A few days ago at Transmediale in Berlin, I took part in a panel discussion under the fuzzy title “After the revolution(s): Internet freedoms and the post-digital twilight“.
What follows is an attempt to summarize my input to that panel. It has already been posted at Nettime.
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“The revolution is over“, stands as a motto for this year’s Transmediale. I guess that I share the feeling, but I think the statement is wrong. Instead of talking about some revolution in the past, I think we should talk about the ongoing counter-revolution and situate that in history.
When thinking about the direction in which the internet is developing, we must go beyond the simplified opposition of “old times” versus “new times”. In order to do that, we must periodize the history of the internet.
When trying to do that, I have come to regard year 2007 as a turning-point. That was when the counter-revolution took over. And on its flags, the counter-revolutionary forces had written words like: social, share, mobile, stream, access, open…
For now, we don’t need to name these counter-revolutionary forces. Although it is obvious that the counter-revolution on the internet is largely about centralization and monopolization, it would be wrong to reduce this process with a few giant corporations.
The monopolizing tendency has been a much broader thing and has also ruined the potential in projects like The Pirate Bay and Wikileaks. If such projects initially had the ambition to set examples, to be copied and multiplied, they were caught in a dynamic where they seemed to have no alternative but to stage a new riot every week, or to fade away. Or take the Pirate Parties, which have tended to monopolize internet-related issues which are then re-encoded in the language of rights, endlessy re-enacting the immanent contradictions of liberal ideology: copyright vs. privacy, privacy vs. transparency, etc. etc.
Nowadays, I feel that the very concept of “internet freedom” is caught in the same kind of double-bind, making it increasingly hard to use. And this feeling of mine is probably just another aspect of the counter-revolution.
Hito Steyrl is to the point: “The internet is not dead. It’s undead and it’s everywhere.” It feels awkward, she writes, “obviously completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright, control and conformism.”
But there was never any digital revolution in the past. If we could ever talk about a digital revolution, it could only mean the third industrial revolution, which has been going on for decades and which is definitely not about to end. But as an industrial revolution, that is simply an acceleration in the continuous process of minimizing the need for human labour in the production of commodities. That process is driven by the competition over profits on the market, and the current crisis is only intensifying that competition, pushing all kinds of corporations towards Big Data and threatening to eliminate those who fail to live up to the new standards of data mining.
But during this long process, during the third industrial revolution, there has been times when the uses of digital technologies has tended to break away from this industrial logic.
There were a few interesting years in the 1990s, before the dotcom bubble.
And there were a few interesting years after the dotcom crash, in the beginning of our century.
These two episodes in the history of the internet were indeed no revolution. But these times saw the multiplication of autonomous innovation, and of new forms of collective practice which where not easily integrated in any economy, and not very suited for data mining.
I think it makes more sense to talk about a digital counter-revolution than to talk about a digital revolution. But the current counter-revolution did indeed react against something, against a subversive or revolutionary potential which were building up in the years following the dotcom crash.
If the internet tended towards a decentralized or even revolutionary direction between 2001 and 2007, this must somehow be related to the financial dynamics in global capitalism. The afterglow of the dotcom bubble began in one crisis, but ended with the onset of the next crisis. How come?
In the very beginning of this century, capital fled from the dotcom sector. For capitalism as a system, the dotcom crash revealed a serious threat of deflation, but central banks injected enormous amounts of stimulative liquidity, credits which rushed towards other sectors, most notably housing, building up a new and even larger bubble. However, on the internet of 2001–2007 there was a relative lack of venture capital.
The dotcom crash had revealed a surplus of bandwidth, of hardware and of highly skilled hackers. Many of these hackers which had been working in the dotcom sector were no longer employed (or working as consultants effectively on part-time), meaning that they had free time to experiment with available resources.
Out of the early 00’s recession grew a boom for free software and file-sharing. Innovation tended to be about new protocols (from RSS to bittorrent) rather than new platforms. The new standards for sociality on the www – the blog, the wiki, the threaded forum – could all be run DIY on simple servers with open-source software.
The afterglow of the dotcom bubble, in other words, allowed for a certain degree of autonomous innovation on the internet. It resulted in a net characterized with a plurality of interfaces: the older duality of horizontal hypertext (HTTP) and hierarchical folders (FTP) was complemented by various kinds of feeds and flows, not to forget the tag clouds and the virtual realities, as well as the search engines.
This amounted to a plurality of speeds: many degrees of fast and slow communication could co-exist in the everyday use of the net. We don’t have that plurality anymore. Since 2007, time on the internet is being homogenized.
The counter-revolution is slowly abolishing hypertext as well as folder hierarchies, in favour of a new monoculture. Today’s undead internet has a universal interface based on only two functions: the search and the feed.
The search is there for you when you already know what you’re looking for. When you don’t know, you can always get fed by your feed, the singular and personalized home feed, whose function is to homogenize time, synchronizing our attention at one singular speed. What could a concept like “internet freedom” posibly mean in such an environment?
Of course I agree that decentralization is the way to go. But by now it should be obvious, that they way to go is not to build decentralized copies of Facebook or Twitter. We need something else, and we can’t say what it is without lots of more experimentation. But who will do all this experimentation? The hacker surplus do not exist any more. The skilled hackers are now employd to develop platforms and apps which conform to the new monoculture and with the new standards of data mining. Some years ago, young programmers in Sweden were swarming to promote P2P file-sharing in solidarity with the Pirate Bay – soon after, they were all employed by Spotify.
I don’t know if we are now entering a second dotcom bubble to be followed by a second dotcom crash. But to me, it’s clear that the counter-revolution began when venture capital once again began to rush towards the internet.