Culture Digitally // Examining Contemporary Cultural Production

Culture Digitally // Examining Contemporary Cultural Production

  • With the generous support of the National Science Foundation we have developed Culture Digitally. The blog is meant to be a gathering point for scholars and others who study cultural production and information technologies. Welcome and please join our conversation.

     

    • Monetizing a Meme: A Case Study on The Harlem Shake Oct 24, 2014

      by Zachary McDowell and Mike Soha

      This is an abridged draft of a paper we are developing for publication. We invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please honor that it’s being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission.
       

       

      At its peak, the Harlem Shake meme was immensely successful at both generativity (generated nearly 4,000 YouTube videos uploads per day), and popularity (it only took about 40 days to reach 1 billion views on Youtube, half the time that it took “Gangnam Style”). It is safe to say that the “Harlem Shake” rapidly surpassed the status of a “simple” internet meme and found its way as pop culture phenomenon, inspiring countless hours of creative endeavors participating in an “internet dance craze.” During this “internet dance craze,” the rights owners of the song that formed the musical accompaniment of the meme quickly realized the profit potential of the phenomenon, profiting handsomely from this opportunity through the architecture of control provided by YouTube.

      “Harlem Shake” offers a case study to explore the contentious relationship around ownership, authorship, labor and sharecropping in the contemporary digital age through an examination of how the viral meme emerged and spread, its monetization, and the subsequent rise to stardom of the song’s composer.

      Making of a Viral Meme

      On May 22, 2012, Baauer (the musical alias of Harry Rodrigues, a 23 year old American DJ and producer) released a track titled Harlem Shake. Released as a free download by the label “Mad Decent,” the song was well received within it is genre; Pitchfork awarded it “Best New Track”, describing it as having “an irresistible appeal” and “a purely visceral pleasure”, and the New York Times referred to Baauer as a “rising talent.” Although somewhat popular in the EDM world, the viral spread of Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake” emerged not from inclusion in DJ set lists or radio play, but from a YouTube video posted eight months later.

      On January 30th, 2013, “Filthy Frank”, the YouTube persona of a 19 year old Communication major in New York, uploaded a new video titled “FILTHY COMPILATION #6 – SMELL MY FINGERS.” The video began with a 19 second clip of Filthy Frank and three friends, all dressed in skin tight spandex body suits, dancing to Baauer’s Harlem Shake.

      A few days later, a group of Australian high school students (known on YouTube as TheSunnyCoastSkate) uploaded “The Harlem Shake v1 (TSCS original)”. Building off of Filthy Frank’s 30 second crazy dance, TheSunnyCoastSkate’s version featured a lone person wearing a motorcycle helmet dancing much like Filthy Frank along to the 30 second clip of Baauer’s Harlem Shake. When Baauer’s track drops the line “do the Harlem Shake,” the video jump-cuts into a crazed dance party of extreme silliness (and much pelvic thrusting). TheSunnyCoastSkate’s use of the jump cut further set the template for the coming dance phenomenon.

      Perhaps sensing something important was happening, merely two hours after TheSunnyCoastSkate uploaded their video, Filthy Frank uploaded “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE (ORIGINAL)”, featuring the short original dancing scene. This was followed by “The Harlem Shake v2”, based on the video from TheSunnyCoastSkate and uploaded on the same day by YouTube user PHLOn NAN, which was picked up and posted by the influential web-culture site BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed’s posting of “The Harlem Shake v2” helped to garner it 300,000 views in 24 hours. Nearly at the same time, a post of “The Harlem Shake v3 (office edition),” by Maker Studios, was upvoted to the frontpage of Reddit, generating additional momentum. By February 7th, the generative power of the Harlem Shake meme had spawned remakes from all over the world (Norwegian army, playgrounds, offices, and many dormitories).

      The meme reached a fever pitch by February 12th, and within a week began to peter out, with many pronouncing the meme “dead” after mainstream TV programs and corporate advertisers had begun co-opting the meme. To date, Filthy Frank’s “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE (ORIGINAL)” has received more than 52 million views on YouTube, TheSunnyCoastSkate “The Harlem Shake v1 (TSCS original)” more than 26 million, and PHLOn NAN’s “The Harlem Shake v2” more than 12 million.[i] The video creators all credited each other for inspiration, acknowledging the importance of each of the pieces within the generation of the Harlem Shake meme.

      Weeks after the meme climaxed in popularity and noting the strange series of events that he inadvertently set in motion, Filthy Frank tweeted at Baauer:

      ffpizza

      Baauer didn’t respond.

      Dance Craze as Meme

      While the speed with which the Harlem Shake meme was born, spread, and died was remarkable, dance crazes are nothing new. The Tango, The Twist, The Mashed Potato, The Hustle, and The Macarena are just a few of the dance crazes that swept through the dance halls, living rooms, and discotheques of the US, and around the world throughout the 20th century. These were memes in the pre-Internet, Richard Dawkins sense of the term; pieces of culture that successfully spread, replicated, and transformed into popular phenomena.[ii]

      For example, The Hustle’s origins go back to a Puerto Rican dance style that emerged in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. In this case, a grassroots culture provided the raw cultural material for a dance style, or “dance meme”; as musicians caught on and expanded its reach, The Hustle crested as a national dance craze and was cemented into national culture through a blockbuster movie.

      The original Harlem Shake, the 1990s dance style from which the Harlem Shake meme inadvertently takes its name, emerged collectively from the unique hip-hop culture of Harlem, and was utilized and transformed by hip-hop artists who brought the dance into the mainstream. Other dances similar to the Harlem Shake emerged in that time period, such the “Chicken Noodle Soup,” which combined the dance styles of Harlem Shake and the Toe Wop.[iii]

      Nobody “owned” the Harlem Shake, The Hustle, or the Chicken Noodle Soup dance styles. They didn’t have any authors. Both emerged collectively, emanating out through the smaller communities and into mainstream community. This process mirrors much of hip-hop music in general, which has historically relied heavily on sampling, remixing, sharing, and collaboration between artists and borrowing from other genres. Understanding the collaborative and networked spread of dance crazes helps us understand the similar, but much faster and more global spread of dance memes in the digital era, and the tension between social and economic capital in creative spaces.

      Monetizing of the Harlem Shake

      Baauer and Mad Decent have profited handsomely from the Harlem Shake track. Not only did the meme bring incredible exposure to the song Harlem Shake, eliciting hundreds of millions of streams through YouTube and audio streaming sites, but the attention also prompted sales of over a million digital downloads from iTunes. Additionally, the timing was perfect for Baauer, as Billboard had just re-vamped their metrics for the Billboard Hot 100 chart to include YouTube hits. Due to the explosive popularity of the meme, Baauer’s Harlem Shake rocketed to the #1 position in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and stayed there for five weeks. The value of being able to derive both global fame and revenue from the Harlem Shake meme was so great that Diplo, head of Mad Decent noted that the phenomena “saved the label” which he claimed was headed for financial ruin.

      YouTube’s new copyright profit-sharing system, known as Content ID, helped Baauer and Mad Decent even further. Victor Luckerson, in Time, describes how Content ID works:

      “Through a service called Content ID, YouTube automatically trawls its servers looking for copies of copyrighted materials that owners have asked to be protected. Users of the service can then have these copies removed from YouTube, do nothing, or have ads sold against the videos if they qualify for monetization.”

      Content ID gives rights holders the choice between trying to profitably harness the creative (and free) energies of users on YouTube, or blocking any use of their material. The Content ID system splits the ad revenue profit between YouTube and the rights holder, each receiving somewhere between 40-50% (some cases may enable a small portion, around 4 or 5% to go to the video creator/uploader).

