9.5 Theses toward Internet Reformation: An Anti-Manifesto

Almost half a millennium ago, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences critiquing a broad and powerful institution that had, in his view, distorted then contemporary social life. Like Luther, we — a few digital media scholars and technology critics (see acknowledgements below)— too have invested our lives in something we want at times to believe in, cannot always bring ourselves to do so, and therefore seek to critique and reform: the internet. (The separation between indulgence and internet is not great.) What follows then are a few provisional intellectual gambits offered in the spirit of an anti-manifesto, an epistemologically modest statement of what we do not know, what we think we do know, and what we seek to critique about the uneasy power and efficacy of the internet, a critical tradition dating back to technorealism, among many others before. Genuine network reformation will require far more than 95 theses gathered from many more voices.

1. We the people online do not yet know who we are. It is clear that we must govern ourselves better, although it is not yet clear how to, or who will, do so. We do not know the worlds contained in the World Wide Web — nor can anyone claim in good faith to know the legions we contain.

2. Once upon a time many of us thought the internet was a good thing. We were wrong. The internet is not a good thing; nor is it a bad thing; in fact it is not a thing at all. It is many things. We declare there is no such thing as the internet, or at least we may say there is no single internet. There are and will be many more internets. (And yes, Al Gore did help build parts of them and yes, George W. Bush accidentally did popularize the term “internets,” however misplaced both appear in popular memory today.) Perhaps “singularity” talk feels so 1990s-ish today simply because that was the only decade (if ever) the internet appeared in the singular.

3. The experience of the world online is the most recent chapter in neoliberalism, and we are failing to account for the costs of that political economic system. Both our languages for operating in as well as our business models for organizing that system are not sustainable. Clickbait and advertising will not and cannot pay for it all. There is no natural or inevitable reason that business or policy solutions necessarily exist to the considerable access, censorship, class, cultural, environmental, gender, power, privacy, race, security, silo, and other problems in our online worlds. There is in fact nothing natural or inevitable about life online or off.

4. “Bit” from “it.” Cyberspace is made of atoms and atoms precede bits. The information physicist John Wheeler once declared “it from bit” to suggest that matter (“it”) rests on quantum bits. By reversing the aphorism, we emphasize the online world cannot be separated from the very material universe it inhabits. The virtual exists courtesy of matter, and our demands on it continue to reshape the face of the earth: in the name of the internet, mountains are being razed, rivers displaced, rockets launched, coal burned, oceans crossed, and bodies bent and burdened. The phrase “media environment” is a redundancy: media have always been material environments, although not until recently has the big picture become clearer. Whatever they are, the internets are not virtual.

5. Our modern lot is to live in society with machines. It is high time we learned how to do so. Here are two endpoints from which to begin thinking about humans, society, and machines: first, machines are already people. The modern world is all about people in the sense that every machine is already the product and extension of human senses, knowledge, and industry. Second, people are already machines: the modern world is all about machines in the sense that social and technical systems have always enabled and constrained human action. These approaches do not necessarily contradict one another. We all are at different times and places both cogs and cognizant actors in the social machinery of modernity. (Much the same can and has been said about the supposed animal-human divide as well.) However we think about it, humans build what we know and we are. There is perhaps nothing more human than artifice.

6. What we currently call “the internet” stands as synecdoche for a longer media revolution and its discontents. The current media environment may very well be about access. Its potentials — moving data from point A to B, surfacing new voices, forming niche interest groups, punctuating our attention with links, etc. — are often the potentials of access, and so too are its problems — surveillance, spam, bullying, etc. — the problems of access and its threats — censorship, discriminatory pricing, gatekeeping, copyright overreach, etc. — are also threats to access. Or it may be about still other things: the scaling of data, self-organizing forces, time-axis manipulation, moving images, etc. Perhaps the most certain thing about the longue durée of the current media revolution will be no different than that of previous revolutions: new media will bring significant consequences about which there will not be — and perhaps especially online cannot be — consensus until well after the new is no longer new. Meanwhile, much that has always mattered — matter, bodies, ethics, ideas, institutions, civilian empowerment — will continue to matter, no matter how implausibly nightmarish or fantastic our imaginations of the networked future may roam.

7. We must also improve how we talk about our situation. The term internet (like other collective things) is both unlike and like everything else. The language and metaphors used to describe activity online and off has to date and will continue to fall short. Sometimes, unclear metaphors are the problem: data are not capital, computers are not minds, and cyberspace is no space at all. For those with access to it, the net has no edge and the distinction between “offline” and “online” clouds over more than it reveals. At other times, clear language too can be the problem, when institutions use it to exacerbate already existing power differentials in society. The rich will grow richer at the expense of others so long as the language of the internets (law, code, etc.) primarily serves their interests: consider, for example, how the term keywords, a general marker of culture and political economy, now primarily serves digital marketers and search engine optimizers online. There does not yet exist a language sufficient to account for the costs, capacities, and consequences of our networked world.

8. Perhaps no initial task is as consequential as the questions we ask and how we formulate them. We have never had so much to learn, and the costs of not learning and imagining more have never been so high: What will come after the internet? How can we best prepare for that future? How can we repair what is broken now? How, if at all, can modern networked societies flourish without surveillance, states, or capitalism? How does democracy actually work: how could it work, not in theoretic flourishes of digital democracy punditry, but in actual real life practice? What can be automated, and will and should it be? What can be informated, and will and should it be? What, if not everything, is worth preserving? What are the costs of archiving the past and of surveilling the present, and how, if at all, are those activities different? How and who should account for and regulate the work of complex systems, including algorithms? Which business models, policy platforms, and education programs will prove the most sustainable, enforceable, and beneficial for the current world? What might be a workable vocabulary for addressing and working through these questions? How did the current vocabulary for the same come to be and what are its consequences? Who will decide? How we will decide that question? How will “we” include and exclude? Who benefits from asking and addressing these questions, and why?

9. We have also never known so much as we do now, and the benefits of what we have learned and can learn have never been so great. Perhaps the shortest story of the observable universe — ranging from a nanosecond after the big bang through the evolving solar, stellar, planetary, biological, agricultural, literate, industrial, and now information chapters of history — is that of the uneven accumulation and concentration of power and knowledge resources. The internet has not reversed that trend; if anything it has helped both spread knowledge resources as well as accelerate the attending power differentials. What we do with that power and knowledge — which theses we postulate and pursue, and how — is perhaps the pressing question for those with the will to do something about it.

9.5 Now is the time for reform, even if that means nothing more than trying to be clear about what we do not yet know and what we must learn and do. Nothing will necessarily change unless we shoulder the responsibility to dispute and reform that which does not best serve the people and the earth we inhabit: perhaps the only guarantee on the path forward is that, without hard questions, there are no guarantees. Which theses, hypotheses, contentions, and questions must be raised, and why do they matter?

Add your own theses, and continue the conversation here or elsewhere.

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Tweet at Ben Peters, a media scholar and the primary author of this statement, at @bjpeters. More on his work here.

Acknowledgements: this statement emerged out of a conversation with a small group of scholars in the orbit of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, all of whom are to be thanked for any good points and absolved of responsibility for any errors: Amar Ashar, Matthew Battles, Peter Galison, Tarleton Gillespie, Tim Maly, Peter McMurray, Charles Nesson, Doc Searls, Clay Shirky, Shailin Thomas, Sara M. Watson, David Weinberger, Jonathan Zittrain, and Shoshana Zuboff.

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