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A Threatened Net or a Threatening Net?

The activist and writer Grace Lee Boggs is known for starting conversations and lectures with the following question:

“What time is it on the clock of the world?”

It may be that somebody occasionally mishears the question and interprets it as a genuine inquiry into the proper hour, and thus that person may look for a clock. There is a chance that the person will glance to the watch on their wrist, but to check the time it is far more likely that they will sneak a glance at their smart phone. It rather makes sense that we have become accustomed to checking the hour on phone or tablet screens; after all, it is through using those same devices that we encounter much of the information that would inform our answer to Boggs’ query. We can puzzle for hours over the question of “what time is it,” but something that seems much clearer is that “the clock of the world” is probably a digital one.

Difficult questions that lack a simple or quantifiable answer can often provoke a certain sense of anxiety. The future being a topic about which there is a particular blend of emotions – as a degree of hopeful optimism (if guarded) seems essential for facing the world even as the headlines provide a litany of worries. Yet questions about “the clock” should serve as a subtle reminder that a clock is a piece of technology – one with a long history – and thus, buried within Boggs’ question is a subtle reminder (if possibly unintentional) to consider the tools that surround us. When we consider what time it is, we are reminded to think about how it is that we measure what time it is – and the way in which we have learned to tell time. And it may well be that the main tool by which we mark time today is not the hourglass or wind-up watch – but the Internet.

Though the question is not phrased in exactly the same way as Boggs’ query – the recent study “Digital Life in 2025: Net Threats” (conducted by the Pew Research Center Internet Project) poses a similar set of questions. The Pew study asked participants – not literally – “what time is it on the Internet, and what will this look like in 2025?” The study sought to contemplate trends and anxieties about the Internet regarding governmental control, corporate control, information overload, copyright, net neutrality – and a range of other issues. Whereas many Pew studies provide results that can be easily summed up with statements enthusing that “87% of respondents agreed that…” this study provides no such percentages. Though it may be fair to conclude that 100% of the respondents considered the future of the Internet to be a pressing concern.

The methodology of the study consisted of inviting responses from several thousand individuals identified as “experts and stakeholders” (just under 2,000 of whom replied) – and the questions that were posed were open ended. Those invited to participate included a smattering of individuals associated with academia and public advocacy but primarily seem to represent a fairly comprehensive list of individuals associated with major technology/Internet firms (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Amazon, Netflix, etc…). The responses given to the questions – as befit open ended questions – reflect a continuum that goes from full-tilt optimism (“the forces behind sharing will win” – Jerry Michalski [13] or “By 2025, every human on the planet will be online” – Tiffany Slain [15]) to a more pessimistic, if minority, position (“I am hoping for change [for if things continue on the “current model”]…this will not end well” – Marc Rotenberg [14]). Though the study is titled “Net Threats” it could easily have the subtitle “which you don’t really need to worry about, because the Internet is awesome and things will be okay. Really. Trust us.”

The story of the Internet in 2025, as presented by the respondents to the Pew study, is one that pits the plucky technology enabled populaces (who are adamant about “sharing”) and their tech firm pals against the stodgy control of authoritarian (or simply misguided) governments, dinosaur like telecoms refusing to go quietly into extinction, and cruel copyright holders who do not want to share. The study, importantly, identifies participants with the organizations with which they are affiliated which is a gentle if not too glaring way of reminding readers that few of the respondents could be identified as disinterested observers. Granted, in a society so in thrall to the Internet the notion of a “disinterested observer” is rather anachronistic. Nevertheless, the ideological core that seems at the center of many of the respondents’ answers is either a thinly veiled belief in technological solutions or a robust “cyber-libertarianism.” The majority of the respondents, after all, owe their prestige and position not to their reputations as serious critics of the Internet but as its advocates. All of which makes it particularly amusing to read some of the guardedly Cassandra like predictions. Though, in fairness, the self-selected nature of the respondents (not everybody invited to participate actually responded) makes it difficult to know whether or not some of the more vocal critics simply chose not to respond. Nevertheless, reading over the report it is easy to pine for a heretical voice daring to counter the fealty to the Internet – if only for the contrast it would have represented.

The Pew study is an interesting (and worthwhile) read, primarily because it demonstrates that concerns about surveillance and corporate control are shared by many of the so-called “Gurus” (which is what the Pew report calls them [13]) – though such concerns from some of the respondents has a certain self-serving quality. After all, there is something darkly amusing about individuals associated with major tech conglomerates harping about the control of telecom conglomerates, and something transparent about seeing those whose companies have been made rich by “sharing” criticizing copyright holders. At base the Pew study “Digital Life in 2025” is a projection of the future by those who see a future that will look considerably like the present – arguably a future in which the respondents and their companies will continue to be important figures. And though “people” or “the people” are referred to at many junctures they remain an abstraction.

The discussion of the Internet (as such) is also peculiar when it seeks to isolate “The Internet” from the material reality and infrastructure that is essential for the existence of the Internet. From smart phones to server farms and from wi-fi routers to high-speed cable – when we think about the Internet in 2025 we should bear in mind the material considerations involved. Surveillance and corporate control are not simply about the Internet, but have a great deal to do with the tools used to get online. Furthermore, when we contemplate the possibility that in 2025 there will be “8.1 billion people online” (15) we should not hesitate to ask who mined the minerals and assembled all of those devices – and what will happen to all of the discarded devices? Discussions about the Internet are interesting, but the ethereal vastness of the Internet gives it a certain fantastical quality for we can easily talk about the future of the Internet as if it is some mythical place removed from the constraints and pressures of the physical world (and ecosystem).

Yet, if we return to Grace Lee Boggs’ question – we are still left pondering the time, and to read the Pew study with that question in mind is to be struck by the degree to which it stares at the technological device (the clock/the Internet) and forgets the world around it. It is doubtless that the coming decade will involve many technological shifts around the Internet (such as the explosion of “Internet of Things” devices) – but the last decade should have taught us that the Internet is hardly a panacea – in fact it may be a sedative.

It is enjoyable to forecast the future of the Internet, but we would do well to remember that the Internet is not the same as a mosquito net, and that the flow of information may be stunning but one cannot drink it if thirsty or use it to slake a drought. To be able to dwell on the future of the Internet is to have a responsibility to recognize that one has been freed from more immediate and vital concerns (shelter, water).

The Internet in 2025 is not independent of, but reliant upon, the larger world in 2025. The question is not: what will the Internet look like in 10 years? Nor, for that matter, is the question: what does the Internet look like now? But:

“What time is it on the clock of the world?”

Works Cited:

“Digital Life in 2025: Net Threats”

Boggs, Grace Lee. The Next American Revolution. University of California Press, 2012.

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “A Threatened Net or a Threatening Net?

  1. morlock13
    July 19, 2014

    I think the major problem, along with forgetting the luxury of the internet, is the lack of communication we bear in the ads and little time wasters we’ve become addicted to. This could very well be how The Powers In Charge enforce the idea on us that we’re making changes when we’re really just feeding into a cycle that changes nothing while promoting addictive behavior.

    If we worked together through communication we could change things. Take the gas-strike of the 1970s. That was a community of people working together without the internet. Now the unlimited choices of the online world trick us into believing we’re communicating and making changes, when it’s mainly file-sharing, photo swapping and like-clicking.

    I, myself, keep striving to be part of that change, but I’m not sure it’s what my listeners comprehend.

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