Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There is a chance that this page took quite a while to load. Or that this particular site is now taking longer to load than it did in the past. There’s also a chance that it loaded at the same rate as it normally does, but that this time next week it will be loading much slower. There’s even a chance that this site has been blocked – which raises the question of how you’re even reading it. Of course, there’s a chance that it’s loading at the same rate that it normally loads because you’ve signed on, through your Internet Service Provider (ISP) for some manner of expensive package that this site is somehow lumped in with. And, there is also the chance that you have come to this site from one of the countries in the world where it’s already common for some sites to load more slowly than others.
This opening spiel refers to the recent 3-2 vote by the FCC to dismantle the regulations that have generally gone under the heading of “Net Neutrality.” These were rules that meant that ISPs were not allowed to block certain sites, and that the ISPs were not allowed to charge websites more for particular services (such as streaming video). It means that Verizon can’t make it so that the Wall Street Journal loads faster than Democracy Now! and it means that your service provider can’t make you pay for specific service packages that split the Internet up into little fiefdoms of “social,” “streaming,” “gaming,” and the like. It also means that Netflix hasn’t reached a deal with the ISPs to make its site load faster than those of its competitors. While the fact that the FCC’s vote went the way it did is not altogether surprising (despite public opinion, and some fishy things in the public commenting process), the news of the decision still set off an expected wave of anger. This gnashing of teeth and shaking of fists was most prominently displayed in online spaces (like Twitter and Facebook), the very types of spaces to which users may have diminished (or costlier) access in the future. Of course, there is a chance that the FCC’s decision will go nowhere – multiple states are suing the FCC, and Congress can also pass legislation making Net Neutrality the true law of the land.
Lest there be any doubt, there are serious reasons to be concerned and outraged about the death of Net Neutrality. There is a legitimate danger that this will lead to ISPs blocking access to certain sites, and privileging access to others, something which is a particular threat to alternative media. This move will likely serve to only enhance the power of the companies and platforms that are already large and powerful, while making it even more difficult to compete (when Google loads five times faster than any of its competitors, who will bother using any competing search engine?). There is the matter of history in that the Internet owes its origins to public investment and that the FCC has now just gifted this publicly financed technology to the private sector. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has explained, this puts large capitalist conglomerates in charge of access to online spaces that have provided important outlets for minority groups.
Granted, also lingering in the background is the argument that the whole Net Neutrality debate is a squabble between massive companies wherein the public is being mobilized to defend the business interests of Google and Netflix (companies which might wind up footing the bill to ensure that their sites aren’t blocked or slowed down). After all, companies like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (to name a few) have all benefited mightily from Net Neutrality. These companies know that they’ll start hemorrhaging users if ISPs start to slow down access, and thus it is quite likely that it’ll actually be these companies that wind up having to pay the ISPs (as opposed to you). Or to put it another way, Facebook wants you to use Facebook more than you want to use Facebook, and it will probably be more important to Facebook to ensure your access isn’t slowed than it will be to you.
Nevertheless, the death of Net Neutrality should not be taken lightly. And yet, the responses to this death should lead us to think creatively about responses, and to think critically about what our reactions say about the present state of affairs.
It may be a point so obvious as to be banal, but one thing the reaction reveals is the degree to which people have become highly reliant on the Internet. And what’s more, it shows the extent to which many people seem to be uncomfortably aware of this. For many people the Internet is something they engage with every day, and in many cases they may engage with it almost constantly during their waking hours. Thus these changes, to a certain respect, represent a reconfiguring of daily life for many individuals. The Internet’s success is not solely a result of cheaper devices by which to get online (though that is certainly important), but is also related to the fact that the Internet is a fast way to do things. Indeed, two days before the FCC’s decision, many people in the US had their attention fixed to websites watching as election results from Alabama were tallied nearly instantaneously. It does not seem like an overly hyperbolic assumption to suggest that fewer people would use Twitter if it took twenty minutes for new tweets to load, “google it” probably would not have become such a convenient shorthand for “look it up” if it took ten minutes for search results to load, and who would order food online if this made the ordering process take ten times longer than just calling the restaurant. The Internet has become a convenient shortcut for doing just about everything (yes, this is an exaggeration), and thus the threat of a slowdown, the threat of potentially being blocked from certain sites, hits many people as a personal attack – even if it is one that they’ll eventually be able to get around by glumly coughing up the extra few dollars a month their ISP starts charging them for the “social media +” package. The Internet has become a regular feature of daily life for many people, and they aren’t eager to have this messed with.
It is not just that Netflix doesn’t want to have to pay Verizon to make sure its content is being given preferential treatment, people who watch Netflix don’t want the service to be slowed either. And those who already subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and AmazonPrime will probably be just as irritated by the platforms themselves if the original content on Hulu loads but AmazonPrime’s content stops to buffer every fifteen seconds. There is a certain degree to which much of the framework around Net Neutrality is one that sees the user solely as a consumer – both in terms of buying things, and in terms of consuming content. To restate a line that was used earlier: Netflix wants you to watch Netflix more than you want to watch Netflix, if you decide to watch Hulu because it’s faster (or decide to – good heavens! – do something else) the loser here is Netflix. Adorno has his revenge by being proved correct in his comments that:
“The culture industry intentionally integrates its consumer from above…Thus, although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object.” (Adorno, 99)
While the Internet had already served to “integrate” its users into the broader technological system, the role of the various companies demonstrates another level of integration. What Net Neutrality threatens is to undue the patina of free choice (Netflix or Hulu, Google or Yahoo, Amazon or Etsy), by allowing the decisions of the consumer to be truly chosen from above.
