The Internet as a Planetary Platform
The consensus among historians today that the Internet played an essential part in the 21st Century emergence of vast planetary movements strong enough to overthrow the dying capitalist world-system. But for a long time it was a contested arena and a two-edged sword.The abandoned step-child of the U.S. military network designed to survive atomic attack, it was taken up by university researchers, students, hackers and networks of anti-capitalist protesters around the globe. At the same time, governments and corporations began exploiting the technology for political surveillance and commercial exploitation, as we shall see below. (See “The Dark Side of the Internet” below. MAKE LINK)
Nonetheless, where all attempts at world revolution during the 20th century foundered, historians agree that it was thanks to this 21st century communications technology that for the first time in history the world's billions were able to act on a planetary scale to save their lives from the climactic and social catastrophes caused by the thirst for profits.
It also enabled them to join together cooperatively to rebuild them. In the period we now call “Reconstruction,” the Internet facilitated the exchange of use-values and facilitating human self-organization from below, through federation and direct democracy, as we shall see in a later chapter (LINK “The Internet during the Reconstruction”)
Indeed, Of course like everything else in capitalist society, the Internet long remained a contested space. As early as, when the “Modern Archimedes Hypothesis” was first proposed, three points were already becoming clear:
1. The Internet was a powerful and increasingly accessible new tool for struggle whose revolutionary potential was beginning to be seized upon by popular movements around the globe.
2. The Internet could make technically possible the internationalist dream of a global movement of working people uniting in real time to overthrow the bosses and establish a sustainable, self-governing, post-capitalist world.
3. The Internet’s web-like global network, whose “center” is everywhere and nowhere, was turning out to be a more effective model for the emergence of planetary, democratic and working-class movements than the traditional hub-and-spokes, center/periphery, top-down model of centralized parties and “Internationals.”
Today, no one can deny the potential of online networking for revolutionary self-organization. The potential of the Web to enable new types of organization, based on the horizontal network model rather than the centralized hub-and-spokes model was less obvious a century ago. At the end of the 20th century, new forms of horizontal organizations began emerging in Latin America, rooted in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, in factories and on the land, yet networked nationally and even internationally. Self-organized, autonomous groups of peasants and indigenous peoples had been networking since 1992, when the Internet helped bring them together to celebrate 500 years of survival and resistance to colonialism. The symbolism of the woven web, powerful yet delicate, had already been proposed by activist women as an alternative to male-dominated, top-down power.
Activists from these movements began to network online and at World Social Forums, connecting with networks of workers, ecologists, and activists, comparing conditions, discussing strategy, and organizing global solidarity with similar movements as far off as Africa and Asia. These autonomous networks were also the power base of populist leaders like Lula, Kirchner, Correa, Chavez, and Morales, pushing these politicians to challenge the power of local landowners and global corporations and attacking them when they fail. Wired indigenous were indeed a planetary vanguard: challenging capitalism, protecting the land, and saving nature from the ravenous corporations. Far from being “historically backward,” rural communities successfully appropriated 21st century capitalist communications technology at its highest level and used it as a weapon for their own emancipation. Since 2011, so did the allegedly “backward” Arab masses.
The model of a “network of networks” continued to prove effective as a structure for an expansive, flexible, practical, transnational organizing, and it also foreshadowed the structure of our 22nd century self-organized planetary society.
The Achilles’ heel of democracy had always been the necessity of delegating authority to representatives who all too often end up forming a separate political class with its own interests. After the fall of totalitarian Communism and the collapse of the neo-liberal “New World Order” that succeeded it, people began asking questions like: “What if direct “town-meeting” type participatory democracy could be organized not only locally, but also regionally, and globally via Internet hookup? What if every citizen of the planet could make her/his voice heard equally with every other, get access to experts’ advice and unite with others of the same persuasion? And then vote – whether in their own mass assemblies or internationally via a secure Internet hookup? What if the great issues facing humanity could be debated everywhere and then decided in global referendums via the Internet? What if economic planning on a global scale could be combined with worker self-management and maximum local autonomy? What if every individual could participate in decision-making in each of her capacities as resident, parent, child, producer, consumer, and citizen? What if, after centuries of successful revolutions being hijacked and perverted by new bureaucratic elites, the common people were able to control the destiny of a new society as it emerges from below?
Back in 1958, when computers were in their infancy, the autonomist philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis was the first to imagine such a computer-connected self-managed society in his essay “The Content of Socialism.” A critic of bureaucratic top-down management as exemplified by Russian Communism and the American corporation, Castoriadis saw socialism emerging out of workers’ self-activity. A professional economist, he was able to elaborate in concrete detail a complete national economy, free of the waste and coercion of corporate or Communist central planning. In Castoriadis’ scheme, “Planning Factories” produced alternative economic plans – to be debated in assemblies and eventually voted by the producers via wired hookups. These alternative plans set out in simple terms the relative costs and consequences of each proposal in terms of labor time, resources, growth and consumption levels – giving society the choice between enjoying more leisure or working harder for future goals. The concrete images in Castoriadis’ model made such an impression on me a half-century ago that I have never since doubted democratic socialism’s practical “do-ability.”