      It is unclear exactly how much money Mad Decent & Baauer generated from Harlem Shake videos on YouTube. However, it can be reasonably estimated from the roughly 250 videos of one million viewers or more that Mad Decent could claim through YouTube’s Content ID, that Mad Decent’s ability to harness the meme through their copyright privileges netted them, in direct revenue from YouTube alone, at least a few million USD.[iv]

      From the perspective of Mad Decent and YouTube/Google, the Harlem Shake meme was a potent and harness-able force. Content ID allowed Mad Decent to harness millions of hours of creative free labor, and profit handsomely. The millions of hours of creative labor that went into producing the tens of thousands of Harlem Shake meme videos were a creative undertaking the scale of which not even the largest record companies could muster. While no one person created the Harlem Shake meme, the ability of Mad Decent to control and profit from the phenomena through Content ID gave them a kind of de facto ownership of the collectively produced meme, as they remain the majority profiteer.

      Ownership & Authorship

      Baauer’s EDM song, the Harlem Shake itself depends heavily on sampled music. Two of the most crucial samples which form the base of the song (and the dance meme) “do the Harlem Shake” and “con los terroristas,” are samples from two different songs, used without attribution or permission. While answering questions in a Reddit AMA, Baauer was asked where he got the “con los terroristas” sample. He responded as if he didn’t know, remarking:

      baueerinnerweb

      Despite Baueer’s ignorance (feigned or not), Redditors quickly figured out the origination of the sample, posting to his AMA thread:

      hectorelfather

      It is curious whether Baauer really had no idea where the sample came from, or if he was intentionally feigning ignorance as he knew that now that his song had gone viral along with the meme, there would be scrutiny of its copyright infringements. As Redditors pointed out, the “con los terroristas” sample comes from a 2006 song “Maldades” by Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Héctor “El Father” Delgado. In a radio interview, Delgado noted that he only learned about this Harlem Shake meme when a friend phoned him to tell him, and that he was planning on suing Baauer for the unlicensed use of his track. The other key sample comes from the 2001 song “Miller Time” by Plastic Little, a relatively unknown rap group. The clip “do the Harlem Shake”, from which Baauer titled his own song and forms the key moment for the meme when the beat drops, has its own rather strange story. Plastic Little’s Jayson Musson, who wrote the lyric, explained in an email to The Fader that the line is based on bloody fist fight he had with a graffiti artist, to whom he danced the Harlem Shake after beating. The lyric is “And if you bring a 40 bottle to battle me/ I’ll just punch you in the face/ then do the Harlem Shake.” Due to the unlicensed sampling, Baauer’s label Mad Decent, a small independent label, had to cut deals with both Delgado and Musson.

      The issue of authorship and sampling has long been a contentious one in the music industry. As an artist only well known within his genre, Baauer could easily get away with unlicensed sampling, as many artists have. The Harlem Shake meme rocketed Baauer not only into the mainstream, but pushed his song “Harlem Shake” to the #1 spot in the charts, as well the #1 selling track on iTunes. In light of the Harlem Shake meme causing such a ruckus over unlicensed sampling, Dorian Lynskey, writing for The Guardian, asks if “cut-and-paste Internet culture can continue to flourish on the Internet”. Dorian notes that historically over the past few decades, legal battles have increased over unlicensed sampling, pressuring mainstream artists to avoid sampling unless they can afford the licensing rights up front. Sampling in music reached a breaking point in 1991, when hip-hop artist Biz Markie lost a lawsuit and rights over his song Alone Again due to “heavy sampling.” In the end, only artists on major (wealthy) labels could afford the sampling rights for their songs, while small or independent artists would have to go without sampling, stunting one of the most prevalent elements of early hip-hop.

      Digital Sharecropping?

      Given the struggle to have a more free and open culture through more permissible copyright policies, the Harlem Shake experience can generally be seen as a mostly positive example. YouTube’s Content ID system seems to be a big improvement over the status quo, as it can be positive for both artists and users, professionals and amateurs alike. In this case, an artist was able to decide to freely allow users to remake, remix, and share the meme which utilizes his song. Users took take part in a fun and exciting activity, and Baauer received massive recognition and financial revenue while tens of millions of people enjoyed watching and participating in a global meme.

      However, the basic premise of ownership, even with the more flexible potential of systems like YouTube’s Content ID, still poses larger issues for digital culture. The fundamental problem of copyright does not ‘fit’ the way culture is created. The whole idea that Baauer has, or should have, the exclusive right to be a kind of copyright decider on YouTube is, at least, problematic. Although YouTube considers Baauer the “author,” not only is his song a remix of prior samples, genre, and culture, but the force behind the virality of the phenomena lies with the likes of Filthy Frank, TheSunnyCoastSkate, Redditors, and everyone else who contributed to the collective formation of the meme, not to mention the thousands who reproduced and shared the meme, making it a global phenomenon. A meme, due in part to its seemingly accidental, authorless collective creation, cannot be owned or “authored” like a song. Just like the Harlem Shake dance, the Harlem Shake meme is a collectively produced cultural phenomena. This is not to say that this kind of authorship grey area is new, but what is new is that we can see the process happen more clearly, in real time. In short, the memetic nature of digital culture highlights the process of production, rather than a finished, authored product, as well brings to light the labor of the accumulated hundreds of thousands of hours that went into the production and reproduction of the Harlem Shake meme.

      In many ways, this is a kind of “so what” question – who cares that Baauer will make from YouTube’s Content ID? Before Content ID, copyrighted material in YouTube videos was met with takedown notices, which makes this seem like a major step forward for cultural participation on YouTube. However, while systems like YouTube’s Content ID seem to comprise some form of a solution (or at least a compromise) it doesn’t address the root problem of digital cultural production: amateur and noncommercial remixes, mashups, fan videos, etc are still acts of copyright infringement, still a form of “theft”.

      As the Internet and digital culture transforms further into the “walled garden” model of social applications and platforms, harnessing of vast pools of free labor for profit increases without bound. What Nicholas Carr refers to as digital sharecropping gets more complicated with Content ID, as the amateur producers are not simply sharing their baby photos or status updates, but creating semi-professional music videos as participatory culture. The eagerness with which corporations are now co-opting memes for marketing purposes seems to suggest that amateur and noncommercial culture seem to be increasingly tied to or hybridized with corporate marketing strategies, further commercializing every aspect of internet culture.

      The concept of digital sharecropping is a slippery one. Alexander Galloway, in The Interface Effect argues that “[i]t is impossible to differentiate cleanly between nonproductive leisure activity existing within the sphere of play and productive activity existing in the sphere of the workplace,”[v] and, in this arena of monetizing activities of indecisive spheres, the distinctions between commercial and noncommercial, professional and amateur that characterize cultural production on the web remain as blurry as ever. Nicholas Carr wrote about the idea of digital sharecropping in 2006, in a debate over the Web 2.0 era:

      “By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.”

      Clay Shirky further clarifies Carr’s concept, arguing that although the critique of digital sharecropping is not entirely appropriate for many of the Web 2.0 platforms (as those who create the value for Yelp, Amazon, Facebook, etc., are spending their leisure time to create and share material based on their interests) it can apply when a platform allows for the exploitation of noncommercial and amateur work, which YouTube, especially in this case, seems to be profiting handsomely from. YouTube’s own FAQ on Content ID makes it clear: “In most cases, you can’t monetize a video that has a Content ID claim. Instead, the copyright owners can choose to monetize your video.” Although these might be labors of love, people not directly involved with their creation are harnessing these vast troves of labor, therefore engaging in a new form of digital sharecropping by copyright holders that fully profit from the labor of others.

