Net Gain?

Does the Internet bend towards a certain kind of politics? Democracy? Anarchy? Totalitarianism? Something else?

Is its basic tendency to promote the freedom and autonomy of its users? Rob them of their privacy? Cultivate a stance of critical detachment? Distract them into complacency?

Does it have no particular bent? Is it just a tool, capable of promoting whatever purpose the user puts it to?

The authors in our next set of readings engage questions of this kind. Although they all acknowledge various abuses to which the Internet is susceptible, they’re broadly optimistic about its overall impact. In the final chapter of Small Pieces Loosely Joined (not, unfortunately, one of the chapters you can read for free on the book’s website), David Weinberger suggests that “The Web’s movement is towards human authenticity” – and, consequently, away from “alienation.” In “The Wealth of Networks,” Yochai Benkler argues that the Internet’s networked structure (the same feature referenced in Weinberger’s title) tilts towards more autonomy in our relationship to culture, more power to find and assess information, more opportunity to engage in democratic deliberation, and more space for non-market and non-proprietary production (simply put, stuff made for love rather than money). The title of Clay Shirky’s book – “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” – references not the structure of the Internet but its human corollary: the loosely joined individuals and groups whom the Internet enables to circumvent centralized political and economic organizations in the pursuit of shared goals. Again, the vision offered is one of greater freedom and autonomy.

The Sunday before last, in its SundayReview section, the New York Times published a piece by Jeremy Rifkin titled “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism”. Like Benkler, Rifkin sees profound, and profoundly liberating, consequences in a central economic fact about digital production: that the marginal cost of that production is near zero.

You’ll find a much darker view of the Internet, however, in the talk that Maciej Ceglowski delivered last month at Webstock 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Titled “Our Comrade The Electron”, Ceglowski’s talk doesn’t dispute what the writers above argue about the bent of the Internet’s architecture, but it asks us to consider the possibility that maintaining that architecture may just be too hard. And it asks us to contemplate the consequences if that possibility turns out to be correct.

Ceglowski’s piece isn’t on the syllabus, but you’d be a fool not to read it. It’s thoughtful and lively, and the argument is embedded in some fascinating history.

When you’ve finished it — but only then — soothe yourself by listening to Pamela Kurstin play “Autumn Leaves” on the theremin.

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