Castoriadis’ vision of informed economic planning from below provided a concrete refutation of Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek’s anti-socialist argument that central planning is bound to fail because it cannot possibly assemble the information that is ultimately incorporated in the “marvel” of the price system which “registers the knowledge, the preferences, and values of countless people.” Castoriadis’ self-managed society also recalled Engels’ vision of the new world emerging out of the shell of the old – the image adopted in 1905 as the logo of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). What was original in 1958 was Castoriadis’ appropriation of the theories of the socialist-minded mathematician Norbert Weiner, the pioneer of computer science who explored the feedback principle and recognized the emergent quality of cybernetics – a word he coined. By the Millenium, not only cyberneticists but physicists, biologists, mathematicians, economists and scientists in other fields are studying and analyzing the emergent phenomena of spontaneous self-organization from below in the context of Chaos/Complexity/Emergence Theory.
Connectivity was the new factor that made actual the age-old dream of humanity rising together in the 21st century. In the late 20th century, sociologists demonstrated that there are only six degrees of separation between each of the then six billion humans on the planet. To be sure, these are weak connections, but it turned out that weak connections are the fabric that makes up the strength of complex network structures like the Internet, the physical universe (according to Quantum theory), and the human brain, with its billions of synapses.
Connecting up the cells of the collective brain of humanity is precisely what was required to save the world from the pseudo-rationality of the corporate profit system that was consuming it like a cancer. It had long been recognized that the judgment of large numbers of randomly chosen people is often strikingly superior to that of experts. What was the explanation? It turned out that impartiality diversity of opinions in a freely-associated group or random mass combine in positive ways to create collective intelligence. Under class societies, this reaction long remained obscure because it only works when people are free of the kind of hierarchical constraints and conflicts of interest that produce submission or “group-think” in committees. Among many historical examples, let us cite the failure of bureaucratic “intelligence” organizations like the CIA to predict with accuracy and the failure of mainstream economists to foresee the Crash of 2008.
Although the phrase “the collective brain of humanity” sounded mystical, experiments confirmed what was long known as “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Thus the Internet not only provided a platform for commective decision-making, it also provided the connectivity for the emergence of Planetary Consciousness – the indispensable philosophical fulcrum on which planetary Emergence was based.
This “wisdom of crowds” echoed the old socialist dictum: there is “wisdom in the heads of many.” The Internet gave it a planetary platform on which to develop.
A splendid early example of collective wisdom was the creation of Wikipedia – the free online encyclopedia of the period – by thousands of individual contributors in a dozen languages. It covered a hundred times as many cross-indexed topics as the long-revered Encyclopedia Britannica, which was written by experts, cost a small fortune, was full of upper-class British bias, short on the achievements of non-Western civilizations, and was soon out of date. As for the accuracy of Wikipedia, it maintained strict scholarly standards for referencing facts, strived for maximum objectivity, and was constantly being updated and corrected by thousands of anonymous contributors. The development of Wikipedia may be compared to Guttenberg’s printing press for their role in the spread of knowledge.
In any case, despite class prejudice and the scorn of antiquated dualistic scientists, there was nothing mystical or unrealistic in the image of the “collective brain of humanity” connecting up its myriad nodes through Cyberspace. Or in the image of humanity uniting the collective wisdom and collective strength of Billions to change the world. By the end of the 20th century, advanced science had recognized connectivity is the basis of Emergence – the spontaneous creation of order and complexity out of chaos. Far from being unscientific, the concept of Emergence soon became common to much 21st century thinking in fields as diverse as Cybernetics, Quantum mechanics, and brain physiology. Thus emergent properties were more and more frequently observed in various natural phenomena which were previously inexplicable in terms of the inherited top-down scientific models of cause/effect, leader/follower.
Biology provided the most accessible examples of emergent behavior for people without access to higher mathematics. For instance, flocks of birds and schools of fish are formed of autonomous individuals yet behave as intelligent collective organisms capable of navigation over vast distances.
Slime molds, made up of thousands of individual spores, usually dormant, were observed to emerge spontaneously when food is present and disappear when conditions change. When joined together, they behave like a single organism capable of moving purposefully and changing its shape. When placed by experimenters between two bits of food, they send out pseudopods in both directions. They can also move around obstacles and “remember” where they have been so as to avoid backtracking. However, when conditions change, the organism disaggregates into individual cells and seems to vanish. Not only that, they were observed to think, sort of. According to Professor John Tyler Bonner, who spent a lifetime studying slime molds, “they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia – that is, simple brains.”
Scientists also long rejected well-documented reports from Asia of thousands of crickets or fireflies suddenly chirping or flashing in unison without any leader intervening (like human concert audiences starting to clap in unison). Researchers spent years searching for the “leader” cell. Only after advanced computer techniques allowed researchers to model this behavior mathematically, was its bottom-up nature revealed.
Emergence had long been observed in the complex organization of ant and bee “societies.” By the 21st century it was also visible in the development of the infant human brain, where billions of brain-circuits spontaneously grow out of a few cells and connect into complex networks; we see Emergence as well in the history of the world’s cities where people of various trades came spontaneously together, each pursuing his/her own interests, and “accidentally” produced what we call civilization. Social movements are also a form of spontaneous self-organization from below, as Rosa Luxemburg observed in 1905, the year of the revolutionary mass strikes she analyzed in Poland-Russia. A century later, order and complexity were thus seen emerging out of chaos, based on connectivity between large numbers of free agents following their own paths.
