By Nicolas Mendoza:
Chiang Mai, Thailand - “OH $%#@!”, reads the caption under the image depicting a group of protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks and holding both humorous and denunciatory signs, “The internet is here”. The caption not only conveys the sentiment that drove US congressmen to drop their support of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills, but can also be said to summarise the analysis of the January 18 blackout by several of the most prominent media experts and scholars.
Larry Downes eloquently describes the January 18 events as “the dramatic introduction of bitroots politics”. In case the leaks, springs and occupations of 2011 left any room for doubt, the recognition of the internet as a political force in itself has moved from academic theoretical discussion to hard tangible reality. Lawrence Lessig portrays this sense of general underlying bewilderment by using the haunting metaphor of “a giant” when describing the web as a political force:
For the first time ever, the internet had taken on Hollywood extremists and won. And not just in a close fight: the power demonstrated by internet activists was wildly greater than the power Hollywood lobbyists could muster. They had awoken a giant. They had no clue about just how angry that giant could be.
However, the “January 18 blackout” victory guarantees “the internet” nothing. As Clay Shirky explained a few days before the blackout, rather than the end of this struggle, the SOPA/PIPA incident is just one chapter in the greater project of crippling the internet to eliminate its autonomy:
The hard thing is this: get ready, because more is coming. SOPA is simply a reversion of COICA [Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act], which was proposed last year, which did not pass. And all of this goes back to the failure of the DMCA [Digital Millenium Copyright Act] to disallow sharing as a technical means. And the DMCA goes back to the Audio Home Recording Act, which horrified those industries. (…) PIPA and SOPA are not oddities, they’re not anomalies, they’re not events. They’re the next turn of this particular screw, which has been going on 20 years now. And if we defeat these, as I hope we do, more is coming.
The corporate legislation project to gradually asphyxiate life in the web follows a twofold strategy: first, to gain terrain inch by inch by crafting ridiculously crippling legislation only to “tone it down” – making legislators look cooperative and magnanimous – while still advancing petty agendas. Second, to simultaneously pursue several secretly crafted regulatory acts in hopes that some of them will go unnoticed, thus creating new ground for further future reforms. This was the design principle of the SOPA/PIPA suite, complemented in the global scenario by ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) treaty. The success, until now, of this strategy is why unacceptable conditions such as the technical limitations imposed on media players by the DMCA are not even under debate any more. As Shirky notes, what is constantly in play is always how deep the “next turn of the screw” will go.
Code and hardware change us as much as we change them. Because we can’t uninvent the internet, we need to make sure it is the healthiest possible web. Healthier code and healthier computers are critical for a society shaped by code and computers. As the recently deceased German philosopher Friedrich Kittler put it: “Codes – by name and by matter – are what determine us today, and what we must articulate if only to avoid disappearing under them completely.”
This is why we must learn and understand that the inner workings of our networks, computers, mobile devices, search engines, and social media are a matter of public concern – rather than just of corporate stockholders, hired engineers, and politicians.
Even while the necessary battles of the day continue to be fought, this new political actor we call “the internet itself” needs to also start thinking several moves ahead. Perpetual defence guarantees gradual defeat. As the quality of the internet’s capacity to deliberate and mobilise sophisticates, it must start to delineate clear boundaries of what is non-negotiable, unthinkable and beyond political play in terms of corporate/state legislation. But we will not be able to always immediately recognise what constitutes violence, abuse and obscenity in internet legislation unless we first thoroughly answer one simple question:
What is the internet?
Life in the network
Asking “What is the internet?” brings us back to our “the internet is here” image above. The image is remarkable because it does not show the internet as usually described, a technical internet understood as a series of computers. Instead, we see an assemblage of individuals, and somewhat incomprehensible symbols. We may ask: if the internet is not computers, is it people then? Yes, and no. Because they come “from the internet”, the group of protesters in the image gain an eerie kind of power. The caption “the internet is here” implies that they are merely a visible portion of something larger, “a giant” that also encompasses an unimaginable amount of computers and diverse layers of codes, both cultural and technical. Codes now reside in brains and bodies as much as in processors and hard drives. These particular individuals are there in representation of those who could not attend, but also in representation of the thick wilderness of codes and machines that bind them together.
