Do We Really Require
a Revolution on the Internet?
The thing with the Internet, this thing that isn't a thing, is that we continue to be surprised by what it portends. There are basically three groups of us: those who have become reactionaries against it, others who blindly sing its praises, and then there's the rest of us somewhere in between. I place myself in the third camp.
Today's technology is not a binary phenomenon, even if motherboards work with zeros and ones. Technology is a tool, and humans use tools to build things, and even things that are not exactly things, like the Internet. How we design, make, use, repurpose, or discard the tools we develop is up to us and not some invisible hand of fate. Technology is not inevitable. Like all technologies that have come before, there are inter-dependencies intricately tied to other areas where we live our lives. There are continuities, nuances, contingencies. Contexts.
Just as with all technology of the past, we anticipated that the Internet would change our lives, but could not fathomed how much. In this second decade of the 21st Century, we didn't know that advertisers would use the Internet to scope out data targets, or that terrorists would use the Internet to scope out geographical targets, or that the US Government would use it to scope out surveillance targets. In all three cases, the targets are us. How do we feel about that?
If we want to believe it, the "nefarious they" want to metaphorically chop off our heads by way of scrutinizing how we think and coercing the pathways of our thought in ways we have not chosen. Understandably this is upsetting. Even if they can't succeed in their objectives, the idea is appalling that Big Brother believes that our hearts and minds can be manipulated and controlled by our online interactions, as if the only parts that count about us are the aspects of us reflected by our online activity.
I am not a Facebook account (I don't have one). I am not my Twitter feed (though I have one). The data points in my life will tell you as much about me as my hair follicles, or my kindergarten class picture. It's not that I don't desire privacy. I do. It's just that any conclusion derived from my data points is only speculation because it leaves a lot out. Furthermore, I change.
Do I not exist if I don't sign onto Twitter ever again?
However, rather than keep a cool head and reflect how fruitless it is for reductive statisticians to analyze our behavior by farming data in order to determine our identities, there are sundry gadflies who object to technological developments wholesale. It is as if they hope to turn back the clock and put the Internet into the bin. Such reactionaries apparently desire the same with computers, cellphones, or other gadgetry. Their alarm over the capitalistic Godzilla they believe is lurching through our cities to pry open new markets with "disruptive" technology is coupled by a belief the monster can be easily stopped by making churlish posts on Twitter.
The irony of using technology to deny it is tremendous.
Do I detract from my own credibility and integrity by using this newish tool called Tackk for this essay? The tool is designed to aid human expression. This allows me to communicate meaningfully to you as a reader, regardless of whether you agree with me. There is 40 years or more of technology behind this tool and maybe even millions of years of human evolution too. A tool doesn't come into being from thin air. It requires a culture, a history, a society, a language. It requires a village full of intent.
I believe in tools (as tools) for the same reason I believe in the power of the Internet as a force to do more good than harm, if only because I want it to do good. This does not mean I am blind to the harm technology can do. But it's not technology who does the harm. It's the people using it who do the harm. Guns don't kill people. People who use guns to kill people kill people. I don't exactly wish to live around gun owners, but I can't do much about the fact that such people exist. Unless I want to kill them. More on that later.
I'm interested in influencing the course of the development of the Internet by participating in it and not sitting in front of my computer like a disdainfully humorless armchair philosopher who reads hyper-critical discourse now over 20 years old. It's far more productive to learn about what is going right with the Internet by using it. That way I'm informed. If there's something to criticize, I am free to propose a possible solution above and beyond protesting its shortcomings.
Using computer technology to deny it reminds me when a few years back the Democrats tried to co-op the term "tax relief," that linguistic frame that Republicans created to make us think that taxes were a burden and not an investment in our national infrastructure (which they are, an investment, that is). The reason "tax relief" succeeded in crippling our government is because the Republicans didn't use the phrase "tax burden," its implied negative Siamese twin.
They didn't promote what they were against, but what they were for.
Suddenly Democrats were herded into a box canyon to their own ideological slaughter, because an attempt to deny their past branding as "government spendthrifts" only made them sound like hypocrites (which they were).
This was a most successful use of language and could confuse any person out of a belief in taxes as investment for the common good. But then again, consider the Internet. It was funded by taxpayers. Is there nothing good about that?
I confess that right now I'm not really sure the point of this essay except to say it is in reaction to someone I find very negative, even bigoted, about technology. This essay has been a challenge to write while attempting to contemplate my integrity.
