[Written October 2016. Available in print March 2017 in SOFA issue 2, edited by @natashalennard]
“Our world is different,” promised John Perry Barlow in his 1996 essay “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” He described a digital sovereignty that “all may enter without privilege or prejudice”, to “express his or her beliefs … without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity”, and be free of “legal concepts of property, expression, identity.” Though the breathless manifesto was long on predictions, it was conspicuously absent a definition of who exactly constituted the “our” to whom this different world belonged.
The missive — delivered, apparently without irony, from the annual meeting of this world’s economic and political elites in Davos, Switzerland — was neither the first nor last to herald the liberatory promise of a global Internet. But Barlow was a former songwriter for the Grateful Dead with a large social network, and so provided arguably the most lyrical and certainly most widely heard argument. The ethos he articulated was what critics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron had a year earlier derisively termed the “Californian Ideology”: the belief — held mainly by a small but influential group of rich, white males living in California — that global networks would unleash a new era of democratic potential, rendering industrial-era power relations irrelevant, like obsolete software. Barbrook and Cameron pointed out that this was already untrue: the businesses and research labs building the network depended on a massive underclass of low-wage, unprotected, mostly black and brown workers. They charged that the ideology’s intentional disregard of “who” in favor of “what” was a critical flaw, through which the Internet would reproduce the very same world from which it was supposed to be “different.”
But to take account of inequities rooted outside “the Net” was antithetical to the new constitution. In declaring that “[o]ur identities have no bodies”, Barlow and his cohort staked the claim that liberation sprung naturally from anonymity. If one’s ideas could be detached from one’s body, the reasoning went, then the resulting world would by necessity be race-, gender-, and status-blind. After all, doesn’t everyone look the same when reduced to text on a screen? (A premise at least plausible in the network’s earlier days, when users were largely homogenous in these characteristics.) The cyber-revolutionaries aimed to extinguish inequality simply by obscuring it.
The only threat the Californians could envision was government regulation, and this battle consumed all their attention. Barlow, raised on a Wyoming cattle ranch, saw the Internet as a stylized version of the American “wild west.” He started the “Electronic Frontier Foundation” (EFF), a non-profit dedicated to resisting laws that might tame this wilderness. They believed that a decentralized network would remain, by its sheer existence, immune to control by any one state. As EFF co-founder John Gilmore wrote, “the Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.”
What Barlow and Gilmore missed, and Barbrook and Cameron realized, was that the social fabric built over the network was itself vulnerable to consolidation, which the physical architecture had no means to prevent. Both groups turned out to be right — the Internet has become a wild west, but not the sort romanticized in Eastwood films. Instead, it more closely resembles the actual wild west, where individuals are subject to the law of ‘might makes right’, capital has free reign to violate and consolidate, and states act with violent impunity.
At the time these writers were dueling, the west had not yet been won. Most communication flowed via an anarchic mesh of discussion forums and chat groups, following protocols that eschewed any single point of control. But within a few years, this mode of free association was supplanted by a standard amenable to mediated (and monetized) transactions: the World Wide Web. On the Web, and in particular its iteration as “Web 2.0”, communications are funneled through “sites”, ports of entry that quickly became consolidated under the aegises of a handful of large, profit-making corporations.
The result is that, despite an appearance of heterogeneity, the underlying network is stunningly concentrated. On any given day, one third of web users visit a site hosted by Amazon Web Services. More than 65% of searches are served, filtered, and stored by Google, whose ranking algorithm remains secret and is, according to insiders, in no small part comprised of thousands of hand-written rules. Every day, over 60 billion messages pass through Facebook, three times as many as sent via SMS. Each year more data is being produced — and, with cheap storage and a culture of collection, preserved — than existed in all of human history before the Internet. It is thus literally true that more of humanity’s records are held by fewer people than ever before, each of whom can be — and, we now know, are — compelled to deliver those records to the state. And so the Californians’ myopia caused them to fail at even their one goal. As artist Nicole Aptekar has written, “infrastructure always beats intent.”
Abdicating responsibility for the social architecture of the Internet meant also losing the physical decentralization that so inspired early Californians. Because these massive services need correspondingly massive data links, they have co-located in areas where the necessary communications infrastructure exists. Up to 70% of global Internet traffic flows through one region, Northern Virginia — which, as infrastructure critic Ingrid Burrington has observed, is not coincidentally the location of much of the United States government’s surveillance agencies. (The arrangement is reciprocal: The CIA hosts its web services with Amazon.)
Anonymity now depends on but a few gatekeepers. Unfortunately, it’s clear the men in charge don’t just lack respect for privacy, they actively disdain it. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, maker of the world’s leading database software: “Privacy is already gone.”; Google Chairman Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” (Consider that black and latinx teenagers, perhaps more conscious of vulnerability, use “fake” names almost twice as often as do white teens.)
The Californian Ideology has been warped. Barlow’s promise of equalizing anonymity has been replaced by a vague guarantee of equal “transparency”, in which your life may be lived in full view, but, hey, at least everyone else’s is, too. The ethos is pervasive: what we choose to say, read, or transact, and who we choose to speak or associate with are now, by default, a matter of public record. To the new Californians, this communal panopticon will shatter social mores and dissolve the government secrecy: Zuckerberg writes that Facebook was “built to accomplish a social mission”, in which mass-transparency “creates a more open culture”, that “helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives.” But while full transparency is unlikely to disrupt the lives of Silicon Valley’s elite, the impacts of putting one’s whole person on display depend greatly on the body holding that identity.
Social media activity has become a bonanza for bullies, harassers, stalkers — and private corporations, which mine online identities to screen potential employees, to estimate the creditworthiness of borrowers, to predict if parolees will repeat-offend, and to track political dissent, the consequences of all of which vary with the realities of one’s “offline” person. Just as worrisome, the awareness that network presence can be used in these ways has begun to chill online speech. Societies with a history of police states rightly resist government power to create lists of potential dissidents, but those lists are now always-already available. All it takes is a search.
Barlow later recognized the Ideologies’ failings. Speaking in 2004 to libertarian magazine Reason, he warned digital activists to “[worry] about business in exactly the same way we are worrying about government.” But eight years after he declared its independence, cyberspace had abandoned him for new visionaries. Pace McLuhan, patron saint of the first Californians, the medium of their missives is part of the message: Whereas Barlow’s essay spread by word-of-keyboard, through forwarded emails and postings to individual websites, Zuckerberg’s “social mission” manifesto was bundled with the filing statement for it’s initial stock offering. (Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra was also first publicly communicated in their offering documents.)
Despite being vindicated, Barbrook, too, has tempered his worldview. Speaking in Hamburg this past February, he pointed to the Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders campaigns as hopeful indicators that networked movements can overcome media consensus. (Though in ensuing months the same was said of “Brexit” and Donald Trump.) Barbrook said he looked forward to the future because, paraphrasing Buckminster Fuller, “technologies only really become revolutionary when they become invisible.”
Unfortunately, invisibility is exactly the endgame of the Internet giants. Facebook is racing Google and Twitter to be the “single login” for the Internet, an identity gateway for every app and website. Even while teenagers and young adults report they use Facebook less often to share their opinions — the sort of conversations Barbrook hopes will someday become “revolutionary” — they increasingly depend on it to access services ranging from Instagram to Tinder. The end result is that the social graph is on the verge of becoming a social utility: invisible, ubiquitous — and fully centralized.