We Need to Collectivize the Internet–Amsterdam Alternative Evening, March 8, OT301

On Wednesday 8 March 2023, Amsterdam Alternative is organising a discussion on collective digital property. This AA Talk is organised in the context of the web documentary AA is making about collective ownership. During this evening, we will discuss what digital collective ownership is or can be. We will discuss ideas that deal with ownership, use, management, community, knowledge and development around digital assets. Think cables, servers, systems, applications, hosting, privacy, social media, hacking, open source and licensing. Where do we make it collective and where do we run into limits?

Doors open: 19:30
Discussion: 20:00-22:00
Drinks at the bar: 22:00-23:00
Entrance: free
Language: Nederlands/English (mixed)
Location: Ventilator Cinema, 2nd floor OT301, Overtoom 301, Amsterdam

We need to Collectivise the Internet

We cannot continue on the current path. That should be obvious. And if not, here’s a refresher paragraph: The internet is the old capitalist game in a new silicon jacket. The colonialization of our attention created a dependency a drug dealer would envy. Half the world despairs when WhatsApp goes down. Old capitalism with old interests hunts for new digital countries to suck dry every day. And as we get sucked into the whirlpool of Google, Meta and Apple, we lose the imagination that technology could also be different. We can no longer even imagine that a phone is not a rectangular piece of black glass. And that you wouldn’t carry it with you all the time. Can we still imagine a world where our sleep time is longer than our screen time? Many an activist could better imagine the end of the world than the end of the internet.

It is time for a collective digital striptease. Collectively, layer by layer, we toss the old internet onto the smouldering heaps of burnt plastic, melting copper and tiny sparkling bits of cobalt. We reject the apps and websites that parasitise our behaviour. We no longer tell our deepest secrets through chat apps that eavesdrop on us, and politely thank cheap electro junk that lasts only a year, but does continue to slow down the world before and after use.

Interest is the main reason for doing this. Whose interest? Whose interest does the internet serve? Is the app there for me, or for shareholders? Is the social network for us to talk to friends, or for ad networks and troll factories to trick society into behaving differently? Whose interest is served by using Google docs? Does a dating app earn more from me if I do or do not find the love of my life? Whose interest is being served? This a crucial question. Unfortunately, manufacturers of modern tech do everything they can to hide and disguise their interests. Easier than continuing to poke around in their annual reports and hoping for whistleblowers is to simply dismiss these unholy conflicts of interest. Just as we did before with collective housing and food co-ops, technology can also be made, managed and used in the best interests of yourself and your community. Then you know for sure how it works, why it works that way and what you get out of it.

And you don’t have to go and invent that yourself. Many have gone before us. We can learn from their work. Also, parts of the internet have never been colonised. These free ports have special powers that we can put to use elsewhere. But first, let me sketch out the landscape where we can start realising our collective dreams: On the one hand, the internet is ephemeral and intangible: the software side.

You use apps and websites. The apps come from an App Store. The websites need a browser. Appstore and browser run on an operating system. In addition, there are agreements about how these apps and websites get and send the information; the protocols of the Internet govern those agreements and we know them by such unimaginative names as HTTP, IMAP, IRC, ETC. (That last one is the protocol that indicates to the reader that there are many more, but I don’t feel like listing them all). Information comes and goes from your own computer to other computers.

And that’s the other side: the internet is also very material. Your computer and smartphone are made of plastic, steel and some other materials from China. The country where they bought in a few thousand different components from around the world to make the laptop. While your own computer is a lovingly cared-for, little thing that gets all the attention, the servers are crammed like boxed calves by the thousands in huge halls full of noise from cooling systems. The data centres are concrete and steel juggernauts, dependent on electricity from power plants, solar panels or windmills. Cables, modems, switches and eventually even thick submarine cables and satellites connect it all together.

The material side and the software side are also intimately intertwined. The smartphone in your pocket is many times more powerful than the computer that opinions used 10 years ago. There is enough power in it to probably provide you with all your computing needs for the rest of your life. But with the economic realities of updates and lack of support for old models, in a few years you will already have a new one. New hardware enables new software and vice versa.

Where do you start if you and your collective want to become owners of your own digital production resources?

There are free havens and settlements of resistance we can visit for inspiration. Some are older than the internet itself. They are websites made for the common good like Indymedia, it is an app like Mastodon, or a collection of services like those of Lurk.org or vvvvvaria.org. They are open protocols on which anyone can build new things like ActivityHub and Matrix, and alternative operating systems like Devuan or LineageOS. Or even whole parts infrastructure with servers and everything needed to keep it running around it like Disroot.org has built over the years. And while there are no collectives (that I know of) that make hardware, there are many that make software with the aim of being able to use existing hardware longer, like postmarketOS, an operating system for old phones, or Q4OS that still does it on a computer 300Mhz & 256MB RAM. For reference that’s a computer from the days when the internet still said kgggg beep when you accessed it. There is a world open to alternatives. We just need to organise around them.

Welcome to the world of Partly Automated not-so-Luxurious Trans*feminist Earth Anarchism. A future where the machine is taken care of by the collective it belongs to. A machine that helps the collective without harming others. A machine connected to other machines in an equal relationship with consent from both sides. No clients, no servers, no up and no download. A world full of friction, discomfort, poetry and happiness. A world where it still matters what is connected to whom, but where we ourselves make the connections we need and disconnect the ones that no longer matter. And the occasional computer that stops working and refuses to apologise for it.

Curious about more? Put this newspaper aside, turn off your phone and come to the AA Talk at OT301 (Fan cinema on the 2nd floor) on Wednesday 8 March. We will then explore the world of collective digital ownership together in an open conversation between creators, thinkers and builders. Because we all see that the current capitalist internet must be broken.