Cyberspace as tool and theatre in the struggle for social change

Part 1 – The digital reformation

As all of you probably (should) have noticed, some rather interesting stuff has been going on in cyberspace lately: while governments and multinational corporations all over the globe are trying to impose ever harsher regulations on ‘net neutrality’ and the access to ‘classified’ and / or copyrighted information, the web itself is becoming rapidly more and more politicized: from the organization and coordination of civil protest through social network services as Facebook and Twitter, to the bypassing of government censorship through the production and distribution of crowd-sourced (audio-visual) accounts of police brutality and government repression; from the hacking and leaking of huge amounts of classified info, to the staging of digital sit-ins at the virtual gates of some of the largest and most powerful organizations in the world; from governments using phishing scripts to spy on their political opponents and ‘persona management software’ to influence and manipulate public debate, to the declaration of cyberspace as a ‘theatre of war’ by NATO, the US government and others; the least one could say is that we’re experiencing some pretty interesting times.

In this series of columns, I’ll try to give an in-depth treatment of these different phenomena, giving some background info on these issue’s as well as putting these developments in a larger (historical) perspective and distilling some practical tips and teachings on how to use cyberspace as a tool and theatre in the struggle for social change. In this first part of the series, however, I’ll limit myself to a general introduction of the notion of ‘the digital reformation’. Enjoy… 😉

Internet and Society

On May 30, 1996, a man called Steven McGeady – who was then vice-president for internet technologies at Intel Corporation – presented a keynote address to the first Harvard Conference on the Internet and Society. It is this rather little-known speech – which was later published in volume 10 of the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology under the title “The Digital Reformation: Total freedom, risk, and responsibility” – that I would like to take as my point of departure for this column.

Now what was it exactly McGeady was saying? First of all, he distances himself from what he calls the ‘more, better’ vision of the future that was rather prevalent at the time: the idea that the way the internet will change our lives, our work, and our society is limited to taking current institutions and dialing them forward, simply putting the words ‘virtual’, ‘electronic’, or ‘cyber’ in front of them and pretend that that is the apex of the future.  On the contrary, he says, “My concern is that we face a much more disruptive, a much less benign, and a much scarier future than we are being told. The future is not something that simply happens to us. It is something we create, and we march toward it blindfolded by the comforting homilies of industry chieftains at our peril.”

McGeady then takes on the hackneyed metaphor of the internet as being a similar technological ‘revolution’ as the Guttenberg printing press. Referencing the work of Max Weber, he points out that “The technology to print comparatively inexpensive copies of manuscripts was necessary but insufficient to really make information accessible in Western society” and thus bring about a radical change in the way society itself was organized: what really made the printing press into an important agent of social change, was not the ability to cheaply print a lot of books, but rather the widespread ability to actually read (and thus also write) these books. And indeed, this widespread ability to read and write only emerged some 50 years after the invention of the printing press, as a consequence of some radical idea’s propagated by a guy called Martin Luther and a movement now widely known as ‘the Reformation’. Or as McGeady puts it: “about 50 years between the invention of an enabling information technology and the radical decentralization of the political and social power in Western Europe. From that point on, it was just a series of steps that led to the Industrial Revolution and our modern industrial society.”

And McGeady goes on to state: “People bandy about the word ‘revolution’ and think that they’re being brave. Revolutions change political systems and governments. They’re certainly disruptive. But the Reformation changed virtually everything about Western society: religion, government, scholarship, education and business. That is what the personal computer and the Internet are inexorably doing: changing not only what we expect them to change, but everything.” However, as stated earlier, according to McGeady the future is not just something that happens to us, but something we ourselves are creating every single day. So as a logical consequence of this, he continues his talk by laying down some dreams and guidelines to create a desired future.

Digital literacy, Cooperation & Community

First of all, McGeady criticizes the ‘client-server’ model of ‘the information superhighway’:  the idea of the internet as a means to “delivering vast amounts of advertising and entertainment to your home and possessing only the ability to send back enough information to pay for it.” Instead, he holds a plea for an internet in which every netizen is able to create and publish their own web-content and express him or her self online, rather then just being passive consumers of prepackaged information / entertainment: “The [digital] reformation is not about the same old stuff turned into bits and delivered to your doorstep in a slightly new way. It’s about creating things on one’s own – interpreting the digital dogma on your own and contributing back into the stream.” (Always keep in mind we are talking 1996 here.) Just as with the printing press though, this implies the widespread ability to ‘read and write’: their is a need for the development of a set of digital literacy skills that every human being should be able to master. I think it’s fair to say we’ve made a pretty good deal of progress on this path during the 15 years since McGeady held his speech, but on the other hand, I also think there is little or no doubt we still have a long way to go here.

A next point McGeady makes is about the need to decentralize internet-infrastructure (and societal institutions in general) to better enable peer-to-peer communication networks and distributed cooperative work: “It is important to note that the PC and the Internet – now, and increasingly, as we get new technologies for distributed work – are truly useful only if users can find other people, band together, and cooperate. The creative ability for an individual in this distributed, cooperative environment, while greatly expanded over previous institutional structures, is currently limited by the technology for distributed communication and poor ease of use of that technology. We must build new technology that allows for interpersonal cooperation on the Internet. In the cooperation of individuals, we get a great deal of strength.” Again, I think it’s fair to say we made a lot of progress in this domain (I’ll talk some more about some of these cooperative technologies in a few upcoming episodes of this series), but all in all, there is definitely also still some room left for improvement here.

Last but not least, McGeady points out the necessity to create context and thus ‘community’ on the web: “Context turns information into knowledge. Context distinguishes a random piece of data from a fact that fits into a larger whole and makes a point, makes a difference. Context is provided by society, but being on the Intemet today is a lot like wandering around a shopping mall that’s been neutron-bombed. There are beautiful store windows and all this beautiful merchandise enclosed behind glass. You can wander around in this place, but there are no other people there. It’s a very spooky, very lonely feeling to be in a place where you see lots of rich information but have no idea whether people are crowded around it or whether no one is there. There is no context provided by the Web. […] Our community provides the social mores, the context in which we can interpret the information around us. […] We need to create the means and the mechanisms to build community on the Network. In the absence of it, I think that we’re doomed to see the Internet continue as a technological trinket and not as a fundamental social force.” And indeed, one of the most important developments we have seen on the internet in the last couple of years is exactly the emergence of social network services, the transition from a neutron-bombed shopping mall to a much more community-based global network. Of course, things can always be better, and it is always our responsibilty to make sure things do get better; but when reading that last quote, I can’t help but wondering if maybe it’s not just a coincidence that, with the emergence of ‘the social network’, internet actually is becoming more and more of a fundamental social force…

As McGeady already said though: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. […] All of us are responsible for inventing the culture and the community that will create the Network of the future, and all of us are responsible for carying forward this digital reformation and ensuring that it turns out the way we want.”

So don’t just be slacking there – you know what you should do… 😉

 

Bram Langmans is columnist at Social Resistance, chief editor at www.maripoza.info and a founding member of www.angeldusted.net