      With high quality video cameras on most smartphones, and digital production tools available previously only to professionals now available for free on most personal computers, what was previously seen as a labor of love can now easily cross over into noncommercial amateur production, blurring distinctions yet again between work, play, amateur and commercial. YouTube’s Content ID’s refusal to allow producers to monetize thousands of videos (and millions of hours of work), instead granting rights to monetize (or ban) soley to a copyright claimaint seems, at very least, problematic.

      Not to say that the copyright holders don’t have a stake in the monetization, but as we have illustrated, the meme itself is more than a small track that was composed by DJ from things “found on the innerweb,” and those amateur laborers deserve recognition. Of course, this is not a new story by any stretch of the imagination. As Andrew Ross notes, “each rollout of online tools has offered ever more ingenious ways of extracting cheaper, discount work from users and participants,”[vi] and Content ID, while at first glance seems a step in the right direction, only assists in extracting additional profit from free labor.

      YouTube as Internet Dance Club

      In Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in The Hybrid Economy, Law Professor Lawrence Lessig notes of YouTube that “No site—ever—has more quickly become central to popular culture.”[vii] From the very beginning, YouTube provided a platform for people to post and share dance videos, styles, techniques. Today the dance crazes of the world spread virally through the social media networks of the Internet, rather than late night dance halls. Among other things, YouTube can act as a worldwide dance club. In the digital age have progressively gravitated towards participating in both the celebration and transformation of cultural phenomena online, and, as always, people want to dance. Transforming the open platforms of the Internet into more closed systems of profit extraction threatens one of the basic bargains of culture: people celebrating and enjoying culture without having their “labors of love” directly dictated and exploited for profit for copyright holders. Especially not those who only indirectly or even accidentally contribute to a cultural phenomena like a dance meme. YouTube’s Content ID system, or more important, the idea behind the system, sets up a rationale for increasingly aggressive for-profit harnessing of noncommercial and amateur cultural creation, creating platforms of digital sharecropping that change the basic bargain of social/noncommercial use of culture. What we have in this case is the establishment of a troubling new normal for the amateurs of YouTube: your content will be sharecropped or blocked.

      YouTube’s Content ID gives front-end control to rights holders, leaving them in the position of dictators (benevolent, if we are lucky), blocking or harnessing the incredibly productive power of collective labor. While Content ID does not seem to immediately hinder “amateur” content production, the underlying problem of giving exclusive control to authors and rights holders over viral phenomena and memes that they didn’t create (and whose exposure they already benefit from), further leverages the genuine production of social capital into a system of commercial exploitation. Digital sharecropping and the leveraging of cultural memes for profit appears as an endless source of economic growth potential for this burgeoning industry. While the the individual instances of sharecropped labor may be negligible, the normalization of digital sharecropping as the new cultural bargain of the Web becomes widespread, those individually negligible instances amount to an incredible assemblage of unacknowledged labor which reinscribes the core environment of the Internet from one of open cultural production and vibrant social capital to one that may be ignoring both current and historical labor systems.

       


       

      [i] There is a video timeline of the Harlem Shake meme, “The Evolution of the Harlem Shake Video” from Hardfest available at: http://www.hardfest.com/news/the-evolution-of-the-harlem-shake-video/

      [ii] The Selfish Gene (1989) R. Dawkins

      [iii] Notably, YouTube’s first Internet dance craze was “The Chicken Noodle Soup”, which became popular among teenage hip-hop fans. The dance craze spread thanks to hip-hop enthusiasts emulating the dance on YouTube (with millions of views), and linking to their videos on blogs and Internet forums. Soon the dance was performed by kids in the suburbs and was even performed by Justin Timberlake in drag on Saturday Night Live.

      [iv] Adding up all of the views from the 250 Harlem Shake meme videos with over 1 million, we get over 1,382,000,000 total views (counted in November, 2013). It is difficult to estimate how much revenue was generated per video, as we don’t know the exact CPM (cost per 1,000 views) rate which advertisers were charged, given that CPM often varies given the country of origin and video (users in wealthier countries typically are priced at a higher CPM). Generally speaking many YouTube videos receive a CPM of around $2. At $2, these 250 Harlem Shake meme videos would generate roughly $2,764,000 total in ad revenue. Given that YouTube takes about 45% of revenue, this would leave around $1,520,200 for Mad Decent. According to MSN Money however, Harlem Shake videos received a CPM of $6, which would generate roughly $8,292,000, of which $4,560,600 would go to Mad Decent.

      [v] Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. 1st ed. Malden, MA: Polity, 2013: 135

      [vi] Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory., 13–32. London: Routledge, 2013.

      [vii] Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press HC, The, 2008: 195

      -Contributed by ,  Wikipedia Teaching Fellow and Managing Editor of communication +1 (communicationplusone.org)-

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      Thoughts on Peer Economy Platforms : A New Iron Cage? Oct 16, 2014

      A draft of this essay appeared in : www.organizationaldynamics.wordpress.com

      McKinley_ProsperityMicrosoft FUSE lab’s recent call for project proposals on the “peer/ sharing economy” emerging online prompted me to dig a little deeper into both the available literature on the peer economy and the online platforms that populate it. I found some parallels between platforms that organize peer exchange and the platforms that I have recently studied in more detail which organize microvolunteering and -lending (Postigo and Ilten, work in progress). Sure, the obvious similarity between Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kiva and Sparked is that they coordinate participation of growing numbers of users. But who are they – peers? Not so much. The most interesting parallel to me is that these platforms are similar organizations. Here is an attempt to articulate those thoughts more clearly – and maybe end up with a research question and theoretical agenda.

      While there is a good amount of research on contributors and labor in peer production (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006; Dijck 2009), as well as a literature on trust and reputation systems (see also the Journal of Peer Production), we are still lacking an understanding of managed peer economy platforms as new forms of socio-technical organizations. This perspective becomes crucial as newer peer economy platforms move further into the service sphere, where online coordination and offline services are mediated by platforms as brokers. Much of the discourse about peer-to-peer platforms still focuses on platforms that seem to meet the ideal of cyber-communism and practical anarchism – a perceived absence of management (Benkler 2013; Vadén and Suoranta 2009), and ignores the organized actors which increasingly provide the architectures for mass peer-to-peer systems. These brokers, often companies, govern inclusion and exclusion of participants to the platforms, for example through more and more elaborated identity provision systems. Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit do not meet utopian visions of communal sharing; rather, CEOs and designers deliver a matching service to entrepreneurial individuals and derive a profit through monetizing those peer-to-peer services. A hybrid market niche for mediated – or rather: managed – peer-to-peer services seems to have emerged – a phenomenon that calls for an organizational analysis.

