The net is a complex of computers, devices and [increasingly] organisms connected via a global communications network. The web is all the info you consume from pages you see when you are online… like this one.
Your experience of digital space is figured by what you access it through: the thing you, carry, cradle, and caress. Remember this as you explore and remember to look up when you cross the road.
Here, we have created a web archive. On its PCs and devices, you can see some cherry-picked examples of the changing nature of Internet expression through time.
Web pages, memes, comments, articles, blogs and so on are crafted in the physical realm. They are intrinsically linked to the devices on which they are produced. Forgetting the hardware and software that mediates our interaction with the web is like trying to understand woodwork without a knowledge of chisels, saws and drills.
Takes us to a slideshow, buried somewhere in the Oslo University web server. The PDF, entitled “Generativity : Supporting innovation” defines the term “generative” as:
“A system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.”
Found in the footnote of a Wikipedia page on the topic of generativity, one imagines the anonymous university lecturer had no intention of this PDF becoming a broadly disseminated piece of web content, even the opening quotation of a short essay on internet creativity. But here we are, and with us we have as good an illustration of net generativity as any other.
From foundational open source code to cat video, human activity powers the digital world. Whether that content is base, amoral, beautiful, helpful, evil, illegal or irrelevant is itself irrelevant.
Open the bonnet of a BMW and you are presented with an impenetrable polycarbonate shell. Your relationship with this technology is didactic - you do what it allows. You have no place under the hood, no need to understand or tinker with the mechanics. Curiosity comes with a health warning, you are told. Just sit back, relax and drive.
A bicycle is the opposite. There is no hiding its works and, if so inclined, you can quite quickly understand its assemblies and sub assemblies. As a technology it invites participation, adaptation, repair, augmentation.
The social web began as a bike, but its mechanics are now encased within the HTML equivalent of thick polycarbonate. We are all told we are the creators of social experiences online, when in fact we are restricted consumers of refined and addictive social products. This trend will only amplify as more of the world accesses the network through cheap mobile devices on zero-rated platforms peddled by the joint ventures of platforms and device producers.
However, like all naturally occurring phenomena, the genotypical and phenotypical nature of web content has evolved dramatically by adapting to external influences. These are the rise of closed box, centrally managed internet enabled appliances, private monolithic platforms, meddling nation states and the armies of engineers, marketeers and artificial intelligences they employ.
From the tinkerer-oriented, flexible, crashy, open modalities of the original personal computers, to the never-freeze-always-on distraction engines: what content is created online has changed as the modes through which it is consumed have too.
In 2006 Jonathan Zittrain predicted, warned against and proposed ways around the potentially deleterious future pathway of the net. He ported the term generativity from psychoanalysis and used it to describe the creative force of the internet. In naming the phenomenon, Zitrain was hoping to protect against it. Back in the early 2000s he feared the rise of simplified network connected devices, known as “internet appliances”. These appliances would limit and simplify how internet media was consumed and created, commonly under the pretence of consumer ease and choice. He was concerned that the proliferation of these devices would destroy network generativity and put the fundamental ecosystemic premises of the network itself at risk.
The iPhone is the canonical example of a “closed box” internet appliance; so too is a consumption oriented application such as Netflix. Within these appliances, the modalities of consumption and production are strictly limited to a set of values defined, designed, ordered, updated and controlled by a central entity. More often than not the value systems of that entity are market share, attention regulation and profit.
“One vital lesson from the past is that the endpoint matters,” Zittrain wrote. “Too often, a discussion of the Internet and its future stops just short of its endpoints, focusing only on the literal network itself: how many people are connected, whether and how it is filtered, and how fast it carries data. These are important questions, but they risk obscuring the reality that people’s experiences with the Internet are shaped at least as much by the devices they use to access it.”
In short, the more restricted our access to the internet becomes, through devices and platforms, and the more apathetic or anaesthetised the general public is about this, the more the internet will become a tool for consumption, distraction and corporate fiscal and social hegemonies rather than the site for education, openness, emancipation, resistance and creativity that it could be.
As the internet has proliferated in more corners of life, so life has textured and coloured the experience of the internet. The net is not quite a mirror but an immense and ever changing Bruegellian tapestry of human culture: a sublime and detailed rendition of a particular story. It is naive to imagine that this story would be totally rosy. Criticism of the web that focuses solely on its harms (bullying, racism, spam, revenge porn and so on) fails to acknowledge its fundamental agnosticism. It is a tool, not an agent.
Like the works of Bruegel, the internet is phenomenologically complex. One can traverse myriad types and forms of content in a few clicks, taps, or swipes. The hierarchy of this experience is ordered by applications, algorithms, search, hyperlinks, metadata, fancy and fluke.
The vast quantity of content is now created and consumed within the confines of closed-box, non generative, internet appliances in the form of Youtube, Netflix and Facebook through devices that further confine its experiences mobile devices, watches, Alexas, fridges.
Zittrain’s warnings have come to pass. Together these platform and appliance giants order the modalities by which internet media is consumed and created. And because traffic through their spaces is so vast, they have to be extremely restricted by design. Openness, adaptability and augmentation would present vast structural security and maintenance issues and make the user base far harder to analyse,and thus control.
