Alternating Current, Direct current, Edison, Google, Open source, Thomas Edison, United States, WikiLeaks
The Internet Is Dead
I’ve always wanted to write something so counterintuitive, something so ‘whacked‘ it probably shouldn’t even be set to print. Then I remember that nothing I write is set to print–writing is now just streams of light sent out using TCP/IP network protocols and reassembled elsewhere. Any apprehension I may have had about being ‘published‘ evaporates. There, I feel better. So here goes.
There is little doubt smart phones have made us more productive and efficient creatures. As entertainment and work aides our wonderfully pixelated digital devices are gently making us over into cyborgs, with few complaints and fewer protests. The burgeoning ‘social connectedness’ offered us through Facebook and Twitter, however, come at the expense of ‘social caregiving’: that all-so-important human warmth we all need to thrive cannot be provided by a cell phone, no matter how often you Skype your estranged loved one. It can only be facilitated, or impeded, by the device. Strange, how as screens proliferate and we become more ‘connected’ we are also more socially detached from one another. But that is the flexible ethical dimension inherent to all technology, none more so than ‘dual-use’ technology. And nothing is so emblematic of that dimension than the internet, originally a project of the Pentagon, or so the story goes.
A signature genius of the internet is its ability to reproduce the entirety of its network within any given node, sort of like a fractal in geometry or a rhizome in biology. A fractal is a ‘self-same’ pattern repeated at different scales, while a rhizome functions such that if any piece of a root system is cut from the whole, each piece may give rise to a new plant which will reproduce the organism from whence it came. Contrast this network model (can you imagine the hand wringing that must have gone on within the Pentagon over early versions of the internet?) with that of broadcast television, print media or radio–you can take out a station or tower and the whole network goes down. The internet is horizontal and reflexive; old media unidirectional and vertical. Any unit of the internet is self-sufficient and can exist independently, although full expression is only achieved through connection–being a part of the network. That’s the original genius of the internet preserved in such projects as Wikipedia, WikiLeaks and Open Source Software. It does not reside in Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Apple.
The freedom of the internet has been under constant attack since its inception. We have lost too many battles, perhaps the war. Metastasizing corporations have largely won out, with the Citizens United ruling enshrining the concept of a corporation with all the rights of a person, but none of the responsibilities. The hierarchy so anathema to the genius of the internet has triumphed through pricing people out of the market, political censorship, and monopoly of content. There is a certain poetic injustice in the iconic image of a slum dweller with nothing to eat, clutching a cell phone. The very spread of an inegalitarian internet and its offspring (cell phones) requires the immiseration of human beings.
Recently I picked up my 10-year-old from middle school. As we were making our way home with hundreds of other guardians and their charges, slowly snaking our way through mid-day traffic, I had Max note how many people were ‘dumb driving’ with their ‘smart phones’. The anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least in Marin County, California, we have reached the tipping point. The majority of drivers appeared to be ‘texting while driving’. The use of this technology is now impinging upon our ability to safely conduct our children to and from school.
There they were, heads down squinting into their screens, one hand up on the steering wheel, the other hunting and pecking, all the while operating a ‘loaded weapon’. Something has to give here–and it won’t be our screen time. Perhaps you sit up, excited and ask, does this behavior prefigure coming driverless cars? The Cult of Innovation says we will have such futuristic and cool stuff soon enough and that the rough edges of inequality will be smoothed over. I say we should be mindful not to drive right into such logical cul-de-sacs where we end up forgetting that all technological inventions and innovations are not just defined by their usefulness, but by an ethical dimension that is constantly in flux. When we uncritically celebrate an invention or innovation, an inventor or innovator, we become incapable of evaluating the role such technology plays in our lives. And that suits those among us who thrive on hierarchy, inequality, monopoly and violence.
The shorthand story of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nicolai Tesla is also instructive here. Edison, whose name is synonymous with American ingenuity, was also a ruthless businessman. He developed Direct Current (DC) electricity, but because of the nature of DC power a labor and capital intensive system of sub-stations had to be built every few hundred yards in order to deliver the electricity to paying customers. Moreover, DC, on it’s own, was more dangerous than AC. There was, of course, an alternative. Edison deliberately thwarted the development of Alternating Current (AC) so as to undermine his main business rival, Westinghouse and AC’s inventor, Nicolai Tesla. Tesla, as the story goes, tried to bring to market AC current but was met by an early negative publicity campaign where Edison arranged for the public electrocution of animals–a carnival show bait and switch melodrama–which he blamed on AC power. Aside from being an early example of public relations, Edison’s obsession with profit would extend the life of his ‘steampunk’ industrial substation network far beyond its usefulness, an effort to preserve profit that actually thwarted technological progress and extended and deepened inequality.
A contemporary example of corporate maldevelopment is the well-documented FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) campaigns waged against Open Source Software, Wikipedia and Wikileaks. These ventures are collaborative, not-for-profit ventures that contain within them a more egalitarian, and dare I say so, efficient means of organizing information.
When most people think of Apple, Microsoft and Google, they think of 21st Century paragons of innovation. I think of what damage has come with that innovation, and what’s to come.