Christopher Kelty: The Internet We Could Have Had

Ten years ago I began writing a book. It was going to be called Power/Sharing and would pick up on my previous book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. It was a turbulent time: the occupy movement, M15 and the indignados movement, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, protests against legislation called SOPA/PIPA, the suicide of Aaron Swartz, STUXnet, the successes of the Pirate Party, the antics of Anonymous, the crazed certainty of Wikileaks, the revelations of Edward Snowden, and seemingly endless lawsuits, crackdowns, and arrests related to piracy, hacking and as we used to say, various internet motherfuckery.

The book was primarily about activists, hackers and pirates, about the centrality of the problem of intellectual property law and the values of freedom, openness, and access. These values, I argued, were being re-oriented by the technical fact of a globally accessible inter-connected set of technologies. The internet—and the book was to be specific about this—was not just a network but an assemblage of technologies and political structures with specific effects. It concerned the promise of something I called a “recursive public” in a bid to capture how the internet and free software co-constituted each other and came to be the way they were. It would emphasize the potential and power of participatory, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial technologies, interventions, and re-figurations of the internet itself as a solution.

I would never finish the book. But even if I had written the book that I would have written in 2012, it would have quickly disappeared beneath a pile of things that the book would not have been about: social media, algorithms, platforms, big data, the blockchain, digitalization, privacy, anti-trust law, hate speech, misinformation, white nationalism, authoritarianism and Donald Trump memes. All these things have, since that time, flooded the waves and tubes of public and media attention.

Not having written the book, I now think of myself as an anthropologist of the Internet we could have had. In 2022, long after I gave up on the book I would have written, the issues it would have raised seem now to be less important. Piracy is no longer front-page news. It has either been fully suppressed by the content companies or is tolerated and therefore normalized to an underground, as it was in the 1980s when “home taping was killing music.” Hacking is no longer a critical, aesthetic and political issue, but first and foremost as a “security” issue and even more, now a legitimate profession. Indeed, the Department of Justice, just recently, announced a “good faith” policy that it would no longer prosecute security research under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law that, in a prior era, had sent countless hacktivists to jail, and by most accounts, led to the suicide of Aaron Swartz. And “openness” today has become boring but essential to the massive economy of social media, which has monetized engagement based on the use of open source software and a sophisticated system of data tracking and transaction processing. Today “openness” is more likely to be experienced as part of the neoliberal managerial borg than it is the more radical liberation of knowledge for the people. Today, libgen and scihub are the open access we could have had.

I remain an expert on all of these things the internet could have been, but this makes me a doubly irrelevant academic. In 2022, the internet’s problems are things I don’t know anything about: the evergreen problem of privacy, the opacity and racial injustice of algorithms, the environmental harms of bitcoin mining, and the sudden shock (shock I tell you!) that unrestricted free speech creates just as much hate and violence as it does liberty and innovation. Regulation, such as it is, seems to focus only on data privacy or anti-trust oversight. Intellectual property law and politics, while still central to everything digital, has retreated back into being a boring but essential aspect of daily operations at high-paid law firms.

The internet we could have had no longer seems to exist.

When I started my career, around 1994, the internet was clearly going to be different: it would have been a library, it would have been a global brain. There were many who would have liked to make the internet more like the dreams of Ted Nelson or Douglas Engelbart, many who would build the Victorian Web or the Perseus Digital Library of ancient Greek and Roman texts. The internet would be epochal like the printing press and the invention of writing; it was the end of the book, as no shortage of breathless books was paradoxically announced. In the 1990s, we talked about how, once upon a time, the internet was a military project run by ARPA, but now that the National Science Foundation was in charge, it would be instead the culmination of Vannevar Bush’s imagination of the Memex, organizing the world’s knowledge for all to access and navigate, like a vast memory palace. Or we talked—in MOOs and MUDs about rebuilding society without injustice, racism, rape or authoritarian government. Underneath it all, a welter of different technologies, communities of amateurs and academics and role-playing geeks and gamers and university students were wiring it up, sorting out its problems, figuring out its laws and ideologies, trying to make it better than what many hoped it would replace.

Then, somewhat suddenly, Al Gore invented the internet. Enthusiasts for a global brain found themselves living through an era of mass stupidity: the dotcom boom of 1996-2000. Now the Internet would be a shocking joke: domain names like sold for millions of dollars, ridiculous proposals for website companies that did little more than curate lists of other website companies vied for big VC funding; AOL bought Time-Warner, the oldest media company in the US, when AOL itself was a joke, even to people who would take the internet seriously.

