Siva Vaidhyanathan


There is no such thing as the Internet

Sect 7 Day 3: Presentation by Siva Vaidhyanathan (08.03.11) from UCHRI Video on Vimeo.

Although most of the core technologies that enabled the phenomenon were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, The term “the Internet” came into wide circulation in the early 1990s, when its nature and function was alien enough to generate poor metaphors such as “Information Superhighway.” The term “the Internet” was intended to signify a “network of networks,” and exemplify the potential of connecting via protocols disparate and diverse networks of computers and thus — possibly — disparate and diverse humans operating computers at the endpoints of the discreet networks. From its earliest days, “the Internet” was aspirational. It tricked us into believing that even if there were no universal “network networks”, deviations from the universalism and standardization of digital communication networks were exceptional, not usual or widespread. The ideology of “the Internet” was embedded in the proliferation of the very term. From the perspective of the wealthy and wired places on Earth, “the Internet” was just that: a universal phenomenon and universalizing force. It also seemed like an exceptional “place” or “state of being.” Internet exceptionalism, as expressed by such early Internet-savvy writers as David Weinberger in his influential book, The Cluetrain Manifesto and Small Pieces Loosely Joined echoed the theme elucidated by John Perry Barlow in his “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”: that the Internet was a special place with its own set of laws (if any). Everything was different “on the net.” We were not just citizens of our nation-states. We were “netizens.” We could escape to some place called “Cyberspace,” where we could be truly free. We would defend this new space against the power-greedy efforts of analog states.

There were three problems with this vision: 1) There never was a distinct virtual space, and that’s getting more obvious every day. We are now committed to embedding digital communication in its various forms (not all of which are “Internet”-based) into our real lives and bodies. We carry devices that augment “reality.” We look up and down from screens throughout the day. “The Internet” is no longer some “place” one goes to “log on” for a limited period of the day. For billions of people, one must actively “log off” to sever the flows of personalized digital data. As billions of people engage with electronic networks

2) There never was a universal digital network, a “network of networks,” and that’s getting more obvious every day. For more than 15 years the “Chinese Internet” has been distinct and segregated in important ways from the “Internet” experience of North America, Europe, Japan, and South Korea. State censorship is acute and powerful in China. But it is not total nor consistent. And while China is merely the most frequently cited censor of “Internet” communication, it is far from the greatest or only offender. Turkey, India, Italy, France, and Australia regularly and systematically limit access to materials that area easily available in the United States. The recent showdown between the People’s Republic of China and Google merely demonstrated the extent of the chasm between the global reality of disconnected networks and the popular and normalized assumptions.

3) Even in the more liberal parts of the world, private interests and proprietary networks are becoming the norm. And more states — including powerful elements of the United States government such as the National Security Agency — are striving to re-engineer relatively open networks so they are more controllable from above. So we may be at the end of what was a wild party of relatively open networks connecting substantial parts of the world.

There are many powerful interests pushing to re-establish the mythology and hegemony of “The Internet.” Among these are Google and the United States Department of State. But there is no reason to believe that the myth of “The Internet” will survive this decade.


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