Web 2.0: An Alternative Vision

31 December 2010


Whither the Web?

A Warning for the New Year

One of the most disturbing things about dictatorship and political manipulation during the twentieth century was the skill and sophistication that the power-hungry brought to novel forms of mass media. The German experience of Nazism, which ought to be a lesson that no Westerner ever forgets, would have been impossible without the skillful use of mass media for nefarious ends. The newsreel and the radio broadcast were as central to Nazi control as mass party rallies. More recently, the simplified and streamlined genocide in Rwanda (in contrast to the technological sophistication of the Nazi genocide) made extensive use of radio broadcasts to target victims. Newspapers, magazines, radio, film, and television created a new mass media climate, and this media climate was mastered with with surprising rapidity by the most brutal elements of society, making it possible for a violent minorities to seize control of nation-states, to intimidate and terrorize their rivals, and to dictate their ideological fantasies to the masses.

The telecommunications revolution of the twentieth century (getting its start in the nineteenth century with the telegraph and transoceanic cables) seemed to realize its implicit promise in the emergence of the internet in the late twentieth century. I got my first laptop and my first e-mail address in 1996. At this time, the internet was like the Wild West: wide open, competing standards, no consensus on what would happen next. It was a riot of activity and innovation in a newly created world that simply did not exist ten years previously. It was messy and unpredictable, and it was fascinating.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the still new and still innovative internet began to change even faster as interactive web applications became more common. We now typically refer to this mutation as Web 2.0, and if the initial emergence of the internet seemed to promise universal access and communication without the intervention of the state, Web 2.0 seemed to be an acceleration of this development, with mass collaboration on social networking and information websites. This development suggested a level of democratization that was unprecedented in the history of the world.

But all is not well in the wide, wonderful world of Web 2.0. China has walled its citizens off from the rest of the world by its Great Firewall of China, and the growing market power of China, now the second largest economy in the world, has made the large industries associated with the internet willing to compromise themselves in order to do business with the regime: they receive their thirty pieces of silver, and the people of China are imprisoned by an information network that seems to promise universal and free expression, but which in fact represents only a censored fragment of what is common knowledge elsewhere in the world.

Recent events have demonstrated that the advanced industrialized democracies, which have prided themselves on their openness, and have attributed their social stability and economic success to this same openness, are little better than China when they perceive their interests to be threatened. It has been a shock to me personally to see how quickly and how easily media outlets and internet industries have been willing to abandon WikiLeaks because they made a few powerful people angry. This ought to be a lesson to us all. As long as you discuss film and fashion, download pornography or gamble online, you are no threat to the established order, but if you cross the line into political activity, and you reach a worldwide audience, you will find yourself without friends and without protectors. You may even find yourself with the most powerful nation-state in the world pursuing you, and seeking to charge you with espionage though you are not a citizen, not a resident, none of your activities occurred within the territory of said nation-state, and you are not subject to the laws of that nation-state.

We have come to the point where there is a difference in degree between the political control exercised by the advanced industrialized democracies and one-party states like China, Burma, and North Korea, but there is not a difference in kind. That is to say, we have more freedom of expression and more openness than rogue states and dictatorships, but we don’t have freedom and openness simpliciter.

The handful of people who run the world’s governments are not stupid. They have proved by their deeds that they know how to seize power, how to retain power, and how to use power to their own ends. They will not willingly forgo the opportunity to use the potential power of the internet in order to consolidate their grip on power. It would be contrary to their nature to do so, and it would therefore be foolish of us to expect anything different.

All over the world, among individuals of all races and persuasions, East and West, rich and poor, influential and anonymous, privileged and underprivileged, there are persons who believe that they know better than you know what is in your own best interest. While the poor and anonymous and underprivileged are rarely a direct threat to us because of their lack of resources, they constitute the power base of those who are rich and influential and privileged. Without the Lumpenproletariat of the technological age, those who would arrogate to themselves the status of deciding the fates of others would have no power. Even in nation-states with advanced political and social institutions which seem to have supplanted the ancient institutions of pre-modern societies, we find implicit within the social milieu of our time the client-patron networks that have been the backbone of societies as diverse as the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mogul Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the British Empire. These client-patron networks connect diverse individuals and social classes into a unified social system in which each serves the interests of the other.

The new telecommunications technologies of the twentieth century seemed to promise the empowerment of individuals; the age of the dictatorial social milieu seemed to be coming to an end. It has been argued, and still is argued, that telephones, photocopiers, fax machines, and other media of “first wave” of the telecommunications revolution, make it impossible to silence the individual who is determined to speak out. But the institutionalized state was not far behind. Telephones can be tapped. Photocopiers can be monitored. Faxes can be intercepted. Typewriters can be licensed. And so it is with the internet. China has shown how even something as large, as amorphous, and as buzzing with activity as the internet can be managed, within limits, and now the Western powers are learning from this police state how it can police its own internet traffic. And the institutionalized industries of the internet, who have refined their techniques of information control in East Asia at the behest of one-party states, can bring their expertise in stifling dissent back to the West.

We all know the mythology of the large computer and internet companies of today: how they began in garages, were run by people who were passionate and enthusiastic about what they were doing, how they were contemptuous of the institutions of polite society, and how they proved the skeptics wrong. Now these companies have grown up. They are no longer housed in garages. They have plush office suites, boards of directors, stock tenders, and a great many people earning high salaries, who, after proving their success to a skeptical world, would not now want to come down in the world, having won their battle for recognition, prestige, and wealth. These industries now have vested interests, and they no more want to upset the status quo than the record industry wanted to stop selling cassettes and CDs. And this is why they cooperate with government authorities.

We need to recognize that the internet is a mass media, and that the collaborative applications of Web 2.0 are the full flowering of a truly mass media in which the masses participate as masses in the production of their own media. It requires but little political imagination to see that the mass media of Web 2.0 could be as quickly and as cleverly manipulated by institutionalized powers as newspapers, magazines, radio, film, and television. Web 2.0 is, in fact, all of these things and more. There are streaming radio broadcasts and endless videos on Youtube and Hulu, and endless media outlets. None of these things are beyond the control of the state.

As against the mindless happy talk that persists in portraying internet technologies as empowering the masses, there is the warning from history — many warnings from history, in fact, but the twentieth century lesson of dictatorships that have consolidated and extended their powers through mass media manipulation is the lesson most germane to our experience today — that tells us that every technological innovation inevitably will be exapted by institutionalized powers to serve their ends.

There are a handful of people today who are not merely talking the talk — which, all too often, is mere “happy talk” about freedom and democracy — but who are walking the walk at great risk of personal sacrifice. Among them we may count Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo in China, and Julian Assange, wherever he is being held at the moment. While these figures are a diverse lot, and we may admire some even while detesting others, we owe it to ourselves, to the possibility of self-determination for ourselves and for others in the future, to defend them all in whatever capacity we are able to do so. Julian Assange has a rape charge pending against him. Who wants to be associated with a rapist? No one. The institutionalized powers know this, and they play upon it.

The fight for WikiLeaks to make documents public in the Western democracies and the fight for activists like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo to speak out publicly in China are intimately related. One cannot avoid noticing that these struggles are taking place in the two largest economies in the world at present. Today, these are the fights worth fighting. This is the good fight. It is not a fight of nation-state against nation-state, nor class against class, but of individuals against institutions that seek to regiment the life of the individual for the convenience of those institutions and those who control and benefit from the institutions.

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One Response to “Web 2.0: An Alternative Vision”

  1. […] It’s a very good post, thoughtful and reasoned. Here’s a quote. I recommend you read all of it. […]

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