It is in this way that our interaction with the social net has become more BMW than bicycle.
The vast scale of market share is why all social media pages look the same. Gone are the days of tweaking the code of your myspace or Geocities site to more closely reflect your internet self. Now, all social interactions and pages have to conform to the organizational logics of a centrally planned system.
If the social spaces of the internet are to be perceived as architectures (and after all, the term architecture is commonly used in engineering), then the actual structure of the social net is incredibly monotone and banal - the only user-led alterations permitted by the centrally planned authorities are window dressing at most.
To many, this might not seem like a big deal. But when these platforms become the principal means of community expression, interaction and even business, there is a vast waste of potential in terms of expression and a vast gain in the value of the central organisation to figure those communities’ self-expression and activity. However anodyne and innocent the intention may be, reach of this extent must be called into question.
When the majority of information media is organised by a handful of companies, our experience of the internet is ordered, coloured and updated by the product teams of those companies. What is lost in that process? And as their presence proliferates to more corners of life (think Facebook portal, Google Home) our understanding of the potential of the internet is being shut out too. These appliances can only be used in highly specific ways for narrow ends. It's not a great issue if a company like Hoover becomes synonymous with suction, but what will it mean when Facebook is synonymous with the internet?
This might sound dystopian, but it is what Facebook is trying to do through its zero rated service Free Basics.
Free Basics is the platform's free service that aims to provide highly restricted but free internet access to consumers throughout the global south, particularly in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia. This extremely selective view of the world of online media is imperialist propaganda at an immense scale and has nothing to do with the power of the internet in changing the lives of the global poor. It is about the extension of corporate reach into previously untapped markets. Recently India's far reaching Net Neutrality legislation has rendered these highly restrictive “zero rated” services untenable, because of the limitations they enforce on the experience of the network, much to the chagrin of Facebook [see https://savetheinternet.in/].
The collusion of media companies such as Facebook and infrastructure companies such as Airtel (in the case of India) is nothing new. This was seen in the 80s and 90s as TV era conglomerates partnered with telecoms companies and raced to monopolize the airwaves. There is no evidence to suggest that access to the internet is directly related to emancipation from economic or social ills particularly if that access is highly controlled and restricted [see the Global Voices report on Free Basics here].
A seemingly benevolent Silicon Valley firm offering highly restricted access to online services is no different to censorship and surveillance carried out by questionable political regimes. Their goals are shared: to further establish their position of power and use the social net to push a particular worldview as far as possible.
Free Basics, the product component of a corporate joint-venture called “Internet.org” says it all.
The internet is not a force for anything in particular. It amplifies, funnels and augments, but it is not fundamental to resistance or freedom. As one Burmese law student during the current protests against the February 1 military coup put it:
"They make a huge mistake if they think people are motivated by the online communications. The passion is engraved in people's heart."
But what of those hearts engraved more deeply by hate? There is certainly an internet for them too.
In our cities and public spaces, manifestations of action are being carried out by increasingly extreme sections of culture, fuelled by conversations online. From the Pizza Pingpong turned crime scene, fakenews rape riots, right up to the storming of the Capitol in 2021, we are seeing a proliferation of actions in the physical world that find their genesis or at least maintenance in digital space. Does the funneling of internet activity through certain channels and modes of interaction also engender certain kinds of action and network effects?
The lack of hierarchy within internet space means that the difference between grass roots and top down is increasingly meaningless too. Trump, through Twitter, can communicate on the same plane as the Proud Boys and both can “indirectly” collaborate to enact terror in political spaces of the city.The Black Lives Matter Movement gets slammed by the right wing press and in the hateful comments section while dictators learn their social media tactics from dissidents.
Disinformation races around Facebook pages and fuels political unrest in Myanmar (where at the time of writing all mobile access has been cut off by the recent military coup). Meanwhile in Russia, the Kremlin-funded Internet Research Agency employs thousands of professional trolls to intimidate, undermine and control its part of the networks, and in Belarus (as in many other states) "internet outages" are used to control the chatter during critical moments such as elections or coups.
We are coming to learn that the emancipatory power of the internet as a news source and force for political good becomes highly questionable, when its platforms can so easily disinform and their infrastructures are open to control by corporations and ruling elites. The internet is an extra-state operation, far from the social polis.
Regardless of your politics, righteous leftie comment streams, Qanon conspiracies, dark 4chan forums - all this is content too. And, as neural networks become commonplace in our experience of media online, it is more than fake news we are going to have to spot. Bring in the world of “fake whos” as our growing artificial intelligences begin to show us near perfect re-renderings of our words, our voices, our images, our celebrities and our leaders, further adding the non-human to the sublime confusion that the digital plays in our seemingly civic and human-centric lives. Perhaps though this increasing artifice will shed clearer light on this Brueghelian parallel and afford us a clearer view of the human outside of the machine.
1 See https://www.fordfoundation.org/media/2976/roads-and-bridges-the-unseen-labor-behind-our-digital-infrastructure.pdf
3 http://futureoftheinternet.org/files/2013/06/ZittrainTheFutureoftheInternet.pdf (pg 80)
4 Myanmar’s Internet Shutdown Is an Act of ‘Vast Self-Harm’: https://www.wired.com/story/myanmar-internet-shutdown