But what’s the alternative?

SPOILER ALERT: I don’t know


The Techlection ought to mark an inflection point in our current technological moment. The election itself, however, might be viewed with history as only the break point: the point at which we’re shocked from a submissive stupor. A stupor largely marked by complacency, by going along to get along, by the unavoidable binary nature of our decision. We may um and ah over a privacy policy here, over a poor design decision there, about a feature lost for a worse feature gained, over the constant erosion of technologies that once stole our hearts but our decision to continue using razes the landscape of nuance. That we continue to use and continue to buy is all that matters. We give our seal of approval with each app install, each authentication, each subscription fee.

This all lends itself pretty well to talking doom and gloom. And we need to. We need to talk about MacBook Pros not for professionals, about subscription services that have dangerously snuck into positions of cultural authority, about social media that can arguably sway elections. Now, the possibilities of technological solutions to technological problems are endless. Any one person can build their own computer, can read old issues of Cahiers du Cinema to learn about movies, and can host IRC channels and forums from their own servers for their group of friends. And that’s just one set of solutions. But these and most of those endless solutions aren’t going to cut it. They’re too nerdy, too involved, or simply too resource intensive for most to bother with. “Systematic change” is what we need, right?

It’s easy to tip toward the direction of early web anarchism in this line of thinking, toward discussion of open standards and open source, laced with techno-utopianism. So it’s fitting that an early treatise in that vein would prove useful here. Writing in 1996, John Perry Barlow outlined A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, one that was motivated specifically with asserting the relative openness and freedom those in cyberspace enjoy(ed?) in contrast to the rigidity of sovereignty inherent in nation states. Barlow, addressing such sovereign powers directly, writes:

“We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies.”

Twenty years later, these once stirring words feel hollowed by the reality. Even if — leaving the NSA and Prism aside — we have largely avoided the influence of national sovereignty online, we have wilfully given our consent time and again to the corporate sovereignty of Big Tech. We can no longer declare our virtual selves immune to sovereignty with very much conviction at all.

The freedom of cyberspatial anonymity has largely been surrendered to real-name identification that cemented as a norm with Facebook. The promises of file sharing, of obtaining almost any piece of media — film, music, tv — humanity has every digitised, have fallen flat. Somehow we’ve allowed it to be okay that the two dominant music streaming services in Apple Music and Spotify both share around 30 million songs, a 30 million that might as well be all music that has ever been released as far as we as users are concerned. And even though this industry was built by people breaking machines and building them better, we seem every day less empowered to do so with the machines we spend thousands of dollars on. As Cliff Kuang writes in Fast Company:

“Why isn’t it easier for all of us to peer under the hood of an algorithm, much as in a previous era we might have tinkered with our cars?”

The sovereign states of the third millennium govern unreal estate and we have long surrendered the immunity of our virtual selves to them. (And here I was thinking I was done with this novel…) And above all, we permitted cyberspace to be remade by them. The fact an alternative habit set doesn’t spring naturally to mind indicates that I simply don’t know if there is anywhere else anyone of us can go.

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