In general, one of my motivations to write is to understand how I feel and how I think and how these parts of myself exist together. Writing is a form of distributed cognition, and so is reading. Reading and writing are my methods to externalize my thinking.
Maybe you will find something about my deliberations to be worthwhile. If so, I am glad. Writing is one way I like to keep myself open to examine my inner contradictions and to search for balance, if only to keep my integrity intact and well-maintained. I'm aware I fail at times, but I'm OK with that. I keep trying, that's all that counts to me.
Perhaps I am being negative by objecting to those who are reactionary against technology. However, isn't everything technology? Even a stick or a stone? And can't they break bones too? We can parse various words and definitions, but as humans who use tools, we'll always be subject to technology in some manner. We are also subject to hunger, disease, injury, and death too. There is no escaping these circumstances, and this has nothing to do with futile resistance á la Borg. These challenges are perennial. They don't just go away. They are managed in the present moment much the way you deal with your hunger, your health, your income, or your relationships with the ones you love.
I am not someone who is a cheerleader for gadgets, but I don't think the end of the world is near because of the Foxconn stain on Apple's manufacturing practices. The negative press against Apple a few years ago did make me queasy about owning an Apple device. It's true that had I known about these questionable labor practices before I made my purchase I may have gone with a competitor, but would it have made much difference? Better that the bad press happened to Apple if only because they were given an opportunity to do better. Apple, the company that gave us a vision to Think Different now has the opportunity to Do Different.
The jury is out if Apple has the corporate leadership to do the right thing, including paying their share of taxes. In the end, corporations are made up of people doing what they will, making grievous mistakes much like anyone else. We can hold Apple accountable to do better and maybe it doesn't happen right away, but I think it will eventually. That's just the way life works in a democracy, and in society in general. You can't fool all the people all the time.
While I appreciate the original Luddites, who had real grievances, such as not being able to feed their families, I find being reactionary and branding oneself a Luddite today a bit unrealistic and even perverse. Is this a fashion statement or a viable political position? Perhaps such labels aid in finding others who already side with you. As far as real change goes however, how does speaking to one's own tribe make the world a better place? I suppose speaking to one's own tribe does provide a sense of belonging, something that is in short supply in modern American interactions, which is likely what makes Twitter and Facebook so popular.
Still, how does speaking to one's own tribe create real change if one can only speak to those who are already in agreement? Objecting to the Internet and its accompanying technologies is like objecting to telephones in the early 1900's. If you don't want to use a telephone then hangup, even if it's for you.
We seem to grapple with a fallacy that the world is here to make us happy. We believe that it should, but actually the world just is. We do what we do to get by. If we are fortunate, we are given what we require to do that. So I try to be grateful for what I have rather than what I don't have. I try to be awake to the lessons in front of me today, right now, which is how do I deal with negative people without becoming like them? Or better, how do I deal with my own negativity?
What am I writing about? I suppose it would have to be that saying NO doesn't get anyone as far as saying YES. What I mean by that is that being for something is far better than being against its opposite.
Is it about seeking my place in the world by seeking a false harmony? Am I tone-policing? Doesn't what I mean have more to do with carrying whatever message that exists in its independent space rather than within the negation of someone else's message? Two wrongs don't make a right, and yet we seem to be surprised when the equation adds up that way.
Given that the world is wide, if I don't like the place I am, must I find a tribe where I can be in harmony? Or is learning to balance discomfort in myself a better exercise in fairness? Manifesting my identity through tearing others down is not productive. At the same time, being empathetic does not make me an apologist. I can begin to understand others only if I walk a mile in their shoes.
Furthermore, even though I have an opinion and a right to an opinion and I have a 1st-Amendment upbringing to know that you also have the right to one too, I understand that objecting to the existence of people and what they want to do in their lives simply doesn't work. What works even less is criticizing someone's culture. All that does is create enemies. We must respect the freedom of others with as much force as we desire respect for our own freedom. Whether we like it or not, the Internet is embedded in our culture. There are digital natives.
For the more optimistic among us, let's begin by using the Internet to heal what ails us.
If server farms use too much power, then make servers that use less energy. If keyboards cause carpal tunnel, make them less stressful to use. If I work for the NSA and don't like the spying on citizens... well, you know the story on that. Snowden didn't want to bring down the US Government, as much as those who vehemently profess his treason wish us to believe. He wanted us to be free to debate the facts. Now we are and that's happening over the Internet.
