9.24.2014

Rethinking the Internet: Networks, Capitalism, and Control

 
 A very smart documentary by Marc Lafia that discusses the figure and history of the network, amongst other things.

I admit it: I have been seduced by the figure of the network and have applied it readily to the internet. It sounds so right, doesn't it? There's no center. Or, even better: Everything's a center! When I'm online, I am the center of the inter-network, the entire global data field orienting around me. Oh yeah! 

And with no center, there's no hierarchy. No Big Boss Man. No priest. Nothing between me and the goods, me and information, me and the truth. It's the Lutheran dream, or some such thing. Information no longer flows from the mouths of expert-priests to the clambering, ignorant masses. We educate ourselves! Thanks, Wikipedia! Rather than a downhill flow, there are ever shifting distributions and flows of data. It's a thousand plateaus of liberation!

As for commerce, who needs those big box shops that are shutting down every mom and pop shop and slaying neighborhoods? Now each local vendor, maker, artisan, chef has the same access to the market, bypassing the prohibitive costs of real estate that let the Costcos and Starshmucks of the world dominate.

But, as we all know now, this is not what's happened. Because that's not how networks, in fact, function. 

Since the dot com explosion of the late 90s, we've seen a steady rise of monopolies — eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Google. The network effect is not the wild distribution of information but its steady coalescing into zones. For this virtual world to work (the definition of "work" is precisely what's at stake), there have to be certain densities. Who wants to be part of a social network with only twelve people (well, I do, but that's another matter)? Who wants to shop, or sell, at an auction that only has 145 items and 267 bidders?

Not only does the internet not foster proliferation and multiplicity, it necessarily tends towards monopoly. In real space, the reality of distance slows any one entity from dominating. But in the virtual world, domination happens at the speed of light. We call it going viral or, in wonky tech speak, it’s called the hockey stick.

Business wonks, especially here in San Francisco, love to call this disruptive. But it's anything but. It's just the acceleration of capitalism that's been picking up speed since the late 18th century French and American Revolutions. Like the French Revolution with its rally cry of liberty, equality, fraternity, the information revolution has been forged under misleading pretenses. 

The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, business and property owners wanting a piece of the pie previously reserved for those who lived off the merits of birth and inheritance, the aristocracy. This was the explicit cry of the American Revolution which didn't want to pay taxes to a king 3000 miles away (and who pays taxes? Not the destitute). While often portrayed as a revolution to rescue the starving masses from the cruel indifference of the aristocrats (the one image we all know is Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake"), the French Revolution used the downtrodden to empower the rising business owners who, in turn, exploited and ignored those same downtrodden (it’s been worse in the US than France, of course). As our American constitution declares, the declaration of equality is not equality of life but equality of a right to the pie (presumably; in reality, the game was rigged from the get go in various ways via government-business complicity such as tax breaks, corporations, the government picking up the tab for externalities such as wars for oil, roads, subsidies, etc.).

Like the French Revolution, our information revolution decries the way of the hierarchy. And so, like the French Revolution, the information revolution cut off the heads of the king, the queen, the aristocracy in general — albeit virtually. The big retail brands of the world have, for the most part, been toppled by Amazon and eBay. Old media is on its last legs. Wikipedia cut off the legs of the academic experts, those fuddy-duddy keepers of knowledge.  

But rather than giving rise to a radical democracy or symphonic anarchy in which all voices are heard — especially the smartest and oddest — we're witnessing the radical centralization and control of conversations and, scarier, a rapid monopolization of the ways and means of discussion. Television networks sure had it easy but in retrospect that looks like nothing compared to the dominance of a Comcast who controls the pipes and the content that travels over them (see: the attack on net neutrality).

Look around the so-called memes of the interweb. What passes for an issue and discussion on Facebook and Twitter is a relentless slicing and dicing of events into discrete nuggets with clearly marked good guys and bad guys, readily digested and scanned issues that make it easy for people to like, ignore, or share. Think of all those lists and petitions. Buzzfeed and Thought Catalog have their clear motivation: clicks for ad revenue. But what’s our excuse? 

With this technology that turns everyone into a publisher, why are there so few surprises and even fewer discussions of the media and forces that have framed the issues in the first place? It’s not that these critical opinions don’t exist; it’s that they are pushed to the edge of the network, into oblivion (just as they always have). Something happens — a beheading, a leaked video — and it immediately becomes something about which to feel outrage! Snarky! Sad! So few consider the plethora of perspectives that inform this event. We get an issue and a way to feel about it. Nietzsche calls this the herd mentality. I guess I thought the internet would be different. 

Just as the network effect tends towards business monopolies, the network effect tends towards the cleansing and homogenization of discussion and opinion. Rather than a proliferation of perspectives, we experience their radical reduction. The ready access to information has turned everyone into an expert regurgitating the same multiple choice perspectives on multiple choice “issues.”

And what's so insidious about this internetwork is that's even more efficient than television networks. A TV channel broadcast down its one-way pipe and then we could analyze its agenda. But now there is no broadcaster, no agency with an agenda. We reduce conversations to a like or share all on our own. There’s no media to interrogate. There’s only ourselves (pace Foucault).

I realize for some people, this is not a surprise. But to my naive and obviously limited understanding, this is a radical realization. The internet and its architecture seemed so promising to me, so exciting, so potentially revolutionary. Even the ever astute Doug Rushkoff is surprised by how it’s all transpired. 

The reality is the internet is the acceleration of a form of power and control that is centuries, if not millennia, old. NASDAQ is shipping trade routes on steroids. And the internet information revolution is no revolution at all: it's the acceleration of control and monopoly that's been breeding for ages, now moving at the speed of light.

1 comment:

dg said...

Thank you for this. As a tradesman working with technology for decades, I've felt the same thing.

So I've been making an effort to "read" the world as you mention in your lectures.

From the documentary I wonder if collared shirts, top button undone, and a blazer/jacket are a uniform or caste identification. Ecology. Ecology. Ecology.