requiem for certainty

There is no such thing as The Internet

with 5 comments

The common tendency to refer to ‘the internet’ as a singular noun is entirely mistaken: there is no such thing as the internet, and there is only internetworking. There are billions of little boxes which use electromagnetic waves and extraordinarily complex mazes of cables of all variety to link together various other plastic boxes of indescribable diversity by means of a plurality of layered protocols operating on a wide range of hardware and software platforms, and all this for the sake of an immense array of purposes, programs, and projects whose complexity is so great that the merest glimpse at just a portion of it would spin the head of even the most learned polymaths. There is no such thing as the public sphere in internetworking, because there is a plurality of public spaces, evolving and expanding every single day by means of the thunderous energy of the trillions of keystrokes which we collectively depress over the course of a single rotation of our beloved earth on its axis… We need a more pluralistic conception of publicity (tailored from the cloth of Deweyan and DeLandean social theory, not from the cloth of Habermasian and Arendtian theories of the unified public sphere in the age of the state, the newspaper, and the television channel) in order to fully grasp the depth and breadth of the many political, ethical, legal, and cultural changes which these processes of internetworking are now preparing.

In other news, I’ve been reading, and can highly recommend Yochai Benkler’s 2006 The Wealth of Networks which is conveniently available online for free. Here is Benkler responding to the usual criticisms (Sunstein et. al.) that a pluralistic internetwork will spell the ruin of democracy: “The networked public sphere allows hundreds of millions of people to publish whatever and whenever they please without disintegrating into an unusable cacophony, as the first-generation critics argued, and it filters and focuses attention without re-creating the highly concentrated model of the mass media that concerned the second-generation critique.”

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Written by Colin Koopman

January 11, 2008 at 3:57 am

5 Responses

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  1. Hello Professor,

    When you mentioned that “There is no such thing as the public sphere in internetworking, because there is a plurality of public spaces,evolving and expanding every single day by means of the thunderous energy of the trillions of keystrokes which we collectively depress over the course of a single rotation of our beloved earth on its axis,” it made me think.

    Isn’t it interesting that this “plurality of public spaces” can take place almost entirely on privately owned property? Most servers which make up this vast network are privately owned. The wires which connect all of our computers are also privately owned for the most part. Is this ever-growing mass of internetworking the ultimate fusion of public/private?

    “The Internet” might be unique in that it is a society which is based upon an artificial language, one that no organic being natively understands. It cannot discriminate in the same way other societies do, for anything that can speak the language can take part.

    You mention it is a collective effort which keeps the internet evolving, alive and energized — would it be a stretch to call this a developing “collective consciousness?” Human brains first gain mass by rapidly making new cells, then they’re development focuses on making connections throughout. Human population growth has been similar. There has been a massive population boom, and scientists predict that we will soon reach the planets “carrying capacity” and their will be a leveling off of total individuals on the planet. At the same time we are nearing this capacity, we have invented “the internet” — an ever growing system of interconnection.

    Sorry if this is a bit out there, just some thoughts that came up while reading your entry.

  2. According to the last contributor, “It cannot discriminate in the same way other societies do, for anything that can speak the language can take part”. Here too is a barrier. There are hundreds, p[ossibly thousands, of different languages used in cyberspace. I cannot access a contribution about archaeology written in Chinese or Czech. Indeed, I might not even know that it exists.

    I am not sure that English is as widespread or useful as people claim and I would like to argue the case for wider use of Esperanto as the international language.

    It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states. Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.
    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries

    Bill Chapman

    May 30, 2008 at 6:28 am

  3. I agree with Bill Chapman, but I would like to add that Esperanto also has growing international acceptance.

    In Britain for example eight British MP’s have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize, whereas in China, the Olympic Committee, for the first time, has appointed an Esperanto translatore.

    If you want to check out the structure of the language as well I would recommend http://www.lernu.net

    Brian Barker

    May 30, 2008 at 6:01 pm

  4. I wasn’t talking about the languages that people use to communicate with each other on the internet, but the languages that the electronics use to communicate with one another. I agree, though, that there is a barrier there. One must have the necessary equipment to connect to this series of internetworked devices. Once connected though, we are free to explore.

    Another thought: Is the internet the modern day representation of the Panopticon? We feel unobserved while sitting at home surfing the net, but our actions online can be observed by anyone who bothers to look. Not only that, but we have no way of knowing if we are being observed, who is observing us, or at what level we are being observed from. Is there really any such thing as “internet privacy?”

  5. Thanks for the thoughts.

    Worries about online privacy are intensifying every day. There is an increasing sense that the old concepts of privacy need to give way to newer concepts which better meet the demands for privacy online (and elsewhere). There was a column in the Times about this today: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/30/is-google-violating-a-california-privacy-law/index.html.

    Your point about languages is interesting, too, Matt. One area I’m interested in (but know too little about) are the development of new protocols facilitating new types of interaction. Most of us think of internetworking on the paradigm of the web. But Bittorrent and similar protocols open up whole new ways of sharing (or not) resources. The question of how different kinds of publics (including different natural language communities) can utilize these different protocols to form themselves in different ways in one that very much interests me.

    On the collective conscious stuff you should check out Ray Kurzweil, though that’s not exactly what he is talking about when he describes the Singularity. Here’s a link to video from his TED talk: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/38.

    colin

    May 30, 2008 at 8:39 pm


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