There are people working against planned obsolescence by creating operating systems that are not proprietary and don't belong to a corporation. In more positive language, it's free.
I've heard that Linux can be installed on a toaster. I'm not technically conversant enough to know what that means exactly, but it might be a good thing, not because I require an operating system on my toaster at the moment, but because I can recognize the memory required is so nominal that computers can have a longer life to do basic computing work. The consequences are that I need not purchase a brand new computer as frequently as before. I like the idea of upgrading incrementally by parts than by entire devices, sort of daisy-chaining my technological needs with my financial constraints.
In any case, free software as manifested in the FOSS movement is a particular kind of technological development that can translate into less demand for toxic manufacturing processes and other pollution generated by mass production. There are no silver bullets to slay monsters by the light of the moon. I suggest instead that solutions to challenges like toxic manufacturing processes are likely not linear, nor expedient. They are slow. They are deliberate. They are piecemeal.
Today, computers are powerful enough and inexpensive enough that doing basic work normally considered CPU intensive in the not-so-distant past is now far, far less intensive and we hope less expensive and, yes, even less polluting. The day may come when a computer could be as simple as a toaster. Perhaps I could just insert updated computer parts as I might insert two pieces of bread into my trusty toaster for breakfast, and perhaps I could power it by the sun.
So it's only a matter of time before hardware and software become more simplified. Which means perhaps hardware companies should be responsible and liable for recycling their obsolete products. All we have to do to waste manage software is hit the delete button, though all those pesky install disks in the dumpster gives me guilt. Those should be recyclable too. There is nothing that says we can't as a society throw our weight behind more sustainable technologies. It will happen.
Will it be Utopia? Probably not.
Getting back to how this essay began, we are at a point in the historical development of the Internet when there are forces who wish to pervert what the Internet should be. That bothers me. But maybe this is an ongoing challenge, and maybe that's the idea we have to get used to. Maybe that's the nature of an experiment, which offers us a more-perfect Internet with each iteration. What should it be?
To my mind, the Internet should be a public service utility that is free and unfettered for every human being who wants to use it, free as the air we breathe and the roads we travel. I like the idea of the Internet being shared like Benjamin Franklin's Junto library. There's no reason it can't be. However, it's not a foregone conclusion solely because technological capability makes the possibility feasible. Today it has become matter of political will.
Despite this possibility for a free Internet, we appear to be repeating the history of the railroads in the American West. There are inventors, there are the equivalent robber barons (benefiting at the cost of everyone else), there are train robbers and outlaws (stealing from the barons) and there are thousands of homesteaders who want to eek out a meager existence by working the land to trade their wares in town, there are even city slickers who seek to make their fortunes.
The Internet and the social impact of its development upon our lives have political importance to each of us, no matter where we live. We are learning what it means to us. In this great stew of me, you, and everyone else, we will together decide where we go only by working together upon the projects we are for, not those we are against.
It is seductive to be a naysayer. It doesn't take much effort to say NO. Ask any beltway Republican, or a two-year-old. It takes more courage to take the circumstances we are given as a part of the very problem space instead of considering the problem as embedded in the mind of evildoers. Though, like Salem witch hunts, if I want to find a crazy person on the Internet to epitomize any evil I might envisage, I'll certainly find that person. This is called confirmation bias.
Despite the reactionaries, there have been people quietly and diligently doing the equivalent of carrying water buckets, to study and to learn how to design solutions in the problem space. They are proactive within the space of the current status quo rather than waiting for Godot. We can't afford to think about problems as if they are not embedded in a history, a society, a culture, regardless if we believe the situation contemptible. We can only work to do better together. There is a lot of power in collaboration still to be unleashed with regard to the Internet. I know it. I want to align myself with those who know it too.
I have defined above an ayesayer. We try to understand relationships, connections, patterns. Like a healer, we encourage homeostasis. Healers understand systems. They don't look at nature as a machine with replaceable parts, and that includes people and the minds that come with them. People are people first. People have histories, they participate in societies. Their motivations are not always evident by their behavior.
To be an ayesayer is not to be an "I-say-er." Neither is it being a denier of problems, or that what is here today will do, but that what we possess can be better and then we take action no matter how small to do something, anything, to make things better. As humans we create. We search. We experiment. We share. In time, we succeed to improve the way things are.