The doctcom boom came to a famously grinding halt in 2000-2001, overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks. But this rapid distortion of the fabric of the internet had a lasting effect: the internet we could have had took on a new goal. No longer just a global brain, the internet we could have had would be a New Economy. It would upend the broken markets of old, it would add lubrication everywhere, whether lubrication was needed or not, a whole world would be saturated in lubricant for reasons that no one could quite explain. As long as your business plan contained internet lubricant, the deal was on.

But even this capitalism enthusiasm was tempered by the many things the internet still could have been. Even doused in lubricant, it was still an artistic medium, a hive mind, a multiplayer game, a playing field leveller, and a destroyer of old Idols, whether of the market, the university or the government. The internet we could have had was a haven for hackers and activists, legal scholars and (digital) anthropologists, net.artists and music pirates, cultural critics and journalists, meme-makers and Anonymous.

But then the internet we could have became the internet we do have.

It happened around the time that I would have written that book. In 2012, Snowden’s revelations simultaneously changed the Internet from a utopian dream that no one really took seriously, to a dystopian reality that everyone did. It did not happen overnight: it took smartphones in everyone’s pocket, an exhausting war on terror, and an epic financial crisis, but it was nonetheless a moment of transition. Did the internet cause these things? Probably not, though it is hard to disentangle the rise of high-frequency internet trading from the financial crisis, or the availability of open and secure communication tools from Occupy or Arab Spring or the renewed total surveillance power of the NSA from the War on Terror. Neither the internet we could have had nor the one we do have is ever just one thing.

This change was not sudden: there was only slowly dawning shock, no one talked about the “techlash” until around 2018, and financial crisis notwithstanding, the last decade has seen the equivalent of 10,000 dotcom booms, a seemingly endless bubble that dwarfs the first one, and which has brought the internet into toasters and toothbrushes and doorbells and other things far more ridiculous than Except now it all comes with, as Eben Moglen would say, “spying for free”; plus racial profiling, hate speech, misinformation, electricity grid hacking, a crisis in the very nature of reality, all for free.

The internet we could have had is, technically speaking, still the one we do have. Anyone who, for instance, spends a lot of time configuring and deploying servers or web applications, struggling with DNS or digging into protocols and RFCs, the core technologies have actually changed remarkably little. Linux and Apache are now 30 years old; the core protocols of the internet are close to 50. Every fancy new framework of the month builds on top of these older technologies. The internet still works the way it always has, fails in similar ways, and allows for the same complex but limited forms of extensibility it always has.

The internet we could have had, is not a technical thing, and therefore cannot be fixed technically. It is a figuration. Figures are recognizable shapes and stories, modulations and updatings of other shapes and older stories. It’s a way of saying that the internet is not a technology but rather a figure of certain ways of relating with and to each other in the modern world, a figure for how to recognize and solve problems, a figure to strive for. It is a way of saying what something is like and a guide for how to make it what it could or should become. It is not a story or description or a schematic or a plan (but with apologies to Elias it could be a method).

The internet we could have had was figured as an element of a story of progress, as a form of liberation, as the ultimate in ensuring the rule of law over the rule of men, and as force for distributing access to knowledge everywhere—among other metaphors for this figure: the internet was a tide that carried all ships.

Figuring something takes work. It is not a story one person tells or even one set of people. It is a congeries of cultural, technical and legal work. The internet we could have had was figured primarily a problem of intellectual property rights, information efficiencies, and creativity. As a result, massive amounts of energy were expended on proposals and debates, products and solutions which figured the internet as being for the public interest in access to knowledge, rights to the public domain in science and culture, equity of access across digital divides, as well as being an unprecedented tool for lowering transaction costs, facilitating the efficient assignment of rights, and incentivizing rapid innovation to spur economic growth. I participated in this figuration, in my own small way, both directly and indirectly; I helped draft the first Creative Commons licenses, wrote a book about Free Software, passed open access policies at my university, protested, participated, observed and so on.