However, for Complexity to emerge, there must be a critical mass of individuals. “Many is different” is the rule in Chaos/Complexity/Emergence theory. The other critical condition is freedom to communicate and interact “horizontally,” free of distortions imposed by a “vertical” one-way organizing power – for example by corporate or government bureaucracies which generate group-think. A corollary of Complexity theory is that free of such interference, tiny events may trigger huge changes, like the proverbial beat of a butterfly’s wings in China provoking a hurricane in Bermuda. Such is the nature of epidemics and of “idea-viruses,” fads, and religions, which grow exponentially once they reach a “tipping point.”
Planetary Emergence turned out to be such an “idea-virus,” spreading through the Web and provoking the emergence of Planetary Consciousness. It enabled the Billions to visualize the emergence of a worldwide movement of multitudes of ordinary working people connecting and joining forces to save the planet from capitalism. And to run it cooperatively afterward.
A century ago, such a visualization required a major revolution in peoples way of thinking. The “vertical” model of top-down organization, whether in society or in nature, had had such a hold on their minds that it was difficult for them to think “horizontally” much less in the three or four dimensions required by modern physics. They still clung to the 17th Century “scientific” mindset of Descartes and Newton with its discrete atoms and billiard-ball physics. Their social thinking was still based on Adam Smith’s 18th century theories of humans as unconnected individual economic atoms. Their political notions – whether establishment or “revolutionary” – relied on simplistic top-down models of expert leaders and hierarchical organizations. Their logic was confined to mechanical notions of Cause and Effect and the crude dualities of “Either/Or” and “A or Not-A.”
Twenty-second century science no longer supports these out of date concepts. Well over a century ago, Einstein’s relativity did away with distinct notions of “matter’ and “energy” as separate entities, and Quantum mechanics has been telling us for nearly as long that the universe is unstable, elusive, multiple, contradictory, holistic, and that it doesn’t work the way Newtonian mechanists used to think. Quantum logic included Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, where the very act of observing phenomena alters them. Quantum reality was described by one of its discoverers as “a vast sea of potential.” When this scientific and philosophical revolution spilled over into politics, it revolutionized peoples thinking and, more important, their ability to interact globally.
Historically advances in communication technology have gone hand in hand with advances in popular self-organization. During the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, cheap printing and the establishment of the postal service (both recent developments) enabled the revolutionary Committees of Correspondence in the American colonies and the French provinces to communicate. The ability to share local grievances, discuss ideas, organize congresses, establish national networks, inform each other of plots, publish and circulate the revolutionary broadsheets and pamphlets even in the face of censorship, made the democratic revolutions of 1776 and 1789 possible. In the 19th century, railroads, steamships, the telegraph, and the daily newspaper spread the democratic revolutions of 1848 all across Europe within months. On the other hand, the development of 20th century radio and later television broadcasting technology served the interests of the few against the many as a weapon of propaganda. Broadcast media, organized vertically as one-way, top-down – became the favorite tool of totalitarian dictators like Hitler and Stalin, manipulative politicians like Churchill and Roosevelt, and wealthy advertisers whose right-wing commercial media monopolies continued to dominate the airwaves in the so-called free countries throughout most of the 20th century.
On the other hand, 21st century Internet technology and people-to-people social media promised to give the advantage back to people-power. It also democratized information, so that through Wikipedia and Google searches, the whole of humanities library of arts and sciences was at the disposal, on demand, in many languages, to all seekers of knowledge. It also placed at the disposal of the Billions uncensored sources of information like WikiLeaks, unmasking the dirty secrets of the rulers.
The Internet also provided a planetary platform large enough and accessible enough for all to participate, decide, and act together. With its infinite interconnections, the World Wide Web potentially enabled groups in struggle to communicate, exchange information, discuss ideas, work out common programs, and coordinate actions on a planetary scale in real time.
Although many of the negative sides of the Internet dominated during the early 21st century when governments and corporations tried to take it over, others realized that the World Wide Web had the potential of supporting vast, international assemblies where true global democracy could take form: forums where consensus coud be reached on an ongoing basis, platforms where massive planetary actions can be coordinated from hour to hour around the globe. But for this, new social media platforms, free from commercial and state manipulation and specifically designed for democratic self-organization, had to be developed. Meanwhile, with ever more powerful computers joined together, even problems like translation – the curse of Babel – were soon solved. At last the passengers and crew of Starship Earth had the tools they need to talk to each other, so they could break out from below decks, swarm the bridge and take over from the squabbling, pilfering officers.
As we have seen above with Wikipedia, the Web also provided a vast public library open 24/7 where the passengers and crew could find and propagate not only uncensored information but also the critical, revolutionary ideas they will need to unite. Early examples were the non-sectarian Marxist Internet Archive (marxists.org) and the huge anarchist anthology Libcom. For the first time in history, the storehouse of revolutionary internationalist thinking and the recorded experiences of centuries of struggle became accessible to all, in many languages. Thus the Planetary Platform of the Web wove together ideas and planetary communication, connecting the Lever of Solidarity with the Fulcrum of Planetary Consciousness.
Of course technology could never substitute for active human solidarity and collective organization on the ground. “Social tools don’t create collective action, they merely remove the obstacles to it.” In the past, movements had been hampered by material obstacles like geographical isolation, the pervasive bias of mass media, obstruction by conservative institutional hierarchies, and the prohibitive cost in time and money for dissident minorities to publish and distribute printed material. By the 21st century the Internet, with its many-to-many email communications, its capacity to publish pictures, text, online videos, and its ability to bring people together on the ground through Twitter, texting, and applications like Meetup, overcame the barriers of cost, time, geography and bureaucratic obstruction, making it relatively cheap and easy for a critical mass to become informed and join together in struggle.
