Computing in Context week 1: Hippie's Internet
Updated: Nov 12, 2019
There was a time in my life when Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace would have excited me; my final rationale defense for undergrad was thematically similar and I'm surprised this piece didn't appear in my coursework toward that end. I remember distinctly my advisor checking my utopianism as we were wrapping up the colloquium, reminding me that McLuhan had similarly checked his own high hopes for what new educational methods television could provide by presciently (and correctly) warning that tv in the hands of the few could morph the medium into a method of thought manipulation.
I'm ten years post-defense and Barlow's words match that retrospectively-observed naiveté. His declaration was written in the early years of web 2.0, when the internet was capitalized as the Internet and populated by a fairly privileged class of early adopters, who are vanguards by nature (or at least the most likely to explore experimental/revolutionary ideas). So yes, those who were "coerced into conformity" could find their flock online, radical concepts found a platform in front of an audience that had been thirsty for something that challenged the status quo, and gate-kept knowledge broke open into the hands of those kept at bay by plutocratic methods of info-inaccessibility.
I think what Barlow was blind to however was that power and government are not the same thing; what we are currently suffering now was not manifested by a bureaucracy, but actually by patriarchal colonio-capitalism acting within the same Libertarian mindset that Barlow enthused. No social contract kept Mark Zuckerberg from wiping the floor with congresspeople during his hearings.
I think it’s here where Barlow falls victim to what Johanna Drucker calls a “misfire of analysis” that allowed theoreticians to fall into the belief that the internet is a frontier free from the definitions of the material as constructed by paradigms of Western power structures, and thereby holding space for this potential “digitally-propelled revolution.” Those informing the construction of the internet acted from within walls built by and maintained by these same paradigms— the ”materiality” of the digital (or the organization of information by way of design/layout/paths of discovery) were mapped out by individuals/entities/institutions who have historically benefited from expansionist mapping and I can’t help but wonder what could have been if other voices had been invited to those initial conversations. .
Perhaps because navigational pathways of the digital were drawn within this same ontology, it left them vulnerable to those who saw an opportunity to freely capitalize without oversight or accountability. This “move fast and break things” model greatly benefitted from the digital “immunity to sovereignty” so trusted by Barlow in the same way colonizers benefitted by revolting against a monarchy. Expansionist Enlightenment thinkers thought they were at the forefront of liberty, too, at a great and violent cost that reverberates loudly to this day.
I have SO much more to say here. Will expand later.
(cover image by Ted Wood)