      A few authors have mobilized social theory and organizational theory to make sense of the governing processes that occur in all structures of coordination. For communities of hackers, O’Neil uses Weber’s theories of authority to explain the hybrid forms of hierarchical organization that emerge therein (O’Neil 2014). He posits that index-charismatic authority is a new, reputation-based system that institutes authority in the context of networked architectures. Rather than “hacking Weber”, Kreiss et al. (2011) bring organizational theory of bureaucracy (the ideal type of rational, formal organization ) back into peer-to-peer platform analysis. Criticizing the “utopian orthodoxy” (the consensus in new media studies that views peer production as inevitably non-proprietary and socially leveling) Kreiss et al. suggests that “the rationalist spirit and bureaucratic power may yet infuse peer production” – in both welcome and alarming ways (2011:243). While bureaucratic structures can be highly constraining, they have also introduced mechanisms of accountability and explicit rule-making into peer economy systems, structures that may be desirable but whose fate is uncertain in peer economy systems. Kreiss et al. ask whether “peer networks serve less as alternatives to Weber’s iron cage of rationalization, than as implements of its diffusion.” (Kreiss et al. 2011:256)

      450px-Spisska_Hrad_047How can we begin to answer that question? We need to untangle (but possibly re-tangle) the two concepts that make up the iron cage: 1) bureaucracies and their organizational structures (i.e. the iron of the “iron cages” and 2) the rationale and logics of organizational structure (i.e. the social construction of theiron cage”). With this distinction, we can start asking about the location of power in these structures. So if peer economy platforms and micro-action platforms fail to meet ideal type criteria for formal bureaucracy in terms of accountability and impersonality, then why should we think about them as bureaucratic structures?

      We may need to turn to the other most widely used metaphor for bureaucracy: that of a rational machine, an architecture that is designed to coordinate large amounts of processes smoothly. This technical dimension of bureaucracies goes to the heart of what a peer-to-peer economy does: divide up labor. At the same time, fuzzier mechanisms of sharing are at work (John 2013). For example, in order to participate, peers must provide identifying information (thus sharing themselves). The design mechanisms (or affordances) for identity production are elements of a socio-technical architecture not developed by users, but delivered by entrepreneurs, programmers, and designers. Counter-intuitive to the standard start up narrative, we are seeing a sharp organizational pyramid: A very small power center manages all communication by providing the interface (typically an app) as well as financial brokerage in the way of processing payments. Companies do not, however, own the real, material means of production that “peers” employ in the delivery of their services, such as Uber drivers’ cars. The brokers’ profit is based entirely on taking fees for connecting peers. This constitutes a management service: “Most of what managers do is arrange social relations among those who make and distribute products in order to maximize the ratio of output to input.” (Roy 1997:264) By retreating from production, online peer economy platform brokers focus on this core task of management: arranging social relations among those who exchange services – all the while steering clear from the vagaries of operations on the ground. This, of course, maximizes the input to output ratio dramatically – especially Karl_Marxwhere responsibility for services is fully waived in the terms and conditions, and the brokerage fee amounts to as much as 20% of prices. The aesthetic of the interface can easily veil these relations – there is no need to invoke Marx to see that the terms of the contract are beyond most users’ grasp. Organization theory can help us map out the (not so) new hierarchical relations that managed architectures consist of.

      Science and technology studies have a long history of showing how technological infrastructures are not neutral, but unfold social and material power – artifacts have politics (Winner 1995), and this is particularly critical for digital platforms, where materiality can evade our view (Gillespie 2010). While most research on the peer economy either ignores the material basis to peer exchange systems, or heralds web structures as inherently “peer” (decentralized), organizational theory on bureaucracy can help us critically engage the “plumbing” (Musiani 2012) that structures peer economies. Again, we must focus on individual platforms (organizations, architectures), and look out for the broader rationality that is embodied in these cases. They certainly have a new look and feel that is quite different from Weber’s state bureaucracies. But the structures governing participation and exchange, cast in algorithms, are no less rule-based and hierarchical on the technical dimension of the architectures. Importantly, the newer architectures of participation that I have called managed or mediated above come with some fairly centralized design/power structures. This is a departure from what we could almost call “traditional” (or, to stick with Weber: value-rational) online peer production in for example Free Software projects. This bazaar is brought to you by Peer Economy Design, Inc., the banner could read.

      So what kinds of cages are these new architectures? Weber’s original term stahlhartes Gehäuse translates not so much into cage as into casing, or housing. Or, in the era of online structures, into platform. We are not so much stuck in that iron casing as we are voluntarily stepping onto new iron platforms that efficiently and appealingly organize processes we feel compelled to participate in. The rationalist spirit has a new vehicle, it seems – a great opportunity to bring organization theory, social theory and STS together (once more) to see the bigger picture that connects rationalities and social structures.

       


      References

      Benkler, Yochai. 2013. “Practical Anarchism Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State.” Politics & Society 41 (2): 213–51.

      Benkler,   Yochai,   and   Helen   Nissenbaum.   2006.   “Commons-Based   Peer   Production   and   Virtue.” Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (4): 394–419.

      Dijck,   José   van.   2009.   “Users   like   You?   Theorizing   Agency   in   User-Generated   Content.” Media, Culture & Society 31 (1): 41–58.

      Gillespie, Tarleton.   2010.   “The   Politics   of   ‘platforms.’” New   Media   &   Society 12   (3):   347–64.

      John, Nicholas A. 2013. “Sharing and Web 2.0: The Emergence of a Keyword.” New Media & Society 15 (2): 167–82.

      Kreiss, Daniel, Megan Finn, and Fred Turner. 2011. “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from   Max   Weber   for   the   Network   Society.” New   Media   &   Society 13   (2):   243–59.

      Musiani, Francesca. 2012. “Caring About the Plumbing: On the Importance of Architectures in Social Studies   of   (Peer-to-Peer)   Technology.” Journal   of   Peer Production 1   (online).

      O’Neil,   Mathieu.   2014.   “Hacking   Weber:   Legitimacy,   Critique,   and   Trust   in   Peer   Production.” Information, Communication & Society 17 (7): 872–88.

      Roy, William G. 1997. Socializing Capital the Rise of the Large Industrial Corporation in America /. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press,.

      Vadén, Tere, and Juha Suoranta. 2009. “A Definition and Criticism of Cybercommunism.” Capital & Class 33 (1): 159–77.

      Winner,   Langdon.   1995.   “Political   Ergonomics.”   In Discovering   Design:   Explorations   in   Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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      Social Networking on the Dark Web Oct 8, 2014

      If someone says “Dark Web,” the first thing to come to mind might be drugs. Or guns. Or hitmen for hire. Or worse, child pornography. Indeed, we are in yet another Internet moral panic, this time about mysterious Web sites that cannot be accessed with a standard browser, sites that have bizarre URLs such as http://7vrl523532rjjznj.onion/ and http://anoncoin.i2p. Many news outlets, especially in the UK, have lurid stories of depraved activities that exist just beyond your browser’s reach, accessible only to those so paranoid as to have Tor or the i2p router installed on their computers. This anonymous, encrypted realm of the Internet brings out the worst in users, at least according to the news.

      So it might be odd to see that social networking has come to the Dark Web. As I explore in a paper that will appear in New Media and Society (you can get a pre-edited version here), it’s oversimplifying things to say the Dark Web is solely comprised of taboo activities. Indeed, social networking – that is, friending, liking, micro-blogging, and persona-building – is thriving on the Dark Web in the form of the Dark Web Social Network (DWSN), a .onion hidden service that is only accessible to Tor-equipped browsers. My paper is an early exploration of that site, drawing on interviews with site admins and members and participant observation.

      What happens on the DWSN is what I would call, following the work of Foucauldian scholar Colin Koopman, an experiment in power/freedom. I see this experiment as tied into two main historical and cultural contexts.

      First of all, the DWSN has emerged in the midst of a dominant media ideology that holds that the Dark Web is a space solely dedicated to all the taboo and illegal activities I described above: namely, drug and gun sales, hiring someone to kill an enemy, or child porn. The news reports that describe the Dark Web implicitly (and even sometimes explicitly) call for police to “clean up” these practices. However, many of the same news and magazine stories on the Dark Web also note that .onion sites are useful for activists and journalists who operate under state surveillance. Thus, the Dark Web Social Network arises in a media ideology that presents the Dark Web as caught in a reciprocal and incompatible power/freedom assemblage. This is a complex mix of power and freedom – i.e., a mix of the call for a specific form of police power to bring light to the Dark Web and the repeated valorization of a liberal freedom of speech.

