Where is the most populous place on the planet? It isn’t in China, or India or anywhere in Asia. It isn’t even on the surface of the earth. It’s in the clouds. Or more accurately it’s in The Cloud. Amidst the rich and strange sea that emerges from the coalescent ghosts of 5 billion smart machines, 75 million servers, 1.3 trillion gigabytes of data, is an island. It’s called Facebook and it’s home to 1.7 billion people. For comparison, the entire population of the world only exceeded 1 billion in 1804. For 99.9% of human history the amount of living humans has been less than the amount of humans using Facebook right now. And Facebook isn’t a lonely island in that digital ocean. The amount of people sharing selfies on Instagram outnumbers those living in the USA. The amount of people engaged in the incessant cycle of tweeting and retweeting is twice the population of Brazil.
These abstract confederacies possess ontologies that transcend traditional geopolitics, they exist as loosely formed groups of flexible membership in which affiliation arises out of roughly overlapping values, whether these are high-minded political values, or model airplane making values, it makes no difference, they take the same form: namely that elusive creature the network. And with the siren allure reserved for novelty, we excite ourselves over the potential well-spring of freedom this new world seems to offer. In its limitless capacity to forge connections between individuals irrespective of geography, in its wealth of information and the unrivalled speed and access to its riches, in its apparent independence from the traditional hierarchies. In all this we see a holy grail on which we can found a net-utopian Camelot where each of us can freely and spontaneously assemble in networks free from meddling intermediaries. But whom does this grail serve? Does the internet really provide the freedom it promises? Or is the net-utopian vision a naïve fiction as mythical as the exploits of King Arthur?
While networks are not an invention of the digital age, having historical precedent in everything from trade networks such as the Silk Road, or the naval trade systems of the East Indian Ocean, to the information technology networks of telegrams, these networks have always existed as nodes within traditional hierarchies, and have always been subject to their whims. Through taxation and state sponsored monopolies and in more recent times through censorship and surveillance, networks have always been controlled in one way or another by the hierarchies being allowed to exist as long as they exist in collaboration: a conspiracy between thrones and telephones. By contrast online networks, at least on the surface, appear to defy this control with governments having had a great deal of trouble gaining any real footholds in this new unreal world.
For the techno-optimists, particularly those interested in orchestrating social change, the core appeal of these networks is their decentralised structure. Here the theory holds that each user has equal value with consensus emerging out of the interactions of equally powerful components rather than through deference to a user with greater power as seen in a traditional hierarchy. This is intimately connected with the idea that revolution, true revolution, hinges on the spontaneous organisation of free individuals. As the patron saint of revolutionary spontaneity Rosa Luxemburg espoused “Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden” a declaration somewhat difficult to translate that essentially states that Freedom is always the freedom of freethinkers. Surely, so the net-utopians say, if the Andersdenken, the free thinker, is to be found anywhere it is in the networks of the internet. But does this actually play out in reality, or at least in virtual reality? In the search for the elusive Andersdenken it is worth remembering that the woman who spoke those words was, for her role in a failed revolution, swiftly executed and unceremoniously thrown in Berlin's Landwehr canal.
When the dream of the free network fails as an applied social project, as it has done many times either through total disintegration or via subjugation to the hierarchies, its downfall can most often be attributed to two factors: lack of transparency and lack of accountability. These two weeds have left many would-be revolutions, and in some tragic cases revolutionaries themselves dead in the water. So how do these new digital networks fare against these metrics? As a case study, or moreover a collection of case studies we might look to one of the most significant waves of social change movements in recent history: the Arab Spring.
Here the techno-optimist might see a perfect narrative of free networks of civilians spontaneously organising to overthrow the old political hierarchies. Marches were organised, petitions signed, some revolutions even had their own army of hackers. The hierarchies themselves went so far as to offer confirmation in their increasingly desperate attempts to block access to social media platforms, and in the case of Egypt, blocking access to the internet itself. Surely here we see the free thinkers in action.
But as ever, the truth defies such elegant simplicity. While it’s certainly true that social media platforms had some impact on these movements the extent and independence of its role varies greatly when we look closer. For one, some of the countries involved, namely Yemen and Libya, had an incredibly low number of facebook users. For another many of the protests organised on social media, particularly the Syrian days of anger, had poor turnout compared to the more reactionary later protests organised through more traditional means.
Additionally it is important to remember that online networks were not the sole method of coordination in these revolutions. In many cases they existed alongside and in collaboration with more traditional hierarchies and older offline networks. A brilliant example of this can be seen in Egypt for instance where a great deal of coordination and dissemination of information was facilitated both through Mosques, structures of traditional religious hierarchy, and through the live coverage of protests provided by Al Jazeera, an old school offline media network.
Ultimately the revolutions of the Arab Spring, both those that use a dangerously reductivist term “worked” and those that didn’t, were the product of a multitude of factors, some born of online networks but many not. While these government hierarchies were overthrown by the young educated urban facebook users, the so called free thinkers, they were not solely overthrown by them. And while some genuine social change was brought into being a great deal of revolutions since the advent of the internet have either outright collapsed, or where successful have simply replaced one form of hierarchy for another.
Why has the internet failed to make good on its revolutionary potential? Was there ever a chance for the free thinker to exist here? Perhaps these networks are not as free from intermediaries and centralised control as it first seems. While there is hypothetically a wide array of potential service providers to pick from, the lion’s share of all internet markets are dominated by a handful of massive companies. The search engine field is utterly monopolised by Google. The social media game is in the hands of a tiny range of companies. Microblogging, online selling, job applications, even takeout ordering are all covered by a very narrow range of service providers. If anything, more control has been concentrated into the hands of a pitifully small number of intermediaries than ever before.
Furthermore the old enemies of the networks, lack of transparency and lack of accountability are alive and well in this sphere of the new world. They work with lighter hands in the forms of impenetrably complex terms of service, subtle censorship and suspension of usage rights, but they are undeniably there.
It seems that despite the vastness of possible interaction, the majority of the internet population, as if importing an unshakable allegiance to old hierarchies, chooses to associate with only the smallest fraction. We each follow a small group of close friends and a few high profile figures, cherry picked from a comparably tiny roster of elites; whether they be politicians or musicians, the majority of us still choose to follow the minority. In doing this we consign ourselves to online environments that, far from allowing free association of all members, actually trap us in self-perpetuating loops where the only content we encounter is content we already enjoy, the only ideas we are exposed to are ideas we are already in agreement with.
We allow these intensely centralised new hierarchies to corral us into pleasant, unchallenging echo chambers in which our views are continually confirmed and reaffirmed until we come to believe that they are universal. Thus no revolution arises because no revolution is necessary. Everyone already agrees with us and everything is peachy for our digital tribes on our balmy internet islands. It appears that even when given the choice of an ocean, we consign ourselves to the shallows.
Words by Moss Tawny