No one believes that “revolutionary” chat rooms can ever replace face-to-face workplace and neighborhood organizing. Radical websites are no substitute for popular movements, or for unions, parties, newspapers, alternative broadcasting, international meetings, and other forms of human interaction. Indeed, it was the “one-two combination” of spontaneous self-organization via Internet networking and mass occupation of public space on the ground that produced the most revolutionary results.
One of the earliest most striking examples of the power of social media to overcome the entrenched power of bureaucratic hierarchies were the late 20th century upheavals in the that most authoritarian of institutions, the Catholic Church. For many decades the scandal of the codling of pedophile priests by the hierarchy had caused outrage among the victims, their families and Catholics everywhere, but nothing was done. These scandals occasionally broke into the mass media, but only as isolated incidents, and the Church hierarchy was able to hush them up and protect the perpetrators. For example, in the 1990s Boston’s powerful Cardinal Law (himself guilty of protecting pedophile priests by rotating them through new, unsuspecting parishes) was able to squash the victims’ movement, which he denounced via press and pulpit and banned from Church facilities, forbidding lay groups to organize outside of their local parish.
However, ten years later, Cardinal Law was forced to resign in disgrace after Internet tools had enabled victims to aggregate their testimony, post it online, spread information and organize nationally and internationally. Catholic lay people were no longer isolated, voiceless and passive before the immense wealth and influence of the Church’s centuries-old hierarchy. Just as Gutenberg's movable type helped catalyze the Reformation in the 16th century by making the Bible accessible to the laity, so the Internet in the 21st century may have catalyzed the unprecedented resignation of archconservative Pope Benedict XVI. During the 1960s, Liberation Theology, with its “preferential option for the poor,” nearly put the Catholic Church on a social revolutionary road. A succession of reactionary Popes used their hierarchical power to nip that option in the bud, but today, with a wired global laity, the Genii of social Christianity is out of the bottle for good.
Benedict’s successor, Francis, the first non-European Pope, immediately surprised the world by calling a World Meeting of Popular Movements (Oct. 2014). Francis invited organizations of the marginalized and excluded of all ethnic and religious origins to the Vatican, attacked corruption in Vatican finances, dismissed bishops for protecting pedophile priests, confirmed the human causes of global warming, and overtly blamed predatory capitalism for climate catastrophe! And who would have ever imagined His Holiness selecting a self described “secular Jewish, feminist” and anti-capitalist firebrand to co-chair the Vatican’s climate conference? (Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate). As was foreseen during the era of “liberation theology” in Latin America, “liberation Catholics” were to play an important and positive role in the development of Planetary Consciousness and the organization of social movements leading to Planetary Emergence.
Despite it origins as a Defense Department program, from the beginning the Internet was eagerly appropriated by global justice movements and quickly proved itself an invaluable tool on the ground. Some examples beginning back in the 20th century:
○ In 1994 the Zapatistas, geographically isolated in remote Chiapas, opened the anti-globalization era with their anti-NAFTA rebellion. They were the first to use the Internet to mobilize global support against the invading Mexican Army’s attempt to repress them. (Thanks to worldwide support their resistance continued long after).
○ In 1997 the locked-out Liverpool dockers and their supporters organized a successful international dockers’ boycott of scab ships, which were turned away by dockers in the US and Japan.
○ In 1997 the workers and students of South Korea used the Internet to coordinate their massive General Strike.
○ In 1998 a piece of software named Meetingtool developed by the website MoveOn.org allowed potential antiwar activists to find each other in isolated localities.
○ Beginning in 1999 anti-corporate globalization protesters from around the world coordinating their movements via Internet, organized mass blockades of meetings of global financial leaders in Seattle (and later at Genoa, and Cancun). They succeeded in crippling the IMF and WTO.
○ In 2001, the first annual World Social Forum was organized in Brazil, attracting social activists from around the globe connected via Internet. The WSF brought together landless peasants, indigenous people from five continents, NGOs, radical intellectuals, and launched the slogan “Another World is Possible.”
○ In 2002 in Caracas, Venezuela, it was thanks to the Internet that the the masses in the barrios were able to mobilize and free populist President Chavez – held hostage by US-backed right-wing coup plotters mobilized the barrios via Internet.
○ In April 2003 millions of demonstrators in 57 different countries organized the first planetary anti-war demonstration to protest U.S. plans to invade Iraq. The N.Y. Times heralded the birth of a “new superpower:” world public opinion.
○ In 2006 rebels in China, where the Internet is heavily censored, reportedly pulled off 83,000 spontaneous strikes and uprisings against overwork and pollution.
○ In 2007, after Belarus dictator Lukashenko brutally repressed a demonstration over rigged elections, anonymous citizens used LiveJournal to organize flashmobs in the main square of Minsk – for example inviting people to show up eating ice cream. Their arrest by waiting policemen was videoed and posted online to ridicule the dictatorship.
○ In 2009 the people of Iran used cell phones, texting and social media to organize mass demonstrations to protest election fraud by the leaders of the Islamic Republic. Backed by workers’ strikes, citizens flooded the streets for several weeks in defiance of the Islamic State.
○ In January 2011 in Tunisia, in response to the posting on Facebook of the self-immolation of a desperate protestor, social media were used to bring people into the streets and successfully oust longtime dictator Ben Ali, whose corruption had been exposed by WikiLeaks. The Tunisians held a Constitutional Convention and established a pluralistic democracy that endures to this day.
