because some rule tells them to. It’s funny, though, that such altruism tends to govern behavior in physical space but not so much online. And unfortunately, online behaviors have some very real world consequences.

Variations on the value of lawlessness have been presented by managers of major social media sites, often as public responses to some activity on their sites that has provoked a call for executive intervention. On the grounds that everything online is speech and speech needs to be free, for instance, Twitter was slow to intervene when a British journalist was receiving death and rape threats; Facebook took a bipolar approach to first disallowing, then allowing, and then again reversing its decision to host a video of a beheading; and recently, Reddit applied a similarly half-baked, laissez faire logic in dragging its feet on the removal of a thread trading in the stolen, nude photos of celebrities. Reddit even issued a statement, after finally removing that thread, describing the site as a “nation” and espousing the American conservative tenet that their governance should be as limited as possible.

I mocked Reddit for the metaphor, but they weren’t necessarily speaking figuratively. This attitude that a cybernetic, borderless collective of human consciousness actually transcends systems like the rule of law as defined by a state is a very real argument made in one form or another by people as obscure as onanistic Redditors and as prominent as Google chairman Eric Schmidt. It’s an idea that has been part of the Silicon Valley ethos since its earliest days, as far as I can tell, and the sensibility itself appears to be something more profound than the accepted premise that information is a tool for democracy.

The subtle but important distinction, it seems, is that while many of us see the Internet as a conduit for information or entertainment, only as good or bad as the people using it, the utopian sees the technology itself as a social panacea simply by virtue of its own existence. In a more extreme but not at all surprising manifestation (see below), there are those who view the Internet as a deity.

I was thinking about these utopian ideas while reading Sergey Kuznetsov’s article about the demise of Russians’ faith in the Internet as a catalyst for their freedom. Russia, I believe, is a cautionary tale about what a society might look like when apparent freedom is not in fact built upon the rule of law. Its “market economy” is a euphemism for universal corruption where bribery is the norm; its corporate leaders are mobsters; and its political leaders are marching inexorably back toward their Soviet roots, squelching dissent at every opportunity. Unsurprisingly, according to Kuznetsov, the Internet in Russia, not only fails to transcend these repressive forces, but it has come to resemble Russian society as it is on the streets.  To quote:

Two decades later and it’s hard to find the traces of our belief in the Russian Internet. The only thing we inherited from the nineties and the Samizdat are the torrents and e-libraries. Copyright is dead: almost any film and any book can be downloaded for free after a five minute search. The film distributors have to make arrangements with pirates about “two week vacancies” after theatre premieres, but the small publishers are just bankrupt. . . . I’m not sure it’s the great result we dreamt in early years of the Internet.

. . . the secret service spying (not only in Russia), mailbox hacking, the blocking of anti-Putin sites… the Kremlin controls the majority of online media in Russia . . .

However the worst is the old good propaganda. Surprise! – It still works! There are dozens of comments on any political post. The commentators write about the wisdom of Putin, the increasing Russian economy and the greedy and guileful United States who dreams to destroy Russia and conquest their territory before a San-Andreas earthquake or Yellowstone explosion ruins their country.

I’ve said it in other posts, but there is a world of difference between freedom and a free-for-all. Russia is what ultimately comes from a free-for-all — a society where bullies dominate and everyone else can fend for himself. It’s a society where I could pester this woman sitting nearby in the coffee shop and get away with it if I happen to be one of the card-carrying bullies. It is interesting, though, with regard to Poulos’s point about young Americans redefining liberty absent the pursuit of private property, to look at a nation where the application of that Marxist principle led first to party/government authoritarianism and then to pure corruption in a state of half-baked democratic reform.

Moreover, there is an extent to which the Internet, whose corporate owners praise its lawlessness and treat private intellectual property as an anachronism, often resembles a bully society. The laughable Nation of Reddit ceases to be a joke and becomes manifest in the form of mob rule with real social influence. The mob tells a handful of women, “No, we have the right to make a profitable spectacle out of your hacked photos,” and people debate the issue as though there are rationally two sides of the story. Or perhaps the mob rouses rabble into tangibly influencing our political process, even though the mob may actually comprise teenagers and half-frozen, bored Norwegians, neither of which are entitled to vote and for good reason. Lawlessness is Lord of Flies, even in cyberspace. And speaking of Lord of the Flies, I offer this quote from a recent article in The Guardian by Mark Piesing:

Burning Man, and spin offs including Burning Nest in the UK, show that digital natives under 25 now see “the online world as the real world and the real world as a reflection of the online world,” says Bard.

The article is about Alexander Bard, a Swedish musician, activist, and celebrity who recently published his book Synthesism – Creating God in the Internet Age. The premise appears to be that the aforementioned collective consciousness fostered by the Internet not only transcends notions of statehood and the rule of law, but actually becomes a new, universally binding spiritual entity.

For context, I should remind readers that I am personally a confirmed and lifelong atheist, equally cynical about all religions and cannot actually relate to the need for such things, though I am not universally hostile toward that need. I stand by the intellectual premise that man has created God in his image, in one form or another, and this seems to be a foundation for Bard’s Synthesism — not so much that the Internet is God, but that the human need to create a holy presence is now manifesting in a new, global religion as we link together through technology. “The internet is 7 billion people connected together in real time,” says Bard, “and if that isn’t the holy spirit then I don’t know what it is.” Note: seven billion people do not presently have internet connection. Chinese citizens represent the most people online worldwide with 40% of that population of about 1.3 billion connected.

Piesing’s article states that Bard had his revelation at Burning Man “while spending the night lying next to a beautiful naked actress . . . I realised that rather than carry on writing books about the problems the internet was causing I should write about Syntheism.” Of course he did.

Prophesies, naked actresses, and neo-primitive rituals notwithstanding, if Bard’s observation is right that digital natives are in fact inverting their perception of the real world and the cyber world, then it would stand to reason that the real world would come to reflect the cyber world, and that may be rather hazardous both economically and socially. As tech-utopians seek to tear down what may be actual walls of oppression, they may blindly migrate into new castles made of unprecedented corporate power and the economy of mob rule. Because despite claims to the contrary — and as Russia proves — the Internet isn’t necessarily us so much as it can become the us its owners choose to project or even manipulate. Even Facebook’s constant reprogramming of the news feed its algorithms decide we “really want to see” is a subtle example of this paradigm.

In all likelihood, I suspect many digital natives are not quite so susceptible to the more outlandish promises of these utopian views as we sometimes imagine. Yes, across the room in my local coffee house, sit three teenagers, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes on their devices, thumbs working; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to grow up incapable of distinguishing between real life and these information gadgets. To the contrary, there is perhaps just as much reason to expect that digital natives are so accustomed to this universe that they will be even more savvy than their Xer and Boomer parents when it comes to finding balance. It isn’t really a new challenge in the U.S. American history is lined with fissures caused by the natural tension between freedom and laws designed to protect those freedoms. And yes the Internet is a new frontier still unsettled in this regard. If, on the other hand, it turns out the Internet is going to be the new God, I am reasonably sure it would be an Old Testament, psychopathic God, so let’s try to avoid that, shall we?

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