New ideas are always interesting, and they are the bread and butter of good science fiction.
Here’s one: suppose the Internet is not the democratic, equalising, freedom-enhancing system it has been portrayed as? This network of computer networks has supposedly had the greatest democratising influence on freedom of speech and expression since the invention of the printing press.
But wars are still fought, prisoners are still tortured, dictators still grinding their people into the ground, and the oil price is rocketing. We have the Internet now: why hasn’t all that bad stuff stopped yet?
If you only read one lengthy article this month let it be this essay called The Liberizing Ideology of the Internet by a poet called Jesper Bernes.
The internet is a screen, a series of screens. It’s true: everyone can have their own blog, can publish their poems online so that the whole world can not read them, can peruse and produce the contents of the internet freely (in all senses of this word). But below this level of freedom, this level of leveling and equalization, the old exclusions and inequalities still obtain—differences in literacy and knowledge, differences in access to free time, differences in positionality with regard to social networks and cultural capital.
The essay is full of high-brow ideological arguments, which are interesting in their own right, but the basic idea is remarkable for the fact that it is not one that is often read or heard. It is that the Internet is just another system of control:
Essentially, with the internet, capitalism gifts the masses with a false commons where people can work, off the clock, creating information and relationships that the ruling class can enclose, appropriate, commodify, and sell back to us at a later date.
This isn’t a luddite argument: the Internet is a valuable and necessary tool, and there’s a lot of stuff in Bernes’ article I don’t entirely understand, and of what I do understand there’s some I don’t agree with. I’ve never felt comfortable talking about politics in terms of ideologies like socialism or capitalism, or of economics in terms of class. I prefer to discuss politics in terms of policy and pragmatism.
I’m aware of the irony of suggesting the Internet isn’t a force for freedom of speech in a blog: but it’s always worth bearing contrarian opinions in mind.
What is the reality of the Internet? Is it genuinely revolutionary, or does it “virtualise and disembody resistance” as Bernes suggests? These are perfect questions for science fiction to explore.