Things may get interesting if we then ask: What does the internet look like as seen by computer code? From the perspective of network protocols and software, the internet looks like billions of of humans, computers and transmission devices whose work allows them (the codes themselves) to circulate, reproduce and evolve. From yet another perspective, that of the computer, the internet would appear to be an avalanche of messages, requests and instructions coming from its communication ports and from its keyboard, mouse, camera or microphone as they are used by humans.
The internet can then be understood as a large hybrid entity, or as sociologists like to say “an assemblage”, of diverse actors both human and non-human. These actors are:
- Humans, encompassing their biological selves and their cultures and institutions.
- Hardware, including computers, mobile devices, mass storage facilities, transmission equipment, transoceanic cables, and so on.
- Code, including a vast wilderness of ever evolving protocols and software.
It is only by understanding that the internet is a deep entanglement of hardware, software and wetware (us, other biological entities, and the planet), that a sufficiently robust response to the threats it faces will be articulated. They all blend in this new life-form, the internet, that by now has developed the maturity to overthrow a (relatively) weak Egyptian government and defend itself from threats coming from the US Congress.
A perfect storm of counterintuitive grey ethical areas, the internet is metal, code and flesh looking for harmony. This harmony will only come as the full potential of the assemblage is realised, as (and if) it overcomes the enclosures that contain it: capitalist mandates of profit and accumulation, modern human fear and pettiness, and the artificial territorial boundaries imposed by the concept of the Westphalian nation-state.
Norbert Wiener, one of the foremost US scientists of the twentieth century, studied feedback information dynamics within and among diverse systems and organisms. His work on these informational entanglements, where information feedback determined the future state of both sending and receiving entities, led him to an astonishing idea: that life itself is, in ultimate analysis, a series of information streams that bind diverse entities through feedback: “Any organism is held together in this action by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information.”
This supra-biological, or machinic, definition of life led to major advances in computer science that eventually were critical to the invention of the internet.
The ultimate political challenge that defenders of the internet must face today is to secure lasting health for this hybrid life-form made of metal, code and flesh.
The global collective imaginary increasingly flirts with the notion of the internet as something that is alive. In this sense, expressions such as Yochai Benkler’s concerns about how legislation can effectively “kill technology” acquire a more tangible ethical dimension. However, it is rarely that ethical considerations regarding machinic life takes place. It is still relatively uncontroversial to attack a network protocol because everything about it seems morally trivial: Isn’t it all artificial in the end? Seen as just a result of human cultural, economic and political forces, machinic life seems enslavable.
Ethics in this realm, it must be stressed, are not about what good the machine can do for us, and not even about how we can use the machine to do good – for we are in fact part of the machine, part of the life-form. It means making the whole assemblage healthier for all its parts by fostering “the means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information”, within and among its three actors.
A healthy web is to our benefit – and the only reasonable approach, because the network is in reality a larger organism in which we are embedded. Coming to terms with it and making peace within is making peace for ourselves. This reflection has countless tangible implications. For example, by noting that the list of corporations co-writing and lobbying SOPA, PIPA and ACTA include not only entertainment but also pharmaceutical corporations, it is evident how human health is tied to the network’s health in very real ways.
“With the decline of state capitalism, capitalist governments and corporations now dream of the internet as the tool for corporate growth through ontological colonialism, free to expand within the mind and the planet, exploiting everyone alike.”
