A shock electric, the night sustain’d it, / Till with ominous hum our hive at daybreak pour’d out its myriads. – Walt Whitman
When the Net stops, we all start again.
Friends, is it time to destroy the Internet?
Why do we need the Internet? Has it made your life better, on the whole?
I understand the gruesome irony of asking this question on an online magazine. Perhaps you are smiling with a quizzical look on your face, as you read this on your phone or your laptop, or as Alexa reads it to you. Or perhaps your body-servant is orating this paragraph, as you take laps around the pool. If it’s the latter, I assume you’re the kind of person who owns Facebook or several thousand server farms. In which case, you should listen up anyway. I want to pose a question we don’t ask often enough: Would our politics be better if the Internet no longer existed?
We dance around the topic every day, in our mundane conversations. Has the Internet increased the value of our lives, or cheapened them? Is our world gentler, more empathetic—or coarser? Has the Internet added to your relationships, or withered them?
Most important—since this is the politics section of Paste Magazine—has the Net made our political existence any better? Didn't the Internet lift the most unspeakable form of human life, the forum poster, to the office of supreme power? Post-Keynesian economics made Trump possible, but the Internet helped make Trump president. Any world that broadcasts more noise than signal has a place for Donald Trump. The Internet delights in noise.
Doesn't Twitter, a known haven of white supremacists, set the discourse? Doesn't the Internet allow for the illusion of activism and discourse, instead of the reality? Aren't we just eating the menu, instead of the meal?
We treat technology as if it was a frictionless march into the future. As if. The Internet is a derivation of technology. Technology is an artifact of research and design, which comes from money, which comes from power.
Technology is not the disembodied spirit of the age. Of this age, or any age. Tech is an artifact of power.
The Internet is a device that creates anonymity and distance and leverages the power of technocrats. It takes and takes and promises to give back. But for all of its wonders, it has failed to live up to its promise.
This is doubly true in politics. Some of my readers are old enough to recall the Nineties, and the wild surmise that greeted the prospect of Internet politics.
E-Democracy would be the order of the day, they said. Once wired up, the whole digital Republic would glitter in electronic maturity, a hundred million silver strands tattooed across the broad back of America, highways crossing the skin. The Net was more than a collection of fiber-optic tubes. It promised a refined United States. The Shining City on the Hill and all that, but illuminated by light-emitting diodes.
The Internet Political Future of America! An endless feed of data, facts, issues and appeals. No more peddling from media cloisters. No more fortresses of corporate sanction and processed, agreed-upon punditry. Everyone would have their own web page, their own blog, and (it went without saying) their own course of self-education about the candidates and issues.
In this beautiful future, Americans would be lifted by the sleek silicon soul of our nation. The digital age would ascend us to the fuller meaning of our creed. The online world promised our More Perfect Union. We opened up our eager eyes.
And we saw … Trump. He wasn't the cause. But the result.
The key here is questioning our assumptions about the Internet.
Why should we accept this the way it has to be? Why does there have to be a digital cocoon around all of us, all of the time? Why is this the one pillar of our society we won’t discuss?
If we begin questioning the Net, we may discover other riddles worthy of our attention.
For instance, we could keep the Internet, and just design it differently. Thousands of years ago—2004, I think it was—Twitter and Facebook and the rest of its ilk weren’t the law of the land. Back then, the Net was more like the digital commons than the mall.
Asking these questions opens the door to change. The left has gained cultural and electoral power in the last two years. How? They have made people question the invisible assumptions that make up our society.
Altering the world means fighting power. It’s easy to identify humans who have power. But the real power that dictates our society is embedded in institutions and ideas, not in people. Institutional power is harder to see.
These institutions are built atop unquestioned assumptions. The left grew by asking an obvious and crucial question: why do ordinary people have to suffer economically for no good reason?
We need to ask similar questions about the Internet.
Why do we have to accept the Net, and its smartphones, and its constant interruptions? When did this tool become our overlord? In a country where 12-step programs and the language of addiction are popular…why and how did we stumble blindly into this dependency?
Perhaps our unquestioning loyalty to technological progress has something to do with it.
The political ramifications of the Internet are obvious. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said “All politics is local.” The Internet is acid to the local, the contingent, the context-dependent.
My politically-involved readers: Do you organize with your neighbors, or with people online? What summons your passion: national ideas, or local issues? What do you know more about: the potholes outside your building, or the black hole inside of Trump’s White House? These are important matters too. But isn’t it funny that we know so much about Washington, and relatively little about our own backyard?
Modern political discourse reckons in signs and symbols. The Internet excels at those.
But the material facts of our day-to-day life? We tend to leave those in the mitts of petty local tyrannies with fly-by-night solutions. The Internet is a great tool for drawing attention and money to large, promoted problems. It has less skill at dealing with the near-at-hand. Like divine justice, it manages to be everywhere and somehow nowhere at the same time.
The Internet encourages political dislocation, because it encourages dislocation, period. Our ancestors had surnames and locational markers: “William of Stratford.” That’s how they were known. But the primary locale that defines our life isn’t our town or village, but the domain name attached to our email. In the last decade, I moved from Texas to Oklahoma to New York to Georgia. My physical address has changed constantly. But my name has been at Gmail the entire time. The lump of carbon that makes up me has been traveled all over the place. Yet in another sense, I have never left the Kingdom of Google.
Doesn’t this strike you as odd? Isn’t it bizarre, how the Internet pushes us towards a few floating markers that attach us to the world…and nothing else? Pretty soon every American will be fixed in the world by their Social Security Number, Email Address, Phone Number, and Credit History. Everything else will be more of less fungible.
In a world made by the Net, Trump was a logical outcome. Frankly, I’m amazed he didn’t arrive sooner.
Politics is largely concerned with locality: this problem at this place at this land. Our town, our state, our cause. Politics is a device of the polis, the community, and community is contingent: this group of people in these circumstances.
How does that process work when the Internet atomizes all of us? What do we have left, when we don’t have anything solid? Politics requires skin in the game, and the Internet keeps the game without the skin.
In a decontextualized world, what choice do people have? Of course they’d lamprey to online brands. Of course they’d vote for the guy who trolled the other side good. Of course they’d project their sense of well-being onto social-media-managed personalities.
I am not blind to the excellent advantages of the Net. How could any honest person not see what it’s done for us?
What I am calling for, reasonably, is a world with less Internet. I wish for an America where the question “How amazing is this technology, guys?” is at least debated, with the negative case taken seriously.
Even if we decide that we must keep the Net around—even if we rely on it to do what we cannot—I am asking for a world where we at least consider why we give so much of our life and our society to the glowing rectangles. Online, online everywhere, and never a stop to think.