      Secondly, the DWSN is a social networking site; it deploys the elements of that genre of online interaction. This means that there are affordances: if you use the DWSN, you can build a profile, post an avatar, friend people, like posts, write blog posts, and share media. However, there are also constraints: it is centralized, with admins holding onto the codebase and data, structuring the site to privilege certain actions over others. All of this is complicated by the fact that the form of social networking that one is expected in engage in on the DWSN is anonymous social networking, a far cry from the obsession with real-world identity we see on a site like Facebook.

      This second historical thread – the genre of social networking – interacts with the first in that mixing anonymity and social media infrastructure results in a new formulation of power/freedom that is specific to the DWSN and opposes it to both the moral panic about the Dark Web and the ubiquitous surveillance found in sites like Facebook. Admins in the site enjoy anonymous and centralized power over site activities – mirroring the centralized power of Facebook. However, they use this power to shape the culture of the site to prevent the taboo Dark Web activities reported in the news. Moreover, they encourage site users to take advantage of anonymity to discuss and debate illegal and taboo topics.

      The paper thus complicates a lot of the common ideas about the Dark Web by focusing on this highly complex social networking site, seeing how it relates to the historical conditions it finds itself in and how it negotiates the tensions of social networking on the Dark Web. As always, I’d love to hear your feedback.

      -Contributed by ,  Assistant Professor, Department of Communication and Affiliated Faculty, University Writing Program | University of Utah-

      Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

      Hackers [draft] [#digitalkeywords] Oct 6, 2014

      “Hacking, across its various manifestations, can be seen as a site where craft and craftiness converge.”

       
      The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)

       

      Hackers — Gabriella Coleman, McGill University

      The Culture vs. the Cultures of Hacking

      In the 1950s a small group of MIT-based computer enthusiasts, many of them model train builders/tinkerers, adopted the term “hacker” to differentiate their freewheeling attitude from those of their peers. While most MIT engineers relied on convention to deliver proven results, hackers courted contingency, disregarding norms or rules they thought likely to stifle creative invention. These hackers, like the engineers they distinguished themselves from, were primarily students, but a handful of outsiders, some of them pre-teens, were also deemed to possess the desire and intellectual chops required to hack and adopted into the informal club; In the eyes of this group, hackers re-purposed tools in the service of beauty and utility while those students “who insisted on studying for courses”[1] were considered “tools” themselves.

      Since this coinage sixty years ago, the range of activity wedded to the term “hacking” has expanded exponentially. Bloggers share tips about “life hacks” (tricks for managing time or overcoming the challenges of everyday life); corporations, governments, and NGOs host “hackathon” coding sprints[2]; and the “hacktivist”, once a marginal political actor, now lies at the center of geopolitical life.[3] Since the early 1980s, the hacker archetype has also become a staple of our mass media diet. Rarely does a day pass without an article detailing a massive security breach at the hands of shadowy hackers, who have ransacked corporate servers to pilfer personal and lucrative data. Alongside these newspaper headlines, hackers often feature prominently in popular film, magazines, literature, and TV.[4]

      Despite this pervasiveness, academic books on the subject of hacking are scant. To date the most substantive historical accounts have been penned by journalists, while academics have written a handful of sociological, anthropological and philosophical books -typically with a media studies orientation.[5] Surveying the popular, journalistic, and academic material on hackers, it is clear that few words in the English language evoke such a bundle of simultaneously negative and positive-even sexy-connotations: mysterious, criminal, impulsive, brilliant, chauvinistic, white knight, digital robin hood, young, white, male, politically naïve, libertarian, wizardly, entitled, brilliant, skilled, mystical, monastic, creepy, creative, obsessive, methodological, quirky, a-social, pathological.

      Some of these associations carry with them a kernel of truth, especially in North America and Europe: conferences are populated by seas of mostly white men; their professionalizable skills, which encompass the distinct technical arts of programming, security research, hardware building, and system/network administration, land them mostly in a middle class or higher tax bracket (they are among the few professionals who can scramble up corporate ladders without a college degree); and their much vaunted libertarianism does, indeed, thrive in particular regions like Silicon Valley, the global start-up capital of the world, and select projects like the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

      Yet many other popular and entrenched ideas about hacking are more fable than reality. Hackers, so often tagged as asocial lone wolves, are in fact highly social, as evidenced by the hundreds of hacker or developer cons which typically repeat annually and boast impressive attendance records.[6] Another misconception concerns the core political sensibility of the hacker. Many articles universalize a libertarianism to the entirety of hacking practitioners in the west. Whether appraising them positively as freedom fighters or deriding them as naïve miscreants, journalists and academics often pin the origins of their practice on an anti-authoritarian distrust of government combined with an ardent support for free market capitalism. This posited libertarianism is most often mentioned in passing as simple fact or marshaled to explain everything from their (supposedly naive) behavior to the nature of their political activity (or inactivity).[7]

      What is the source of this association, and why has it proved so tenacious? The reasons are complex, but we can identify at least two clear contributing factors. First, many hackers, especially in the west, do demonstrate an enthusiastic commitment to anti-authoritarianism and a variety of civil liberties. Most notably, hackers advocate privacy and free speech rights-a propensity erroneously (if perhaps understandably) flattened into a perception of libertarianism. While these sensibilities are wholly compatible and hold affinities with a libertarian agenda, the two are by no means co-constitutive, nor does one necessarily follow from the other.[8]

      The second source propping up the myth of the libertarian hacker concerns the framing and uptake of published accounts. Certain, depictions of particular aspects of hacking or specific geographic regions wherein libertarianism does, indeed, dominate are routinely represented as and subsequently taken up as indicative of the entire hacker culture.[9] This is only magnified by the fact that Silicon Valley technologists, many who promulgate what Richard Barbrook has named the “Californian ideology”-“a mix of cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture,” are so well resourced that their activities and values, however specific, circulate in the public more pervasively than those at work in other domains of hacker practice.[10] There is no question the California ideology remains salient[11] – but it by no means qualifies as a singular hacker worldview homogeneous across regions, generations, projects, and styles of hacking.

      This disproportionately-fortified stereotype of the libertarian hacker, along with the paucity of historical studies and contemporary research regarding other values at work in hacking, forms the terrain from which scholars of hackers currently work and write. But this seems, slowly, to be changing. Increasingly, scholars are tracing the genealogies of hacking practices, ethics, and values to heterodox, multiplicitous origins.[12] For instance, the inception of the “hacker underground”-an archipelago of tightknit crews who embrace transgression, enact secrecy, and excel in the art of computer intrusion-can be traced to the phone phreaks: proto-hackers who, operating both independently and collectively, made it their mission to covertly explore phone systems for a variety of reasons which rarely involved capital gain.[13] Conversely, “free software” hackers are far more transparent in their constitution and activities as they utilize legal mechanisms which aim to guarantee perpetual access to their creations. Meanwhile, “open source” hackers, close cousins to their equivalents in the free software movement, downplay the language of rights emphasizing methodological benefits and freedom of choice in how to use software over the perpetual freedom of the software itself; as a result, open source ideology maintains an affinity with neoliberal logics, while free software runs directly against this current.[14] Another engagement still is displayed by “the crypto-warriors,” covered in great detail by journalist Andy Greenberg, who concern themselves with technical means for securing anonymity and privacy. Their reasons and ideologies differ, but they align in the desire and development of tools which might ensure these ends.[15]

      So while libertarianism is an important worldview to consider, especially in various regions and particular projects, it fails to function effectively as a thread to connect different styles and genres of hacking. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t consider other commitments around which hackers do, indeed, seem to share a common grounding.

