Internet Independence and the Mass Mind

Not only is the net not being built by "you and me", its present expansion is not due to our efforts to transcend "governments of the industrial world". Instead, it is the result of the global economy, in where all national economies are subservient to systems of delivery setup by multinational companies, commonly referred to these days as "international trade". Indeed, the biggest threat to the internet would appear to come from the global economy, for it represents the first step in the direction toward the creation of a mass mind.

On the internet, you occasionally come across the ranting and ravings of people who have nothing better to do than to see themselves in print --via a computer monitor, that is. One such bit of verbal diarrhea (referred to as simply "noise" by more experienced users on the internet) was an article by John Perry Barlow entitled One Man'sDeclaration of the Independence of Cyberspace Naturally, one's first reaction is to wonder who the hell asked him? A fellow "netizen" put it more succinctly: "it is too easy to laugh at this 'Declaration' as a hi-tech version of the old hippie fantasy of dropping out of straight society into a psychedelic dreamworld."

For those who are fortunate enough not to know who Barlow is, he was a songwriter for the Grateful Dead, a consultant for the NSA, and is co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Others see him in amore ominous light: in the words of Mark Stahlman of New Media Associates, "he is a spokesman for the "Brainlords" -- the neologism created by Gingrich's PFF think-tanker Vlahos to describe the 5% of the population who will be in charge in the terrifying new feudalism of his 'ByteCity'. "Personal attributes aside, what is shocking about Barlow's essay, and anyone who believes in the inviolability of the net, is the ignorance about how effective the internet can be (or already is) for surveillance. The belief that on the internet governments don't "possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear" is simply false.

Granted, traditional methods such as censuring individual pieces of information is no longer appropriate. But with new technology comes new methods. Restricted access or simple information glut is one of the most effective tools presently at the disposal of anyone wishing to hide or suppress the truth. In the case of information glut, by overloading the internet with contrary and confusing data from a variety of sources, itis quite easy to mask what is really happening (or has happened). Likewise, it isn't only political entities that we have to worry about. Big business can be just as exploitative when it comes to furthering ist own interests. A prime example was Microsoft's attempt at industrial surveillance through its "Registration Wizard", that handy little application within Win95 that could transfer the contents of your directories to Microsoft, to be used for whatever purpose.

Thus,contrary to what Barlow claims, it would seem that there are more "methods of enforcement that we have true reason to fear" than we think. Throughout history, the introduction of new mass media tools had been accompanied by a belief in its liberating spirit. In modern times, the music of the fifties and sixties was seen as the expression of a generation. However, gradually it has become apparent that not only was rock and roll here to stay, but it was here to pay as well. Moreover, the clothes, hair styles, etc, worn by each succeeding generation is not so much an expression of individualism than that of an attempt to be part of a group, subsequently exploited by ad-men of various sorts.

Yet what makes the internet supposedly different from this and other types of mass media is the seemingly "anarchistic" way in which information is interchanged. For most people, this is proof that the new media is a secure means of mass communication. In fact, there is a common myth that it is the people themselves -- that is, the users --who are building and expanding the internet. Consequently, the self-interests of "net pioneers" is what guarantees that its channels will stay open and free. In reality, however, the converse is true.

The internet is not a creation of "you and me" as Barlow would like us to believe, but a hand-me-down relic of the Cold War era and by-product of the industrial-military complex. Also, it is not a product of our imagination but something very concrete and real. As Richard Barbrook, a member of the Hypermedia Research Centre of the University of Westminster, London, points out: "the construction of the infobahn is an intensely physical act. It is flesh and blood workers who spend many hours of their lives developing hardware, assembling PCs, laying cables, installing router systems, writing software programs, designing Webpages and so on."

Not only is the net not being built by "you and me", its present expansion is not due to our efforts to transcend "governments of the industrial world". Instead, it is the result of the global economy, in where all national economies are subservient to systems of delivery setup by multinational companies, commonly referred to these days as "international trade". Indeed, the biggest threat to the internet would appear to come from the global economy, for it represents the first step in the direction toward the creation of a mass mind.

The mass mind is a stage in human history when the world becomes nothing more than a sterilized asylum in which we all wear the same dress, eat the same kinds of food, believe in the same thoughts, and are addicted to the same kinds of entertainment. Accordingly, in the wake of the global economy follows the development and implementation of laws aimed at restricting individual liberty. In doing so, our lives become further standardized -- in this case within a legalized framework. Thus, as Barbrook sees it, "the privatisation of cyberspace seems to be taking place alongside the introduction of heavy censorship."