○ In February 2011 this “rolling Arab revolution” spread to Egypt, where the corrupt Mubarak dictatorship was overthrown, thanks again to mobilization through social media. The spirit of the Arab Spring spread to Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Yemen, and across the oceans to Spain and to Wisconsin, USA, where it inspired workers to resist neo-liberal attacks on unions and public services.
○ In Italy, in the May 2011 Referendum, voters recruited through Twitter turned out in huge numbers to reject nuclear power, privatized water and presidential impunity despite intense propaganda from President Berlusconi's media monopoly. ○ In Oct. 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement, organized via Internet and broadcast live by GlobalRevolutionTV galvanized the self-designated 99% against the 1% and changed the political conversation in the US from manufactured hysteria over the “debt” to the reality of inequality.
○ In Dec. 2011 tens of thousands of Russians used social media to organize huge demonstrations in Moscow that shook the corrupt, autocratic Putin regime to its foundation.
○ The violent reaction of the right-wing governments and the bloody repression that followed the revolutionar wave of 2011 serves to confirm the fear this new power inspired among the rulers – from Egypt to Wisconsin to Moscow to Syria.
○ In June 2013, mass demonstrations against the high budget of the World Cup and increased fares in public transportation ballooned, thanks to social media, into a nationwide “Brazilian Spring.” Agitation continued into 2014 with mass demonstrations of the poor, and in early 2015 a reported 3 million took to the streets against the ruling Workers’ Party, which after raising the hopes of the masses had turned neoliberal and corrupt.
○ In May 2013, sparked by the eviction of a peaceful sit-in protesting the commercial development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, an estimated 3.5 million of Turkey's 80 millions took part in almost 5,000 demonstrations across the country against the repressive government. Turkish Prime Minister Receip Tayyip Erdogan denounced a centralized occult worldwide Internet conspiracy pulling the strings in both Turkey and Brazil!)
○ In September-October 2014 tens of thousands of democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong used their networked cell phones to coordinate an ongoing months-long occupation of key locations. The Hong Kong “Umbrella Revolution” was more than anything a cell phone revolution. By networking their cell phones, the demonstrators performed the tactical feat of coordinating occupations in several locations over several weeks – thinning out to recuperate and showing up en masse when needed. Their demonstrations paralyzed the financial capital of Asia, while the mighty Communist Party of mainland China held its breath, hesitating to intervene, perhaps for fear that the agitation would spread to the mainland.
Not only did Internet tools enable social movements to overcome obstacles like cost, time, distance and institutional firewalls, they also provide potential tactical advantages over powerful entrenched authorities: speed and flexibility. Let us first cite the classic case of France’s military collapse under the Germans’ 1940 blitzkreig (lightning-war) attack, where the use of radios prefigured that of the Internet in the 21st century. The French Army had more and heavier tanks, but confined by a carefully worked-out defensive plan and rigid organization, they lost. The Germans put radios in their light panzers and gave their panzer group commanders leeway to take initiative in the field and follow up advantages. They defeated the French in 27 days. In the 21st century, Internet coordination in real time has made it possible for a weaker force (strikers) to overcome a stronger force (a multinational corporation) by moving concentrated strength to the opponent’s weak points (production bottlenecks).
So far we have dealt only with the positive sides of Internet technology – the two qualities that enabled the passengers and crew of Starship Earth to use the World Wide Web as a Place to Stand (Platform) and wield the Lever of Planetary Solidarity. These were:
1. The open, democratic, many-to-many, horizontal structure of the World Wide Web (as opposed to the vertical, top-down, monopolistic structure of broadcasting networks).
2. Its practical, tactical capacity to draw together in struggle isolated individuals and groups despite geographical and institutional obstacles.
However, the Internet also has its dark side, and much of what we find there was genuinely frightening. The evidence is easy to find. Governments and corporations were both heavily invested in the massive collection, storage, and analysis of mega-data about peoples personal lives (a practice the U.S. government long denied). Corporations like Amazon employed sophisticated algorithms (profiling potential customers) for the purpose of manipulating people to spend. Governments used the same techniques (profiling potential opponents) for the purposes of repressing people. To preserve its franchise in the Middle East, the U.S. launched drones (“flown” by pilots in Idaho) to assassinate profiled opponents in Pakistan and photograph protesters in the U.S. Amazon began to speed-deliver purchases by drone. Dystopian Sci-fi was coming to life.
This invasion of individual privacy through massive collection of personal data by both government and private agencies evoked Orwell’s dystopian 1984: “Big Brother Is Watching You.” Moreover, cultural critics saw the Internet as warping peoples brains, dumbing down their minds, promoting addictions (porn, games), destroying communities, and reducing human relations to Facebook “Likes.” And with Cyberspace growing exponentially, the size of the 2017 Internet was like a golf ball compared to the Sun ten years later.
Cyberspace, like every other sphere of capitalist society, was contested space. Neither good nor evil in itself, cyber technology was a tool, at times a weapon. All new technologies were of necessity be appropriated by competing states, corporations and contending social groups for their own pursuits – some for self-expression or human liberation, others for financial gain or world domination. And since money talks, it was no surprise that billionaire corporations and the militarized states that defend their interests devoted vast resources to surveillance technology.