      The Craftiness of Craft

      Hacking, across its various manifestations, can be seen as a site where craft and craftiness converge: building a 3-D printer that can replicate itself; stealing a botnet – an army of zombie computers-to blast a website for a political DDoS campaign; inventing a license called copyleft that aims to guarantee openness of distribution by redeploying the logic inherent to copyright itself; showcasing a robot that mixes cocktails at a scientific-geek festival devoted entirely to, well, the art of cocktail robotics; inventing a programming language called Brainfuck which, as you might guess, is primarily designed to humorously mess with people’s heads; the list goes on. The alignment of craft and craftiness is perhaps the best location to find a unifying thread which runs throughout the diverse technical and ethical worlds of hacking.

      To hack is to seek quality and excellence in technological production. In this regard, all hackers fit the bill as quintessential “craftspeople,” as defined by sociologist Richard Sennett: “Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”[16] In the 20th century, with the dominance of Fordist styles of factory labor and other bureaucratic mandates, crafting has suffered a precipitous decline in Western mainstream economies, argues Sennett. Among hackers, however, this style of laboring still runs remarkably deep and strong.[17]

      Even if craftspeople tend to work in solitude, crafting is by definition a collectivist pursuit based on shared rules of engagement and standards for quality. Craftspeople gather in social spaces, like the workshop, to learn, mentor each other, and establish guidelines for exchange and making. Among hackers this ethic has remained intact, in part because they have built the necessary social spaces-mailing lists, code repositories, free software projects, hacker and maker spaces, Internet chat relays-where they can freely associate and work semi-autonomously, free from the imperatives and mandates of their day jobs.[18]

      Large free and open source projects are even similar to the guilds of time yore, where fraternity was cultivated through labor. F/OSS institutions are supported by brick and mortar infrastructures (servers, code repository) along with sophisticated and elaborate organizational mechanisms. The largest such project is undoubtedly Debian-boasting over a thousand members who maintain the 25,000 pieces of software which together constitute the Linux-based operating system. In existence now for twenty-one years, Debian is a federation sustained by procedures for vetting new members (including tests of their philosophical and legal knowledge regarding free software), intricate voting procedures, and a yearly developer conference which functions as a sort of pilgrimage.[19]

      Craft and all the social processes entailed – the establishment of rules, norms, pedagogy, traditions, social spaces, and institutions – nevertheless co-exist with countervailing, but equally prevalent, dispositions: notably individualism, anti-authoritarism, and craftiness. Hackers routinely seek to display their creativity and individuality and are well known for balking at convention and bending (or simply breaking) the rules. If a hacker inherits a code base she dislikes, she is likely to simply reinvent it. One core definition of a hack is a ruthlessly clever and unique prank or technical solution. In associating, its creator is also designated as unique.

      Craftiness is a primarily aesthetic disposition, finding expression in a plethora of practical engagements which include wily pranks and the writing of code-which is sometimes sparsely elegant and at other times densely obfuscated.[20] Its purest manifestation, I have argued elsewhere, lies in the joking and humor so common to the hacker habitat.[21] “Easter eggs” provide the classic example: clever and often non-functional jokes are commonly integrated into software instructions or manuals.

      Hacking is not the only crafting endeavour which straddles this line between collectivism and individualism, between tradition and craftiness; the tensions between these poles are apparent among academics who depend upon conventional the referenced work of peers while simultaneously striving to advance clever, novel, counter-intuitive arguments and individual recognition. Craftspeople who build and maintain technologies must be similarly enterprising, especially when improvising a fix for something like an old engine or obsolete photocopying machine.[22] Indeed, the craft-vocation of the security hacker requires what we might describe as intellectual guile. One security researcher described the mentality: You have to, like, have an innate understanding that [a security measure is] arbitrary, it’s an arbitrary mechanism that does something that’s unnatural and therefore can be circumvented in all likelihood.” Craftiness, then, can be seen as thinking outside the box, or circumvention of inherent technological limitations in pursuit of craft. But we can also understand craftiness as exceeding mere instrumentality. Among hackers, the performance of this functional aspect becomes an aesthetic pursuit, a thing valued in-and-of-itself.

      The Power and Politics of Hacking

      The interplay between craft and craftiness can be seen treated as something of a hacking universal, then. But it would be wrong to claim that these two attributes are alone capable of sparking political awareness or activism, or even that all hacking qualifies as political, much less politically progressive. Indeed, for a fuller accounting of the politics of hacking it is necessary to consider the variable cultures and ethics of hacking which underwrite craft and craftiness. Hacker political interventions must also be historically situated, in light of regional differences,[23] notable “critical events”[24] – like the release of diplomatic cables by the whistleblowing, hacker organization Wikileaks-and the broader socio-economic conditions which frame the labor of hacking.[25]

      Indeed, there is little doubt that commercial opportunities fundamentally shape and alter the ethical tenor and political possibilities of hacking. So many hacker sensibilities, projects and products are motivated by, threatened by or easily folded into corporate imperatives.[26] Take, for instance, the hacker commitment to autonomy. Technology giant Google, seeking to lure top talent, instituted the “20% policy.”[27] The company affords its engineers, many of whom value technical sovereignty as part of their ethos, the freedom to work one day a week on their own self-directed projects. And Google is not unique; the informal policy is found in a slew of Silicon Valley firms like Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn. Of course, critics rightly charge that this so-called freedom simply translates into even longer and more gruelling work weeks. Corporations advertise and institutionalize “hackathons” as a way to capitalize on the feel good mythology of the hacker freedom fighter-all while reaping the fruits of the labor performed therein. In high-tech Chinese cities like Shanghai, where hacker spaces are currently mushrooming, ethics of openness have been determined to bolster entrepreneurial goals beyond those of any individual or unaffiliated collective.[28]

      It is nevertheless remarkable that hackers, so deeply entwined in the economy, have managed to preserve pockets of meaningful social autonomy and frequently instigated or catalyzed political change. They do so through diverse tactical modalities that stretch from policy reform to the fomenting of digital direct action.[29] If the past five years are any indication, this is a trend which we can expect to grow. What, then, are the sociological and historical conditions that have helped secure and sustain this vibrant sphere of hacker-led political action, especially in light of the economic privilege they enjoy?

      Part of the answer lies in craft and the “workshops”, like IRC, mailing lists and maker spaces, where hackers collectively labor. Taken together they constitute what anthropologist Chris Kelty defines as a recursive public: “a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternative“[30] (emphasis my own) What Kelty highlights with his theory of recursive publics is not so much its politics but its power-a point also extended in a different manner by McKenzie Wark in the Hacker Manifesto.[31] Hackers hold the knowledge-and thus the power-to build and maintain the technological spaces that are partly, or fully, independent from the institutions where they work. These spaces are where they labor, but also the locales where hacker identities are forged and communities emerge to discuss values deemed essential to the practice of their craft.

      Taken from another disciplinary vantage point, these spaces qualify as what sociologists of social movements call “free spaces”, historically identified in radical book shops, bars, block clubs, tenet associations and the like. Generally these are “settings within a community or movement that are removed from the direct control of dominant groups, are voluntarily participated in, and generate the cultural challenge that precedes or accompanies political mobilization.”[32] The vibrancy of hacker politics is contingent on the geeky varieties of such free spaces.

