Anarchy on Your Laptop

The battle for control of the Internet is rife with anarchism … and other passions.

The forces of Order want to superimpose existing, pre-digital power structures and their associated notions of privacy, intellectual property, security, and sovereignty onto the Internet. The forces of Disorder want to abandon those rickety old structures and let the will of the crowd create a new global culture, maybe even new kinds of virtual “countries.” … But the story of the War for the Internet, as it’s usually told, leaves out the characters who have the best chance to resolve the conflict in a reasonable way. Think of these people as the forces of Organized Chaos. … They are like a Resistance group that hopes to influence the battle and to shape a fitful peace.

Michael Gross has written a superb article about the current war for control of the Internet. By his telling, the struggle has many dimensions: hackers versus governments, censorious states versus free ones, corporations versus consumers. And all the combatants are fighting over a prize that, in fact, has no center to hold. The hydra of the Web is changing so fast that it is hard to say whether any control would be fleeting. Gross quotes hacker Jeff Moss: “I’m curious if it’s fixable. Everybody always calls it rebuilding the airplane in flight. We can’t stop and reboot the Internet.”

Most of us are content to believe in a mythological Internet, self-sustaining and self-generating – a fourth dimension of reality so obvious that Descartes overlooked its need for proof. Of course,  we have celebrities thrown in for news items, or demi-gods as the need may be: Steve Jobs, Julian Assange, Anonymous. But none of these deities seem as big as the Brahman they partake in.

Two factors will spin you out of the stupor of this soma. One is threat, and the other is power. From these dual dynamos has emerged the most important force for anarchism in our world.

Threat and power. They sound the same: power threatens. But the Internet isn’t important simply because there is power. Rather, the Internet makes people feel powerful, and it makes people feel threatened. Hackers break into the Department of State’s servers – now, the hackers are no longer mere directors of IT at the local bank, and Foggy Bottom is no longer internally sealed. The stakes for control are raised on both sides. Google extracts more user information. Movies are downloaded and Hollywood’s future is in doubt. The Chinese government bans search items from “coup” to “Ferrari” in response to political news.

Anarchists are always opposed to power, which is why hackers are always destructive. Power corrupts. Now, it’s easy for political theorists or conservatives to dismiss anarchism through analysis: in order to oppose power, you must wear the cloak of power. Authority and order are inevitable, so they should be properly constituted, as best as possible.

Which is fine, but anarchists aren’t anarchists for these reasons. Anarchists have an animus, and the Internet gives them (as it gives all of us) a voice, a level playing field, and access. Anarchism is a passion, and if you don’t understand it, you really should try. The first step is to conjure within yourself the hormones of a young man. Second, imagine you understand the most powerful invention of our time (computers) better than all the important people who make all the important decisions. Finally, feel disgusted at the present state of things: consumerism, hypocrisy, etc. The only step left is kindling – an invitation to a group online, a company to target, an inspiring rebel.

It’s not just that the Internet is a platform for these passions. You can probably see already how the anarchist animus is specifically illuminated online. Anonymity, expertise, and access are at the core of the digital age. But let’s not fool ourselves. The anarchist passion is a passion. How does the Internet culture (the culture of smartphones, iPads, online check-ins, and Pinterest) conduct other passions? What about depression? What about fear? What about activism, fixations, and community? What about conservatism?

We all know that each of these spirits are found in our browsers. But if the Internet is a medium, then it is a conductor – some things pass through more easily, some less. It isn’t just the canvas on which to express yourself – it is the paints, and it is the very idea of a painting. I have often criticized media, the Internet, and Facebook on Humane Pursuits, but I should know better: we live out significant portions of our lives online, and while that’s not neutral, it’s not going to change. As good philosophers, it’s time to be self-aware: our passions are changing, and we should understand them. Even the anarchists.

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