#OccupyCyberspace

I have been around long enough to have both seen, and participated in, the developing life of the Internet for some 25 years. Part of the legacy of this is that I now enjoy – if that’s the correct word – sharing my home with more outdated computer hardware than any sane person should. Another part is seeing the way the Net has now integrated into mainstream life at a level which I and my fellow geeks were predicting and advocating way back in the 1980s.

While now the mainstream media ‘historians’ of the Net focus on (and for the most part appear to celebrate) the spectacular and hungry progress of Facebook/Google-esque phenomena, I count myself fortunate to have experienced the idealism of an earlier incarnation, before the World Wide Web, back when we proudly, affectionately and unselfconsciously called it by the name coined by SF writer William Gibson: ‘Cyberspace’.

You see what is generally forgotten when Social Networking is celebrated as wondrously new-millenial is the fact that back in (or perhaps shortly before) the 1980s computer enthusiasts discovered how to hook-up their home computers to modems and put them online via the domestic phone network. The software they ran allowed other computer users to type public ‘posts’ in threaded discussions, to leave private messages to other users, and to share files. Sound familiar? These host computers were known as BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems), and soon a programmer named Tom Jennings, developed the means for these BBSs to pass their discussion forums (Echoes) and e-mail around the planet via a network which he called ‘FidoNet’. Jennings’ lasting achievement is that FidoNet grew into a free international computer network developed and maintained by amateur enthusiasts and driven largely by simple hobbyist idealism. Yet the fact of this achievement – indeed the fact of the existence of the BBS phenomenon at all – is almost totally ignored by mainstream media commentators on the history of the Internet.

As “Video killed the radio star”, the demise of Fidonet came when Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web transformed the Internet into the graphical, point-and-click interface that we know today. Quickly the Web radically pushed back the accessibility frontiers of the Net. Whereas until this point it had been a simple text-based medium, populated by scientists, programmers, students, hackers and SF romantics like myself, now it was truly delivered into the hands of  ‘ordinary’ people. It is largely because of the Web that the Internet now enjoys comparison with such leaps forward in human history as the Guttenberg Press, and without the subsequent explosion in communication the Web enabled it is unlikely that we would yet have experienced an ‘Arab Spring’ or an ‘Occupy Movement’: this sudden global outcry for emancipation of ideas, for justice, for freedom which we are currently experiencing…

So far so good. But, “So,” you are probably thinking, “why start this blog post with BBSs? Nostalgia?” I would be lying if I said that I don’t harbour great affection for the BBS days, but (aside from making a case for the place of BBSs within the Internet history timeline) what is important here is what the experience of being part of that time bestowed. I came to the Net when it felt like a new frontier, and John Perry Barlow – a founder of the Cyber-rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation – obviously felt the same way:

In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your neighbors are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their physical surroundings look like. Town meetings are continuous and discussions rage on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation schedules. Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net. It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace.
—John Perry Barlow,  “Crime and Puzzlement,” 1990-06-08 [ From Wikipedia's Cyberspace entry.]

 

In his seminal novel Neuromancer, Gibson wrote that Cyberspace is “A consensual hallucination [...] in the nonspace of the mind…”  To many (most?) pioneers, explorers and settlers of early Cyberspace it was a place consisting of ideas : creativity, imagination and the free expression of ideas formed the building ‘materials’ for its communities, formed its currency, and the basis of its shared belief system. But things are bound to change, and Cyberspace has changed rapidly: through astonishing rates of technological development its look and feel have been transformed, its level of accessibility has been transformed, and Cyberspace (or some facsimile of Cyberspace) is now deemed a normal – indeed a necessary part of everyday life… All of which I celebrate, but it is impossible not to contemplate and regret the way the Internet has been shaped – much as the physical world – by massive global commercial corporate interests.

In his excellent blog piece on the state of the Web “It’s the end of the web as we know it” Adrian Short writes:

The open web of free and independent websites has never looked so weak.

Perhaps none of this would matter very much if the biggest player of them all — Facebook — wasn’t such a grotesque abuser of its position. Even before announcing Open Graph this week it was pretty clear that Facebook wanted to own everything everyone does online.

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Facebook’s Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook’s Like button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook. Play a song and your music streaming site tells Facebook what you’ve played. Read a newspaper article and Facebook knows what you’ve read. LOL at a lolcat and your LOL gets logged for all time on your indelible activity record. Facebook calls this “frictionless sharing”, which is their euphemism for silent total surveillance. Once you’ve signed up for this (and it is optional, at least for now) you don’t need to do anything else to “share” your activity with Facebook. It’s completely automatic.

[...]

What most people don’t know is that the Like button tracks your browsing history. Every time you visit a web page that displays the Like button Facebook logs that data in your account. It doesn’t put anything on your wall but it knows where you’ve been. This even happens if you log out of Facebook. Like buttons are pretty much ubiquitous on mainstream websites so every time you visit one you’re doing some frictionless sharing. Did you opt in to this? Only by registering your Facebook account in the first place. Can you turn it off? Only by deleting your account.

Yes this is ‘just’ Facebook (and it’s true that Facebook has had no small part to play in providing a medium for the aforementioned ‘Arab Spring’ et al, for which it must be given due credit) but Facebook is immense in its influence, and it could be argued that for a great mass of the Net populace Facebook is the Net. It could be argued then that this level of success validates Facebooks strategy and methods – but this is surely an argument that serves the corporate interests in their growing domination of what ought to be a human space which celebrates and encourages diversity. The Facebook mentality is one which sees people as commodities. Because Facebook and other enterprises which trail longingly in its wake offer their facilities as ‘free’ the user has no rights in the arrangement. The bigger and more ubiquitous that Facebook and its imitators become, the less chance there will be for operations with more ethical methods and motives to thrive. Big Business will come to own Cyberspace.

Synchronistically though, the physical world is right now going through a similar dystopian moment, and resistance is in plain sight and gaining ground. The world is opening its eyes to the damage that happens when Big Business gets so powerful that people can be exploited and relieved of their human rights and dignity: when Big Business owns the world. The Occupy Movement is showing the way, and I believe that it’s time to start to mirror that resistance in Cyberspace. We need to support groups like the EFF who raise awareness of what is at stake, we need to build more communities  and individual website outposts which aren’t in hock to corporate interests, we need to re-colonise.

To mix SF metaphors, the new currency, the new electricity powering The Matrix, is information: the passions, preferences and inclinations, the memories, the very lives, of billions. So a corporate-owned Internet feeds its users with services fuelled, in effect, by themselves. It’s virtual Soylent Green -  because, as we know, “Soylent Green is people.” If we really want to escape this dystopian situation and have Cyberspace truly fulfil its early promise, we need to Occupy Cyberspace.

One Response to #OccupyCyberspace

  1. Anna Jesuet says:

    A weighty and considered post. You’ve managed to encapsulate the narrative of cyberspace – looked back and looked forward. I think independence is a growing theme as corporations are increasingly considered as powerfully hungry entities who want nothing more than to control, whilst publically avowing the reverse. Brilliant.