Furthermore, being an ayesayer is to be hopeful, optimistic. It is someone who understands that sometimes an unfinished project is not a lost cause just because it's unfinished. Or even that one failed execution doesn't make the entire project a failure.
Yes, the Internet is an unfinished project. Furthermore, the human race is yet another unfinished project. We are not a lost cause no matter how many naysayers are among us. We always have the ability to do better and we will. We must because the alternative can't be an alternative.
Part of doing better is respecting the freedom of others, even if I disagree with them, even if they are disagreeable. If I am committed to peace and to non-violence, then poking at the eyes of others not only shows my own hypocrisy, it shows where I come from, it reveals my own limited view. In the end, naysaying will eventually make me blind, to paraphrase Gandhi.
Does my discomfort in my own understanding of the speed of change mean that a revolution is required to get rid of all that ails me? Do I need to grab a gun to stop surveillance? Do I need explosives to keep the Internet free? In 18th Century France, revolution didn't work out so well. Lots of heads rolled and the Terror caused blood to glut the streets. Who cleaned up that mess, anyway?
Liberty is not a lost cause because regicide was a bug of Liberty 1.0.
Revolution, that naive approach to political impotence. It had the appearance of expediency, but it doesn't do anything but create more problems, harder problems. To advocate revolution is to advocate violence.
"Let's object to the existence to royalty and to nobility by annihilating their bodies. Let's kill our king and queen and their privileged underlings just because... well, because we have Guillotine technology. Because we can."
Something that seemed like a good idea at the time ended up not being so simple. Saying no to nobility and privilege made things far worse than employing democratic methods. It's not as if corrupt nobility outnumbered hungry commoners. Voting and other democratic processes could have worked. There was something more at stake than what could be understood at the time.
Revolution manifests from impatience coupled with the inability to communicate effectively and respectfully.
Imagine a world of no telegrams, no telephones, no typewriters, no television, no Internet. Is it any wonder why violence swept the land? No one knew what was going on until it was over. There is still ongoing discovery and analysis for true understanding concerning the birth of the modern age in 1789.
For example, we now know that the King was an earnest fellow who cared for clocks and locks because being a king was not his idea of a good time. For him, it was a major hassle. He did not want to be the Sun King, like grandpapa, Louis XIV. One might observe that leading up to the gallows, even the King of France had a problem with the class system, but wouldn't you too, were you king?
The Queen was equally a product of her class. When it was claimed she said, "Let them eat cake," she meant if there is no bread and the people are starving, then let them eat cake if that is all there is. But "having your cake and eating it too," has come to mean denying others and enjoying your spoils despite their suffering, something she never meant and something she never said. By this libel, the queen was condemned, a scapegoat, as her husband had been.
I am not a monarchist, I am for equality. Furthermore, while I am a holdout for democracy and its messy, sometimes disappointing dynamics, I abhor violence. Peaceful ways seem harder, but they ensure all of us get there.
No one likes to be told, "You should not exist." or "What you do is wrong, it's evil," even as an insinuation. Such assertions are offensive, it's unproductive, and it cannot bring desired results. So when we talk in such a way of denying the existence of a person or a class of people because our lives would be so much easier if they just didn't exist, I would say to you, are you ready to have the blood on your hands? Are you a murderer?
I ask because objecting to the existence of people and what they do when they just live their lives in the culture to which they were born is The First Step of dehumanizing others. It can seduce you into violence.
Calling for revolutionary solutions to fix complex problems can only manifest into impersonal violence. Even the Marquis de Sade knew this. He thought, if you must kill, don't use the state as your executioner's mask, use your own hands, and then you must pay the consequences. There is something psychologically clean about seeing the blood on your own hands. It makes you think deeply about who you are.
The central point is that various grave mistakes of history have transpired into huge eruptions of violence because of lack or absence of diplomacy. Diplomacy, the means of communicating what needs to be said without using cultural slurs and such like. Diplomacy is honoring that the other has valid objectives different from my own. Diplomacy requires the discipline to avoid inspiring a feeling of disrespect in the person on the receiving end of the message, even when we disagree.
Diplomacy has protocols for good reason. The structure provides a plan for an outcome, a compromise. Making snide comments about someone's culture, geography, employment, society, religion, especially if you have never been immersed in that culture, that geography, that employment, that society, that religion? It only displays ignorance. The result? No one really wants to talk to you, much less hear what you have to say. Strike that, only people like you want to talk to you, and you perpetuate an "Us vs. Them Idiots" mentality.