Granted, it is not fair to frame all Internet use in terms of droll consumption of mass culture. After all, while these are some of the obvious problems that seem to strike the broad swath of Internet users, there are also many who are particularly concerned about what this might mean for various activist causes. What will this mean for non-mainstream news sites? How will this effect activist blogs? What happens to small e-commerce sites selling handmade goods? What will be the impact on those who, as McMillan Cottom explained, have traditionally been excluded? As much of the work of organizing has moved online (to say nothing of activist campaigns that have raised awareness through hashtags and videos uploaded to YouTube), the sudden threat that capital will be in even more control of these online spaces threatens to make the already difficult work of activists even harder. If, following from the point that Google wants you to use Google more than you want to use Google, the Internet giants are able to pay ISPs to ensure their content is given priority, what gets slowed down? Potentially much of the alternative and activist content that can’t make an offer that will be lucrative to the ISPs. CNN will probably be fine, but will Democracy Now?
Ultimately undergirding much of the concern about the death of Net Neutrality, even if it is rarely said aloud, is the fact that the death of Net Neutrality represents the death of a powerful myth: that of the utopian Internet. The Internet has long stood as a popular symbol for freedom, and openness – a view of it that was immortalized in John Perry Barlow’s (bold and highly problematic) “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” It has appeared as a technology with wonderful potential to liberate – a story that is emphasized with every breathless news story of an activist hashtag campaign or a YouTube video that galvanizes people to action. The death of Net Neutrality reveals this to be the fairy tale it has always been. It is a story that we have told ourselves, and it is a story that we have let ourselves be told, but it turns out this has been a tale with a distinctly unreliable narrator. This is the legend we tell ourselves about the Internet because it allows us to overlook the fact that the Internet has largely become a surveillance mall dominated by a few big box stores in which you are relentlessly harassed as you go from one megastore to the next. This is a myth that has been constructed by emphasizing the Internet’s roots in the 1960s counterculture as opposed to its roots as a Cold War military technology. It is a myth that has been sustained by pointing to how the Internet makes each of its users powerful, while obscuring the fact that this sense of power is reliant on these same users becoming ever more reliant on the Internet. And it is a tale that encourages people to overlook the widespread centralization of power and authority by peddling the ridiculous tale that anyone with an Internet connection can take on Google, or CNN, or their government. To return to a powerful line from Erich Fromm (which this site admittedly cites quite often):
“There is also no strength in use and manipulation of objects; what we use is not ours simply because we use it.” (Fromm, 225)
That individuals are able to use the Internet for democratic (small “d”) purposes is hard to dispute, but for too long people have believed that this means that the Internet is itself a democratic technology. But the ability of the FCC to radically alter the way this technology functions suggests that the Internet simply isn’t that democratic. One of the facets of the Internet that allowed many to invest Utopian hopes in it is its decentralized nature, but as the FCC has demonstrated this isn’t democratic decentralization – it can easily be made to obey centralized authority. The Internet has let us feel like mighty figures clad in powerful armor, but the FCC ruling shows us that we’re actually standing in our underwear. As Lewis Mumford drolly observed,
“The machine has become our main source of magic, and it has given us a false sense of possessing godlike powers.” (Mumford, 138)
So what is to be done in this moment?
First off, it might well be past time to let the myth of the liberating Internet die. This is not to say that people should give up on the Internet, or that they should stop using it, but it’s time for people to stop imagining that the Internet is going to save them. Alas, our present predicament isn’t because nobody’s come up with the right hashtag yet. We need to realize that in pursuing freedom through the Internet, our sense of freedom has become contingent upon the Internet, and as the FCC has revealed we have less control over the Internet than we might like to think.
Second off, now is a great moment to engage with some of the work in media studies, STS, and the history of technology that has trained a critical eye on the history of the Internet and the way in which it actually functions. Try to look beyond the popular press hagiographies and instead consider the works that have never bought into the popular myths that frame the Internet as an inherently benevolent force. Unfortunately, we can say many things about our present technological impasse – but we can’t say that we weren’t warned.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, do not despair. Look back at the history of the 20th century and consider the numerous activist struggles that won important victories. Many of these were achieved before the Internet. Certainly, these activists made use of the media of the day – but it’s worth asking if perhaps there is an important difference between different types of media. A smallish group of activists can write, edit, print, and distribute their own periodical. A smallish group of activists can start a low power radio station (go read the, excellent, book Low Power to the People). But a small group of activists cannot build the Internet from scratch, regardless of what the stories about the 1960s counterculture may claim to the contrary. It may well be that certain media forms, certain technologies, are more inherently democratic than the Internet. Activists committed to democratic (or radical) change would do well to revisit these technologies. Again, the point here is not to say that people should abandon the Internet, but it is time to rethink our relationship to it and our reliance upon it.
The death of Net Neutrality is not the end of civilization, and insofar as it may be a serious challenge to life as we know it this need not necessarily be a bad thing. What the FCC decision does is force us to “know” the conditions upon which our lives and societies truly rely. Knowing this, we should not simply settle for the status quo to which we had become comfortable – we should argue for something better.
Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge, 2001.
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics. London: 2001.
Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. University of Columbia Press, 2000.