A figuration such as this is never singular or simple to achieve. It was filled with arguments and sides. It was important who won the argument, what laws were passed, and what technologies were funded, improved, and adopted. Some were hell-bent on creating “net neutrality”; others were making itself the core human value of the internet; and some who wanted the internet we could have had really wanted it not to repeat what it replaced: white, male, obnoxious, exclusionary, sexually predatory or repressive. Not everyone wanted The Old Economy and its Enclosures to become a New Economy and its Creative Commons—some thought that this did not go far enough. But as a mess of competition and collaboration it was coherent— a bit like Kuhn’s idea of “normal science”— the puzzles and problems were clear because the baseline was not questioned, and as a result, a complex system was built on top of that baseline figuration of the internet we could have had.

As a result of all this figuring, the internet we could have had is not really gone. It’s still there. Laws and policies once done, must be undone. Technologies adopted sediment into the recursive layers of dependencies and user expectations and habits. The internet we could have had is now an edifice of legal, social and political thought, justifications, legal precedents, new property arrangements, and technical brambles we navigate daily. But it is an edifice figured for an internet that we no longer have.

The internet we do have, however, is figured much differently. It is figured as a tool of political domination. It is the apotheosis of the forms of domination secretly hidden inside the stories of progress and liberation. It is capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and environmental destruction all rolled into one hideous hydra whose heads are Zuckerberg, Bezos, Pichai, Cook, with Musk and Thiel at the ass end. For example: in a 2022 NYtimes op-ed , “tech worker, writer and co-editor of Logic Magazine” Ben Tarnoff clearly figures the internet not as a hive-mind nor as a level playing field but as a form of political domination by business:

[S]ome are saying that the connectivity it enables is not only making the world smaller but making it worse. They worry about fake news, surveillance, the invasion of our privacy, the exploitation of app-based workers, and the proliferation of right-wing propaganda on social media, to name just a few…

…The root [of the problem] is simple: The internet is broken because the internet is a business. … Even with the best regulatory and antimonopoly measures, corporations would still own the internet. Immensely consequential decisions would be left in the hands of executives and investors. Most people would have no say in matters that centrally affect their lives.

Along with many others, Tarnoff figures the internet we do have as broken. It is not broken in a “hand me the pliers” sense but broken in the sense of promises. What were those promises? Who made them? Who broke them? Tarnoff doesn’t say, but he does offer an alternative vision: he proposes that we focus on changing the ownership structure of the internet to one that privileges a local internet—community-run and governed, based in principles of radically participatory democracy, cooperatives, and forms of mutual aid; platform cooperativism, peer to peer democracy etc.

But wait, this is the internet we could have had! Why is it now in the future? Does this mean the dream is still alive? This is the internet I once embraced. Perhaps the answer is just around the corner in a collectively-managed hackerspace filled with Ethereum-mining DAO geeks who will finally keep the promise! It could be the return of the “recursive public”: associations of people who are committed to the technical and practical necessity of maintaining the forms of association and exchange that produce the very community that they value so much! Perhaps you can tell from my exclamation points that I am not on board.

But why not? I ask myself this often—every time I am asked to review a paper about tech collectives or hackerspaces or platform governance or the current state of free software. It’s not that I don’t share the hope or the enthusiasm—it’s that I feel like these ideas are now inadequate to the internet we do have. They were hopeful solutions for the problems that faced the internet we could have had, but now they are tics and knee jerks. The kind of thing I associate with the people in my university’s “designated free speech zones” angrily pressing Xeroxed flyers into my hand.

What is even weirder, and harder to explain, is that the internet we do have was caused by the internet we could have had. Elements of the figuration of that internet we could have had turned out to be motors of political domination. Free speech, for instance; at least a certain extremist version of it. Openness, for instance; at least a certain neoliberal version of it. Hackerspaces, for instance; at least a certain tech-bro version of them. Participation, for instance at least a certain advertising-revenue driven version of it.

What are these certain versions that now make up the internet we do have? Can we pinpoint them? Are they just broken promises, or is there something wrong with these ideas at the core? If we call today for more openness, freedom, participation, collective action, commons, or community, doesn’t that mean we risk getting more of what we have gotten already? More of the internet we do have and less of the internet we could have had?

I am not sure we understand how we lost what we could have had. If there is work to do in figuring the internet we do have, this might be where we need to start. How, exactly, was it taken? Capitalism didn’t break it, capital can’t use pliers and makes no promises. Something else broke the internet we could have had, capitalism merely fed on its carcass. Can we figure it out?

Christopher Kelty works at UCLA, you can find his bio here.