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  • Liberation and Oppression on the Net

    Who Is the Big, Bad Wolf?

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Almost from its beginning the Internet's promoters have alternately embraced this communications Hydra as the People's victory over the System, and then fretted about it as the ultimate weapon of the System against the People.

    Awareness of technology's varying potentials is healthy, so far as it turns our attention toward the choices through which we realize one potential or the other. Unfortunately, however, this shift of attention has not yet occurred.

    On the one hand, the source of liberation has largely been looked for in the technology itself, rather than in the deepened wisdom of its users. Microprocessors, distributed intelligence, packet switching, and publicly available encryption technology typically figure strongly in this view.

    On the other hand, the Net's oppressive powers are usually attributed to manipulations by "them" -- anonymous power brokers, whether in huge commercial enterprises, the shadowy military-industrial complex, or the regulatory agencies.

    On either view, you and I seem to be pawns in a game for which we share little responsibility.

    Of late, the rhetorical balance seems to be tilting in favor of the System's machinations and against the People's mechanisms. The tilt is reflected, for example, in the remark with which a colleague passed to me a story about the threat of censorship on the Net:

    "The idea that the Net is intrinsically, by architecture, a haven for free speech that can't be `shut down' to silence people may be a truism that like many such will blow away under the breath of the big bad wolf."

    We can only hope that the truism is being blown away, since human values -- including those embedded in the "free speech" slogan -- can never be underwritten in any essential way by technology. But that does not mean we should leap to the other end of the balance and become obsessed with the big, bad wolf. Yes, there will always be organized attempts to curtail freedoms -- and these need attending to -- but that is not the direction from which the greatest dangers arise today.

    After all, the early features of the Net that made censorship difficult -- the scads of BBSs, the overall string-and-baling-wire architecture, and the infinitely flexible routing -- are all either still there more powerfully than ever, or more easily institutable (and on a larger scale) than before. Moreover, the social resistance to censorship remains resolute.

    The threat of censorship as usually conceived is one that, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, we have consciously moved away from. We were moving away from it even during the sole reign of the three, government-regulated television networks, when as a society we indulged in a steadily more enervating diet of violence, sex, and outrageousness. During the big, bad network era, Joseph McCarthy metamorphosed into Archie Bunker. That doesn't look like a rigidifying pattern of censorship, even if it does look like the triumph of mindlessness.

    The mindlessness may, in fact, be the essential point. The real dangers arise at both ends of the balance, where you and I offload responsibility upon impersonal powers. It hardly matters in this context whether we vest our hopes in the mechanisms of technology or vest our fears in the machinations of the System. In either case it is the mindlessness itself -- the failure to be fully awake to our own choices and their consequences -- that threatens our undoing.

    So while it is perfectly fine to point a finger at, say, the commercial behemoths dominating the media, we need to recognize the critical degree to which the finger is self-referential. As a society we've shown a strong proclivity toward the kind of features and production values that large, powerful, commercialized operations are best at providing. The television model is rapidly showing up on the Net, through no one's fault but our own. Number of hits (ratings), fast action, entertainment first, a "where it's happenin'" mentality -- these count more and more. Hardly surprising, when you consider that we're the same people who established the earlier patterns of television usage.

    We yield up our freedom when we function on the half-conscious level that energizes the technological and economic structures feeding us mind-numbing production values. There's a kind of self-imposed censorship here. We can't be free while acting at the level of reflex, association, and instinct.

    In other words, you and I are the ones who huff and puff and inflate the big bad wolf to monstrous proportions. I'm not aware that the hundreds of thousands of employees in the wolfish corporations are very much different in their work ethic, moral values, and general purposes from those of us in most other corporate settings. We willingly merge ourselves into one seamless operation, from board member to janitor. The Apple Computers and Microsofts of our society continually progress, or try to progress, from challenging Big Brother to being Big Brother -- all as a result of a "natural" evolution to which most of us yield ourselves in our own corporate and consumer contexts every day.

    Where, then, does the bad of the big bad wolf arise? Only from that same pattern of "innocent," half-awake behavior that is to be found in nearly every corporation. A System can only sustain itself in the presence of a drowsy people willing to be Systematized.

    At the other end of the balance, much the same sort of mindlessness underwrites the faith in technology's redeeming potentials, and with the same consequences. In this regard, it is important to realize that the logic of the Net itself is...logic -- digital logic. And logic wants to be universal, ever more rigorous, more tightly woven. Logic, that is, wants to be articulated with logic, until there is perfect, overall consistency.

    It is not hard to imagine that the increasing universalization and rationalization of computerized technology will lead to new forms of oppression, despite all hope placed in it -- no, because of the hope, which betrays an inattention to ourselves. In the end, we will find that the technological juggernaut is identical in nature with the System. The faceless machinations of sleepwalking corporations and the automatic mechanisms of technology were made for each other.

    But logical, self-sustaining mechanisms (whether manifested in thought, social institutions, or machinery) can become thus fixed, rigid, and coercive only when we sacrifice our freedom and our mindfulness to them -- when we cease to be fully awake. A set of rigid structures is, in fact, the best evidence that we are not awake. If the Net is indeed evolving in the direction of such structures -- if we are breathing new life into the big, bad wolf -- then the situation is indeed grave. But the first step in any true remedy is for each of us to look within.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: Liberation and Oppression on the Net :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/wolf.html

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