Clearly, I'm not immune to reactionary tendencies, but I am a big believer in karma. What goes around comes around, not if, but when. So I try to be careful what I wish for when I am caught in the crosshairs of my own indignation. I must remind myself, there are no good old days. There's just today. We don't all have to think the same way. To be free, I must give others the freedom that I desire. The consequence is that I am free of conflict knowing that you are not like me, because you don't have to be. You are free to be who you are.
Since the Internet is a tool for communication, then why not use it to communicate about what you are for rather than what you are against? Why not empower yourself with the activities for which you care so much about than preoccupy yourself with those you are against?
If you are into books and not tablets, then promote books, become a bookbinder. Get a printing press. Make some books, with your own hands. Promote your libraries and your radical notions of living off the grid, if that's what you want. If that is what you are for. Leave the urban landscape and live as do the Amish. Give up electricity and your computer. Leave the Internet behind. Forfeit your cellphone and your car. There's a lot to be admired about that, if only because you are no longer a hypocrite. You now walk the talk.
Don't complain about injustices as if you are a monarch expecting minions to do your bidding. If you care about the ill effects of technology, propose something different to make it better. Propose a change and say why you are for it. Become the architect of change for which you are waiting. Didn't Gandhi say something like that?
You see, Gandhi was not against British colonialism, he was for Indian independence. He continues to inspire. Had he been an activist against colonialism, India could not have become the largest democracy on the planet.
Be for something. Learn the ways of diplomacy. Learn how to persuade. These are peaceful ways. These days, such an approach is radical.
Relevant Links To Connect Your Dots
- Al Gore and Inventing the Internet: Who Invented "Invented"? Tracing the Real Story of the "Al Gore Invented the Internet" Hoax - Phil Agre, UCLA: Mar 31, 2000
- Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown: Social science is being militarised to develop 'operational tools' to target peaceful activists and protest movements - The Guardian: 12 June 2014
- 12 Hidden Tricks Advertisers Use to Sell You Stuff - Wired: 06.11.14
- Why Polling Fails: Republicans Couldn’t Predict Eric Cantor’s Loss
- NY Times: June 11, 2014
- Critique of Technology - Wikipedia: accessed 6.12.14
- How to Get Relief from “Tax Relief” - Frameology.org: January 28, 2014
- 1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?
- Wired Magazine: 02.28.11
- Apple, Starbucks and Fiat's tax affairs examined by European commission: Brussels says large multinationals should pay their fair share of taxes – but why have these three companies been singled out? - The Guardian: 11 June 2014
- How Mistakes Can Save Lives: One man’s mission to revolutionise the NHS
- The New Statesman: 4 June, 2014
- Taxi Drivers to Bring London to Standstill Over Uber App: Up to 12,000 black-cab drivers expected to block traffic in central London with cabbies in Europe staging similar protests - The Guardian: 11 June 2014
- Google Reveals Electricity Usage - Financial Times: September 9, 2011
- Exposing the Global Surveillance System - Originally published in Covert Action Quarterly: 1st February 1997
- Free and Open-Source Software - Wikipedia: accessed 6.11.14
- Metal Recycling Companies in Germany
- Environmental-Expert.com: accessed 6.12.14
- Benjamin Franklin's Junto Library - Wikipedia: accessed 6.11.14
- Mencius Moldbug is a Technocrat - The Ümlaut: February 10 2014
- Confirmation Bias: - Wikipedia: accessed 6.11.14
- Designing a Wired Life: - Phil Agre, UCLA: 16 December 2000 version
- Waiting for Godot: - Wikipedia: accessed 6.12.15
- November 30 WTO Showdown: There were students, labor union members, greens, farmers, religious leaders, and human rights activists
- Yes! Magazine: March 31, 2000
- Absolute Monarch of France 1774–1788: - Wikipedia: accessed 6.11.14
- Let Them Eat Cake: - Wikipedia: accessed 6.11.14
- The Marquis de Sade on Capital Punishment: Book excerpt from The Philosophy of the Marquis de Sade - Google Books: accessed 6.11.14
- The Struggle for Iraq - Diplomacy: Iraq Said to Have Tried to Reach Last-Minute Deal to Avert War - NY Times: November 6, 2003
- Mahatma Gandhi and Clean Cities: Since leaders will not lead, can citizens follow his 'Do-It-Yourself' example? - The Hindu: October 4, 2013