      It is important to emphasize, however, that while the existence of recursive publics or free spaces do not, in and of themselves, guarantee the emergence of hacker political sensibilities, they remain nevertheless vital stage settings for the possibility of activism but regional differences figure prominently. For instance, much of the hacker-based political activism emanates from Europe. Compared to their North American counterparts (especially those in the United States), European hackers tend to tout their political commitments in easily recognizable ways, often aligning themselves with politically-mandated hacker groups and spaces.[33] The continent boasts dozens of autonomous, anti-capitalist technology collectives, from Spain to Croatia, and has a developed activist practice which fuses art with hacking.[34] One of the oldest collectives, the German-based Chaos Computer Club (established in 1984), has worked to shape technology policy in dialogue with government for over a decade.[35] A great majority of the participants populating the insurgent protest ensemble Anonymous are European.[36] Perhaps most tellingly, the first robust, formalized, geek political organization, the Pirate Party, was founded in Sweden.[37]

      Not all hackers are seeking, however, to promote social transformation. But we can nevertheless consider how many of their legal and technical artifacts catalyze enduring and pervasive political changes regardless of intent. Craft autonomy figures heavily in this unexpected dynamic, one which can be observed, perhaps most clearly, in the production of Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS). Productive autonomy and access to the underlying structures of code are enshrined values in this community, and politics seems to be a natural outcome of such commitments. Irrespective of personal motivation or a project’s stated political position, F/OSS has functioned as a sort of icon, a living example from which other actors in fields like law, journalism and education have made cases for open access. To give but one example, Free Software licensing directly inspired the chartering of the Creative Commons non-profit, which has developed a suite of open access licenses for modes of cultural production which extend far beyond the purview of hacking.[38] Additionally, F/OSS practices have enabled radical thinkers and activists to showcase and advocate the vitality, persistence and possibility of non-alienated labor.[39]

      Like F/OSS hackers, those in the underground also strive for and enact craft autonomy with interesting political effects-but here autonomy is understood and enacted differently. Often referred to as blackhats, these hackers pursue forbidden knowledge. While often lured by the thrills offered by subversion and transgression alone, their acts also serve pedagogical purposes, and many have emerged from these illegal, underground into the realm of respected security research. Their hands-on experiences locating vulnerabilities and sleuthing systems are easily transferrable into efforts to fortify-rather than penetrate-technical systems. Predictably, the establishment of a profitable security industry is seen by some underground hackers as a threat to their autonomy: Some critics deride their fellow hackers for selling out to the man.[40] A much larger number don’t have a problem with the aim of securitization per se, but nevertheless chastise those attracted to the field by lucrative salaries rather than a passionate allegiance to quality. In one piece declaring the death of the hacker underground, a hacker bemoans: “unfortunately, fewer and fewer people are willing, or indeed capable of following this path, of pursuing that ever-unattainable goal of technical perfection. Instead, the current trend is to pursue the lowest common denominator, to do the least amount of work to gain the most fame, respect or money.”[41]

      A major, and perhaps unsurprising motivator of hacker politicization comes in the wake of state intervention. The most potent periods of hacker politicization (at least in the American context) are undoubtedly those following arrests of underground hackers like Craig Neidorf[42] or Kevin Mitnick.[43] The criminalization of software can also do the trick; hacker-cryptopapher Phil Zimmerman broke numerous munitions and intellectual property laws when he released PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption to the world-a fact governments did not fail to notice or act upon.[44] But this act of civil disobedience helped engender the now firmly-established hacker notion that software deserves free speech protections.[45]

      In many such instances, the pushback against criminalization spills beyond hacker concerns, engaging questions of civil liberties more generally. Activists outside the hacker discipline are inevitably drawn in, and the political language deployed by them results in a sort of positive feedback loop for the hackers initially activated. We saw this precise pattern with the release and attempted suppression of DeCSS, a short program which could be used to circumvent copy and regional access controls on DVDs. In the United States, hackers who shared or published this code were sued under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and its author was subsequently arrested in Norway. State criminalization led to a surge of protest activity among hackers across Europe and North America as they insisted upon free speech rights to write and release code undisputality cementing the association between free speech and code. As alliances were forged with civil liberties groups, lawyers, and librarians, what is now popularly known as the “digital rights movement” was more fully constituted.[46]


      ENDNOTES

      1. Levy, Steven Hackers. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2010, p. 10

      2. DiSalvo, Carl and Melissa Gregg. “The Trouble With White Hats.” The New Inquiry, November 21, 2013.

      3. Beyer, Jessica L. Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization. Oxford_; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014; Jordan, Tim, and Paul Taylor. Hacktivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause?. Routledge, 2004; Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London_; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014; Sauter, Molly. The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

      4. Alper, Meryl. “‘Can Our Kids Hack It With Computers?’ Constructing Youth Hackers in Family Computing Magazines.” International Journal of Communication. N, no. 8 (2014): 673-98.

      5. For a history of phone phreaking see Lapsley, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell, 2013; for a history of the first coordinate state crackdowns against the American black hats see Sterling, Bruce. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. The history of the intersection between hacking and cryptography has been written by Greenberg, Andy. This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information. New York: Dutton Adult, 2012.Finally the classic account on the birth of university based hacking and early hardware hacking, see Steven Levy, ibid. For academic accounts also see: Jordan, Tim, and Paul Taylor. Hacktivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause?. Routledge, 2004; Thomas, Douglas. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002; Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004; Kelty, Christopher M. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008; and Coleman, Gabriella. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

      6. Coleman, Gabriella. “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” Anthropological Quarterly 83, no. 1 (2010): 47-72.

      7. Borsook, Paulina. Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech. PublicAffairs, 2000.

      8. This is one but many examples where civil liberties is equated with libertarians but I feel like a jerk calling people out: Schulte, Stephanie, and Bret Schulte. “Muckraking in the Digital Age: Hacker Journalism and Cyber Activism in Legacy Media.” NMEDIAC, The Journal Of New Media And Culture 9, no. 1 (February 25, 2014).

      9. Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

      10. Barbrook, R, and A Cameron. “The California Ideology.” Science as Culture, no. 26 (1996): 44-72.

      11. Marwick, Alice E. Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. Yale University Press, 2013 and Morozov, Evgeny. To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. PublicAffairs, 2013.

      12. Jordan, Tim. Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008; Coleman, Gabriella, and Alex Golub. “Hacker Practice.” Anthropological Theory 8, no. 3 (2008): 255-77.

      13. Lapsley, Ibid.

      14. Berry, David. Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source. London: Pluto Press, 2008.

      15. Greenberg, ibid.

      16. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

      17. Hannemyr, Gisle. “Technology and Pleasure: Considering Hacking Constructive.” First Monday 4, no. 2 (February 1, 1999).

      18. For an in-depth account of how these spaces function pedagogically, Schrock, Andrew Richard. “‘Education in Disguise': Culture of a Hacker and Maker Space.” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies 10, no. 1 (January 1, 2014).

      19. O’Neil, Mathieu. Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes. London; New York: New York: Pluto Press, 2009; Coleman, Gabriella. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

      20. Montfort, Nick. “Obfuscated Code.” In Software Studies a Lexicon, edited by Matthew Fuller. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.