Mass surveillance fed hysteria and conspiracy theories both among leftists and reactionaries like Turkey’s strongman Erdogan. Yet however bleak the prospect of Internet tyranny, the contest over cyberspace long remained undecided. Compared to the massive array of cyber weaponry in the hands of corporations and governments, the power of a few thousands cell phones in the hands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong seems puny. But was it? Thanks to an improvised networking App called FireChat, the cell phones enabled the “Umbrella Revolution” protesters to occupy the financial capital of Asia and hold the power Communist China at bay for more than two months. David vs. Goliath?
Let us begin with the issue of mass surveillance. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelation of the CIA’s mass collection of telephone records and emails, including those of world leaders like Angela Merkel, finally opened the debate over Civil Liberties and the right of privacy. As U.S. President Obama and the Congress went through the motions of restricting mass surveillance, new revelations based on Snowden’s vast trove of government files showed that this surveillance, including dirty tricks, was only increasing. Moreover, the US was far from the only country waging cyber war against its citizens and perceived enemies abroad. China in particular had a highly developed surveillance and penetration apparatus. Also Russia. Furthermore, criminal elements used the same techniques to steal identities and empty people’s bank accounts.
To quote WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange: “While the Internet has in some ways an ability to let us know to an unprecedented level what government is doing, and to let us co-operate with each other to hold repressive governments and repressive corporations to account, it is also the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.” Not a pretty picture.
On the other hand, there was nothing new about either government spying or criminal fraud. For example, Glenn Greenwald revealed that the FBI and other U.S. secret police agencies were using the Internet to play the same “dirty tricks” to discredit, subvert and incriminate targeted individuals and radical organizations as they did in the Sixties through the secret program known as COINTELPRO. This came as no surprise to activists from the Fifties whose phones were tapped and mail opened during the reign of the J. Edgar Hoover. They were not particularly surprised that the NSA was collecting billions of random emails and phone conversations every day from just about everyone on the planet. The difference today is that back then they would send a human investigator to talk to your boss and get you fired, whereas now they can ruin you on Facebook.
The breaking scandal of massive electronic surveillance gave the Internet a bad name and encouraged digital paranoia on the Left. Does cyber surveillance then discredit the Internet? No more than the steaming-open of people's mail or the wiretapping of people’s phones discredited the postal system and the telephone! Moreover, it well may be that this mass vacuuming and storage of mega data turned out to be useless, if not counter-productive. For example, historians wonder how, in real time, government investigators could ever have found the subversive needle in the humongous digital haystack of Mega-Mega-Megabytes stored in their giant complex out in Utah. The replacement of human spies by technology may actually have weakened the US government's intelligence capacity. Truly useful intelligence about security threats is likely to be in a foreign language, like Arabic or Chinese, but staffing of professional translators had been severely cut back, and native interpreters were likely to be working for the other side. Meanwhile, indiscriminate intrusions universally discredited the U.S. so-called “intelligence community,” eliciting protests from Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff to Jimmy Carter. Proving that “military intelligence is to intelligence as military music is to music.”
Like the use of torture, the massive surveillance programs failed to foil any terrorist plots, although it sharply curtailed favorable opinion of the U.S. among people around the world. Obama’s inhuman policy of assassination-by-drone on the basis of profiling, with its inevitable civilian casualties, certainly did more to recruit new fighters to Al Qaeda than hundreds of fanatical Islamic preachers, and U.S. imperialism was visibly losing both the “war for the hearts and minds of men (sic)” and the “war on terror.” Its “victories” in Iraq and Afghanistan left nothing but ruin and resentment in their wake, paving the way for ISIS and more rogue states.
There was more happening on the Internet’s dark side than just government snooping. Under capitalism, all of Cyberspace was contested space, and the terrains being contested included secrecy, censorship, encryption, whistleblowing and hacking. Again, governments and corporations invested major resources in controlling these terrains, yet they remained another sphere of Cyberspace where David might still have the advantage over Goliath.
Let’s start with censorship. To be sure, dictatorships threatened by Facebook and Twitter-coordinated uprisings can simply shut down the Internet, like Egypt in 2011 and later Turkey. But for how long? When authorities clamp down on the Internet, they deprive themselves of the creativity and technological ferment necessary for economic development and end up stagnating. China’s security crackdown on the Internet “ hurt the Chinese economy and create a major rift between China and the rest of the world.” Similar fears were arguably among the causes of the collapse of totalitarian Communism in Russia, which by the end of the 20th century lagged way behind the West in computer technology.
Chinese authorities installed so-called “Internet firewalls” to block open discussion of subjects like democracy. Nonetheless, bloggers and commentators often got their subversive messages across using Aesopian language. The Chinese (with the complicity of Yahoo, Facebook, and “do-no-evil” Google) also mined emails in order to spy on and punish dissidents, while in the U.S. President Obama who preached “free speech” to the Chinese was cracking down hard on dissidents journalists like WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and patriotic whistleblowers like Private Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Suffice it to say that networked technologies, capable of many-to-many communication, were a major headache for repressive states. It was no longer enough for would-be censors to just smash your printing press or seize your newspaper because your content could be infinitely reproduced and stored on hard drives around the world. In any case, hackers usually found ways to get around the Chinese censors and their U.S. corporate accomplices. Even when authorities shut down the Internet, open source “Internet in a suitcase” technology allows networked cell phones to communicate in a peer-to-peer manner, without going through a central authority.
