Brave New Internet

I’ve talked a little here about the aesthetics of code. It’s interesting, how new tech industries have evolved in 20th century. I’m thinking of radio, tv, phone, film, recording, and publishing industries. They start as open platforms, with common access to production, but end up closed, run by monopolies or cartels. The Internet might be headed in the same direction. 

While we like to think of the internet as a free and open platform, a thing that is apart from and above the workings of government, nothing could be further from the truth. The idea that free speech is inherent within the platform of the internet is a common misconception. It is not inherent, and it is certainly not guaranteed. 

The internet–and all its attendant technologies–is made of code. Computer code, that is. Code is its governor. It is the ruler, the authoritarian, the dictator, in what can be viewed from one angle as a totalitarian environment. In order to use our computers, our cell phones, our mobile devices and big screen TVs, we have no choice but to follow the rules that code describes. Code itself can be changed from time to time, but it is still the law of the land. 

But it turns out that this process of following our authoritarian master is not a bitter pill for the public to swallow. On the contrary, it is a very sweet pill, reminiscent of the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. We are in love with our new medium and we are blind to its nature. We are smitten by its countenance, infatuated with its content, but anesthetized at the same time, so that it numbs us to the consequences it embodies.

I’ve written about the idea of a new “informationalism”, where those with knowledge will assume power, replacing those who own capital (capitalists). Signs of this can be found in TED talks, the Singularity University, and other gatherings of industry insiders and celebrities. Celebrities, and others, are seeking to become part of the knowledgeable elite. Right now, that elite is made up of a disproportionate number of computer geeks. This isn’t surprising. The 20th century’s ruling elite was made up of a disproportionate number of actors, musicians, and other celebrities. It’s only natural for those on top to want to remain there, and the only way for a celebrity to become a member of the new elite is to become an informed insider. Just as the aristocracy handed over the reins of power to the capitalists, so are the capitalists now handing them over to the new  informationalists. In both cases the old ruling class hangs onto its wealth—and a fragment of its power—by a sort of tacit agreement with the new one. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just the way things tend to shake out. 

When I think of companies like Apple, I am reminded of Huxley. Consumers are guided happily into our own luxuriously padded jail cells. We go cheerfully, voluntarily, and have even stood in line (literally) to do it. Our enjoyment of the product leads to our own enslavement by it. We follow its code without a second thought. We don’t care who wrote the code, or why. But we jump through the same hoops again and again, without ever knowing what an iteration loop is.