In a famous speech preceding last years eG8 summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that “the internet is the new frontier, a territory to conquer”. It is, to begin with, extremely concerning to learn that 21st century France still has a president who believes that “territory” and “conquer” are words that naturally go together. Sarkozy then proceeded to explain how this “territory” “cannot be a Wild West”. He came painfully close to revealing the true project: “conquering” the web for wild Western capitalism. With the decline of state colonialism, capitalist governments and corporations now dream of the internet as the tool for corporate growth through ontological colonialism, free to expand within the mind and the planet, exploiting everyone alike.
This project is constantly stumbling because it fails to recognise the real nature of the internet, which it needs to fight. The internet is not territory to be conquered, but life to be preserved and allowed to evolve freely. If we manage to come to terms with the idea of life in the entanglement of metal, code and flesh, a strange life that is in itself different from its parts, we must still go one step further. This living network is itself inserted in a larger cosmic system, first a living planet that can provide a limited amount of rare metals to make microprocessors, and energy in the form of food and electricity sources for humans and machines respectively – and further, a sun that ultimately provides the planet with the energy without which none of this would exist.
Media scholars Cubitt, Hassan and Volkmer advocate for this perspective in the following terms:
“We should embrace the deeper uncertainty arising from freeing technology from subservience to the merely instrumental goals of human profit … We may then begin to make out a politics beyond the network where human and non-human, living and non-living are connected to mutual benefit.”
Thinking of the web in terms of machinic life is important in practice for three powerful reasons: First, it guides us through the building of political models that encompass the human and the non-human, a politics for radical yet peaceful diversity needed now more than ever. Second, it unveils the ethical dimensions beneath seemingly neutral issues, allowing stronger defence for issues such as sharing and peer-to-peer practices that depend on healthy protocols and healthy hardware. Third, it is an approach that operates at any scale, allowing us to have nuanced and yet consistent positions regardless of whether we are debating the microscopic labyrinths of a computer chip (metal), the intangible nature of the BitTorrent or Bitcoin protocols (code), or the global impact of WikiLeaks (flesh).
The rights of the internet
“The internet itself has rights.”
From understanding the internet as a life form that is in part human, it follows that the internet itself has rights. These rights must be created from scratch, thinking simultaneously in terms of the rights of metal, code, and flesh. With this framework we can start building an enduring barrier to permanently deter surreptitious attacks on the life in the network, such as those used by the SOPA mob.
What would this barrier look like? Perhaps as a multinational treaty, a multi-stakeholder organism, and a declaration of the “Rights of the Internet”, following the example of Bolivia’s 2011 breakthrough declaration of rights of the environment.
Through this framework, for example, we can understand the DMCA, which mandates the atrophy of media players, as legislation that violates the rights of hardware. SOPA and PIPA, which attempted to kidnap for ransom the already imperfect DNS (Domain Name Service) protocol, as being in violation of the rights of code. ACTA, detached from democratic process under the veil of “trade agreement” negotiations, and created by powerful nations to lock in their domination over the rest of the world, is in this sense in dual violation of the rights of flesh (ie humanity).
The inherent diversity of the web, which goes even beyond human diversity, would therefore require an equally diverse group discussing these rights. Not only the West, and not only vendors and legislators, but also scientists, programmers, humanists, anthropologists, internet communities themselves, and in general representatives of all human and non-human stakeholders need to come together to draft these rights required for the lasting health of the web.
It is worth noting that the project of a “Rights of the Internet” charter is completely different from recent European legislation that declares that the internet is “a human right”. The “Rights of the Internet” depart from modern anthropocentrist instinct. Instead, they aspire to defend the diversity of hardware, software and wetware, for mutual benefit.
It is becoming clearer every day that the healthy and robust evolution of the internet holds a thorough revolution for human society. These evolutions and revolutions are what the intriguing phrase “the electronic frontier” means, and the right to reach for it is worth fighting for.
Note: As I write this, several initiatives to galvanise internet power have been launched. The following are recent internet-native political projects that are similar in many ways to the ideas described here:
- Also started by Reddit users, the Reddit PAC, a political advocacy group to advance internet freedom and related issues