Encryption (coding) is another contested terrain in Cyberspace. Encryption was useful to governments and corporations for securing and transferring secret data, but it also allows dissidents to get around government censorship by hiding their identities (user anonymity). The cooperatively-developed encryption program TOR used linked computers around the world to repeatedly resend messages in order to obscure their origin. For example, it preserved the anonymity of Chinese labor and democracy activists who transmit information and subversive views. The NSA characterized TOR, with its approximately 2.5 million users daily, as “the King of high-secure, low-latency Internet anonymity.” Naturally, governments hated these anonymity protecting programs and attempt to limit them, but the people’s right to use encryption has found a powerful ally in big business, pitting “technology companies including Apple, Microsoft and Google” against “the National Security and its counterparts” who accuse the spooks of invading their priceless data banks.
It goes without saying that all governments had secrets, and secret government was the hallmark of authoritarian states. The paradox of the vast US “national security state,” was that it had too many secrets to preserve and that too many bureaucrats had access to them. The self-defeating mania for secrecy that begun during the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War had grown to such proportions that every government document except the Senate Dining Room Menu (“Freedom Fries”) was routinely stamped “classified.” One would think the government would have embraced encryption to hide its embarrassing secrets, but apparently it couldn’t. Too many secrets, too much access by government employees and, increasingly, outside contractors (like Edward Snowden). And thanks to encryption (anonymity) and to Internet dissemination, whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and sites like WikiLeaks were able to expose the government’s past and present dirty secrets to a vast public.
This unwanted transparency engendered panic in the establishment. As a result, Barack Obama (former Constitutional Law Professor and Civil Libertarian) arrested more whistleblowers than all his predecessors combined, while reviving the WWI Espionage Act of 1917 in order to try them for Treason (a capital offense). This aggressive repression came from fear and weakness, not from strength. And for cause. If a lowly Private First Class like Manning could access and copy thousands of pages of government secrets, the Ship of the National Security State was a leaky vessel indeed! How many more idealistic government employees like Manning and Snowden were there waiting in the wings, ready to blow more whistles?
Hackers were the natural enemies of censors and owners of “intellectual property.” Since the earliest days of Internet technology, “hacking” – a term presumably derived from “hacking around” (having fun) – was an essential expression of the playful, rebellious, innovative spirit of early amateur computer programmers. Hackers, working independently and in informal networks, have been responsible for much of the innovation which corporations subsequently took over, patented, and made millions off of. Patents are basically locked doors, keeping out the very people who imagined the technical treasures behind them. The hackers’ ideal is open source technology, like the Linux operating system: resulting from the merger of the ‘freeware’ movement and the model of decentralized collaboration via Internet. Constantly upgraded by unpaid hackers, it rivals billionaire Microsoft’s Windows. The “hacker ethic” is thus cooperative, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, if not outright socialistic. Scorning intellectual property laws, hackers delight in breaking through security firewalls – if only for the fun of showing how much smarter they are than their government and corporate rivals. The revenge of the nerds!
The political cutting edge of the hacker subculture was the nebulous known as Anonymous. In late 2010, thousands of Anonymous hacktivists joined a mass digital assault on the websites of VISA, MasterCard, and PayPal to protest their blocking of cardholders contributions to WikiLeaks. Other targets, including the websites of corporations from Sony Entertainment and Fox to the Vatican and the Church of Scientology, were hacked, defaced, and embarrassed. The message was that no one was safe. Thousands of user accounts from pornography websites were released, exposing government employees and military personnel.
To be sure, not all hackers were lovable Robin Hoods. On the dark side, the FBI recruited black-hat hackers as double agents, like the “friend” who snitched on Pfc. Manning. Moreover, online fraud and identity theft by hackers were thriving multi-million-dollar industries, and the very corporations and governments formerly raided by ludic white-hat hacktivists have recruited teams of highly-skilled well-paid hackers to carry Cyber war to higher levels. For example, in June 2015 it transpired that at least 21 million U.S. government personnel records had been obtained by hackers – probably from China. US intelligence hasn’t a clue about who did it, when it happened, or what else has been stolen.
As for Cyber war between governments, the 2010 U.S.-Israeli cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities gave a foretaste of the kind of mass destruction of communication and energy grids planned for future wars between nations. On the other hand, Cyber war is a real life computer game in which David and Goliath compete on an even playing field: the Internet. All that counts in this game is brains and initiative, and the subculture of programmers and hackers, imbued with the libertarian, cooperative, anarchic hacker mentality, has brains and initiative to spare.
The Internet, originally a conduit for grad students to share research and jokes, has burgeoned into a platform for giant corporations. Within a generation, firms like eBay, Facebook, YouTube, Groupon, and Amazon – some starting literally in somebody’s garage – mushroomed into multi-billion-dollar businesses. Internet commerce, Internet entertainment, Internet communication and Internet social networks were the hottest items in the otherwise sluggish post-2008 economy. With its user base growing exponentially, the Internet connected corporations directly with the credit cards of an endless supply of consumers. It was free. It selected. It penetrated. It appealed to instant gratification and promoted addictions like gambling and pornography. Potential customers were targeted using algorithms that analyze the vast amount of their personal information available online. This could be as innocent as Amazon telling you that “readers who enjoyed the book you just bought also liked…” On the other hand:
Your cell phone provider tracked your location and knows who’s with you. Your online and in-store purchasing patterns were recorded, and reveal if you were unemployed, sick, or pregnant. Your e-mails and texts exposed your intimate and casual friends. Google knew what you’re thinking because it saved your private searches. Facebook could determine your sexual orientation without you ever mentioning it.