For the moment, however, there appears to be a healthy resistance against such standardization on the internet. The uproar over the Exon Amendment to the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is an example of the resistance that exists toward the restrictive influences of mass mindpsychology. However, it must not be forgotten that this support had also come from a variety of vested interests, such as Microsoft, which is indicative of the power of multinationals within the global economy, in that any political policy concerning the internet must not interfere with the profit-oriented goals of big business.

Still, while this bill received much publicity both on and off the net, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The full potential of the internet is being closed to individual users as fast as they are being opened up. For instance, the use of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) has already been severely curtailed by providers in many countries. In conjunction with this, other legislation that is just as restrictive as the CDA -- but is supportive of big business activities -- is being implemented almost unnoticed. For example, at present there is a petition before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by the American Carrier's Telecommunications Association (ACTA) seeking to regulate the use of Internet Phone and other forms of voice communications over the internet.

Thus, as Barbrook puts it, "freedom of expression on the Net is not only threatened by the state, but also by the market." In addition to individual bills and petitions, the activities of telecoms are also a cause for concern. Small and medium sized online providers are finding their jobs (that is, providing access to their clients) increasingly difficult. In Europe, state monopolies are undercutting the efforts of many; in some cases, these monopolies control the amount of information that can flow in and out of the country so that high capacity services, such as Internet Phone, can be easily regulated and controlled.

Hence, the notion pertaining to the safety of "cyberspace" is an illusion. Part of this false sense of security comes from our distorted image of what we imagine "cyberspace" to be. The term "cyberspace" is a misnomer and abuse of the root "cyber"; derived from the word"cybernetics", it has nothing to do with what people envision the internet to be about -- a sort of "star trek" world, in where you seek out new life forms and civilizations, boldly going to where you think no man (at least some of your friends) has gone before. What is ironic is that people feel a need to give a physical reference to an activity that is, at the same time, supposedly contributing to the collapse of geography or, what some have aptly referred to, "the death of distance".

What Barlow and others fail to realize is that the concept of "cyberspace" is not a physical entity in itself. This is not to say that the medium, i.e., the internet, does not have its physical side. It does, but it is far removed from the average user. Few people take into consideration the physical construction and maintenance of the fiber-optic grid that we call the internet -- and the simple fact that someone has to pay for it. Because the costs involved are so high that no government is able comfortably afford it, the very existence of "cyberspace" is at the mercy of large multinational corporations, since they are the only ones capable of mobilizing enough capital and investment to fund such a project.

Therefore, whether we are aware of it or not, there is a limit and cost to its use. Alongside the faulty ideas and presumed safety of cyberspace, what is equally illusory in our view of the internet is that it is already a liberating force for mankind. As Barlow put it: "we are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth." What he and others fail to realize is that the internet is still a plaything of rich, industrialized nations.

In conjunction with this, access is not universal -- even within many industrialized nations. Moreover, even for those fortunate enough to be able to afford a computer, the explosion of computer technology over the past decade has created a new class within society: a technocratic elite, whose power and influence far surpasses that of any other elites we have known to date.

Barbrook provides an excellent scenario: "as more commercial money is spent on providing on-line services, it becomes increasingly difficult for amateurs to create Web sites of sufficient quality to attract large number ofusers."

Rather than simply being "the new home of Mind", as Barlow would like to believe, the internet should be regarded as nothing more than a tool which enables information to be transmitted and received at a quickpace, coupled with advanced graphics and sound for those using the Web. At the moment it is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, and the economic potential of it is yet to be fully exploited. Yet like all new electronic gadgets, once the euphoria over the Web has died down, it is quite conceivable that the net will decline in popularity and that "cyberspace" will become like the lost city of Atlantis.

In the end, through misconceptions such as the inviolability of the net, people are becoming unwary to the dangers that exist and are insulated from what is really going on in the world around them. "Coercion is avery real threat and an ever increasing danger," Stahlman notes, "as is starvation, poverty and degradation -- the true legacy of post-industrial society." Others have taken a more radical view, such as the Unabomber, who feels that our technocratic world has gone far enough and that it is time now to "turn the clock back" on man's technological advancement -- before it's too late. Yet the idea of turning back the hands of time is just as ludicrous as declaring the independence of cyberspace.

Instead, what has to be done is to be aware that technology has a cost. In addition to this, we must realize that whatever new tools we may invent or develop, they can (and inevitably will) always be coveted for exploitative purposes -- politically and economically.

In this way we can see the spiral of history continuing its perpetual spin. When Alfred Nobel first saw the explosive power of TNT, he believed that it would never be used in war because the effects would be just too terrible. We all know now how wrong he was. Likewise, by even thinking that we can declare a mass communications device such as the internet independent from powers that seek to control it, we are taking ourselves one step closer to the acceptance of a mass mind.

Comment of Jan Bruck

Answer of John Horvath (John Horvath)