Every day, corporations were connecting the dots about peoples personal behavior – silently scrutinizing clues left behind by their work habits and Internet use. The data compiled and portraits created are incredibly detailed, to the point of being invasive… Hidden algorithms could make (or ruin) reputations, decide the destiny of entrepreneurs, or even devastate an entire economy.
Another serious danger was the way the algorithms used by Facebook and other sites ended up feeding users only information which the machine “thinks” they want, thus reinforcing their prejudices and insulating them from unpleasant information (for example about global warming). To be sure, close-mindedness is nothing new: long before the Internet, liberals, conservatives and extremists of the Right and Left generally read only publications they agreed with. The Internet algorithm has a multiplier effect.
Worse still was the stultification (dumbing down) of the public through the Internet. The titles of contemporary books by media critics tell the whole sad story. For example: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2011); The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein (2009); Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) and Amusing Ourselves to Death (2005) the latter a reprint of the classic by longtime media critic Neil Postman. Here again the Internet served as a multiplier effect to the evils of the commercialized mass culture purveyed in earlier generations via broadcast media like radio and TV (described in 1961 by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow as “A Vast Wasteland”).
Indeed, during the broadcast era, the public could choose only among various brands of pap (with rare exceptions) beamed down at them by the big networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. The difference with the Internet was that the public now had a vast number of choices, and that users are proactive (for better or for worse) in seeking out information and entertainment on demand. Thus although pornography occupied more sites than any other subject, with violence running a close second, Internauts also have instant access to Shakespeare, online university classes, Ted talks, Noam Chomsky, Wikipedia, Marxists.org etc., and all the links they lead to.
Another danger posed by the pervasiveness of Internet social media was a decline in sociability with people isolated alone in front of their screens. Increasingly, even when friends gathered, their attention was maddeningly focused on their online devices, prioritizing their virtual lives over their actual lives. According to MIT technology and society specialist Sherry Turkle writing in 2013, “technology has become the architect of our intimacies.” In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other she argues that “this relentless connection leads to a new solitude.” To be sure, the Internet could isolate people, but it also allowed them to get to know each other, to feel less alone, to access information, and eventually to mobilize massively for action.
Facebook “friends” may not have been the real friends whom we can depend on to nurse us when we’re sick, but they were an expression of the universal need of human beings for empathy, attention, sympathy, and admiration, however commercialized and crass Facebook may be. Indeed, according to economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin writing in 2010, empathic relations are more fundamental to what constitutes human nature than aggression and competition – as was previously believed. In The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Rifkin argues that Internet technology represented a “third industrial revolution” that would bring people together on an empathic basis and thus save the world from ecological catastrophe. As we now know, he was prophetic
Nonetheless, massive data collection, invasion of privacy, mindless content, isolation, stultification of the public, attempts to privatize the Internet and above all its commercialization by mega-corporations were real threats to personal freedom and the democratic ideal. People began to ask the question: Aren’t big business and government taking over the Internet? The answer was not entirely, for the simple reason that the Internet is literally infinite. No one can occupy all that space. As long as everyone has equal access to post a blog or start a Twitter account, Cyberspace remains a level playing field. Low-cost sites like WikiLeaks (and Islamic State recruiting chat rooms!) had proven more influential than the US government’s costly propaganda apparatus and the mainstream media that follow the government “line.” It did not matter how many millions of glittering, seductive commercial sites are out there fishing for our wallets and for our hearts and minds. Open access – the possibility of many-to-many communication – remained the key to Internet democracy. Realizing this power, corporations and governments began a second wave of assaults, this time on the very technological basis of the Internet, on 'net neutrality,' platforms and domain names, in an effort to control it.
This fundamental right to equal access to the Internet, known by the confusing name of “Network Neutrality,” has long been under attack by big business and the communications lobby in the U.S. Corporations want to establish a two-tier Internet with the big advertisers in the fast lane squeezing out the public. These efforts were frustrated by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 after vast outpourings of objections from users, but one can be sure that the monopolists’ high-priced lawyers and lobbyists will be back. More contested terrain. The would-be privatizers and monopolizers will have a hard time fencing in Cyberspace, because the Internet and the World Wide Web were born free. The Internet from the start was common space, and the Web was created under an Open Source Copyright. The WWW was the brainchild of MIT Professor Tim (now Sir Tim) Berners-Lee, who made his idea available freely, with no patent and no royalties due. In 1994, he brought together various companies to create the self-governing World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) to oversee the Web, based on common standards and royalty-free technology easily adopted by anyone.
Behind these technical protocols is a socialistic vision of Cyberspace as a Commons – similar to the land, the sea and the air – considered as humanity’s collective heritage. Today, at a time when native people are struggling to preserve the last remains of the physical Commons from being monopolized, privatized and polluted by predatory capitalism, the Internet, although contested, remains accessible, free and open to all. From the WWW to Wikipedia and the open source operating system Linux, freeware challenges the commodified basis of human creativity. Like the “hacker mentality,” it rejects the privatization for profit of collectively developed use-values – from computer software to healing plants cultivated by indigenous peoples – under the monopoly capitalist “intellectual property” laws. Small wonder that its originators, from Norbert Weiner, the father of Cybernetics, to Sir Tim, considered themselves socialists.