      21. See “Codes of Value” section in Coleman, ibid; and also Goriunova, Olga, ed. Fun and Software: Exploring Pleasure, Paradox and Pain in Computing. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

      22. Orr, Julian E. Talking about Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. Ithaca, N.Y: ILR Press, 1996.

      23. See, for example, Takhteyev, Yuri. Coding Places: Software Practice in a South American City. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012; and Chan, Anita Say. Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2014.

      24. Sewell Jr., William H. Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005.

      25. Wark, ibid.

      26. Delfanti, Alessandro and Johan Soderberg. “Hacking Hacked! The Life Cycles of Digital Innovation.” Science, Technology and Human Values, Forthcoming.

      27. Tate, Ryan. “Google Couldn’t Kill 20 Percent Time Even If It Wanted To.” Wired, August 21, 2013.

      28. Lindtner, Silvia, Li, David. “Created in China.” Interactions Interactions 19, no. 6 (2012): 18.

      29. [LEFT BLANK] ****

      30. Kelty, ibid.

      31. Wark, ibid.

      32. Polletta, F. “‘Free Spaces’ in Collective Action.” Theory and Society 28, no. 1 (1999): 1-38.

      33. Bazzichelli, Tatiana. Networked Disruption: Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social Networking. Aarhus N, Denmark: Aarhus Universitet Multimedieuddannelsen, 2013.

      34. Maxigas. “Hacklabs and Hackerspaces – Tracing Two Genealogies.” Journal of Peer Production, no. 2. Accessed October 2, 2014.

      35. Kubitschko, Sebastian. “Hacking Authority.” edited by Craig Calhoun and Richard Sennett. New York: NYU Press, Forthcoming.

      36. Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014.

      37. Burkart, Patrick. Pirate Politics: The New Information Policy Contests. The MIT Press, 2014.

      38. Coleman, Gabriella, and Mako Hill. “How Free Became Open and Everything Else Under the Sun.” MC Journal 7, no. 3 (July 2004).

      39. Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

      40. Anonymous. “Lines in the Sand: Which Side Are You On in the Hacker Class War.” Phrack Inc. 0x0e, no. 0x44 (April 2012).

      41. Anonymous. “The Underground Myth.” Phrack Inc. 0x0c, no. 0x41 (November 2008).

      42. Sterling, Ibid.

      43. Thomas, Ibid.

      44. Levy, Steven. Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age. 1st edition. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

      45. Coleman, Gabriella. “Code Is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers.” Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 3 (November 2, 2012): 420-54.

      46. Postigo, Hector. The Digital Rights Movement: The Role of Technology in Subverting Digital Copyright. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012.


      BIBLIOGRAPHY

      Alper, Meryl. “‘Can Our Kids Hack It With Computers?’ Constructing Youth Hackers in Family Computing Magazines.” International Journal of Communication. N, no. 8 (2014): 673-98.

      Anonymous. “Lines in the Sand: Which Side Are You On in the Hacker Class War.” Phrack Inc. 0x0e, no. 0x44 (April 2012).

      Anonymous. “The Underground Myth.” Phrack Inc. 0x0c, no. 0x41 (November 2008).

      Barbrook, R, and A Cameron. “The California Ideology.” Science as Culture, no. 26 (1996): 44-72.

      Bazzichelli, Tatiana. Networked Disruption: Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social Networking. Aarhus N, Denmark: Aarhus Universitet Multimedieuddannelsen, 2013.

      Berry, David. Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source. London: Pluto Press, 2008.

      Beyer, Jessica L. Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization. Oxford_; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

      Borsook, Paulina. Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech. PublicAffairs, 2000.

      Burkart, Patrick. Pirate Politics: The New Information Policy Contests. The MIT Press, 2014.

      Chan, Anita Say. Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2014.

      Coleman, Gabriella, and Alex Golub. “Hacker Practice.” Anthropological Theory 8, no. 3 (2008): 255-77.

      Coleman, Gabriella. “Code Is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers.” Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 3 (November 2, 2012): 420-54.

      Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014.

      Coleman, Gabriella. “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” Anthropological Quarterly 83, no. 1 (2010): 47-72.

      Coleman, Gabriella. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

      Coleman, Gabriella, and Mako Hill. “How Free Became Open and Everything Else Under the Sun.” MC Journal 7, no. 3 (July 2004).

      Delfanti, Alessandro and Johan Soderberg. “Hacking Hacked! The Life Cycles of Digital Innovation.” Science, Technology and Human Values, Forthcoming.

      DiSalvo, Carl and Melissa Gregg. “The Trouble With White Hats.” The New Inquiry, November 21, 2013. http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-trouble-with-white-hats/.

      Goriunova, Olga, ed. Fun and Software: Exploring Pleasure, Paradox and Pain in Computing. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

      Greenberg, Andy. This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information. New York: Dutton Adult, 2012.

      Hannemyr, Gisle. “Technology and Pleasure: Considering Hacking Constructive.” First Monday 4, no. 2 (February 1, 1999).

      Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

      Jordan, Tim. Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008.

      Jordan, Tim, and Paul Taylor. Hacktivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause?. Routledge, 2004.

      Kelty, Christopher M. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

      Kubitschko, Sebastian. “Hacking Authority.” edited by Craig Calhoun and Richard Sennett. New York: NYU Press, Forthcoming.

      Lapsley, Phil. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell, 2013.

      Levy, Steven. Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

      Levy, Steven. Hackers. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2010.

      Lindtner, Silvia, Li, David. “Created in China.” Interactions Interactions 19, no. 6 (2012): 18.

      Marwick, Alice E. Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. Yale University Press, 2013.

      Maxigas. “Hacklabs and Hackerspaces – Tracing Two Genealogies.” Journal of Peer Production, no. 2. Accessed October 2, 2014.

      Montfort, Nick. “Obfuscated Code.” In Software Studies a Lexicon, edited by Matthew Fuller. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.

      Morozov, Evgeny. To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. PublicAffairs, 2013.

      O’Neil, Mathieu. Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes. London_; New York_: New York: Pluto Press, 2009.

      Orr, Julian E. Talking about Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. Ithaca, N.Y: ILR Press, 1996.

      Polletta, F. “‘Free Spaces’ in Collective Action.” Theory and Society 28, no. 1 (1999): 1-38.

      Postigo, Hector. The Digital Rights Movement: The Role of Technology in Subverting Digital Copyright. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012.

      Sauter, Molly. The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

      Schrock, Andrew Richard. “‘Education in Disguise': Culture of a Hacker and Maker Space.” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies 10, no. 1 (January 1, 2014). http://escholarship.org/uc/item/0js1n1qg.

      Schulte, Stephanie, and Bret Schulte. “Muckraking in the Digital Age: Hacker Journalism and Cyber Activism in Legacy Media.” NMEDIAC, The Journal Of New Media And Culture 9, no. 1 (February 25, 2014).

      Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

      Sewell Jr., William H. Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005.

      Sterling, Bruce. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

      Takhteyev, Yuri. Coding Places: Software Practice in a South American City. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012.

      Tate, Ryan. “Google Couldn’t Kill 20 Percent Time Even If It Wanted To.” Wired, August 21, 2013.

      Thomas, Douglas. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

      Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

      Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

      -Contributed by ,  Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University-

      Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

      Internet [draft] [#digitalkeywords] Sep 29, 2014

      “the blurriness in how we use “internet” has a history and a function: it has allowed the word to become a metonymy – a part that stands for the whole – for a complex, shifting, intertwined mix of institutions, technologies, and practices. In this it is similar to “the Church,” “the press,” “Hollywood,” or “television.” …This metonymic pattern is much more than a convenience. It is an assertion of power.”

       
      The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)

       

      Internet — Tom Streeter, University of Vermont

      Introduction

      The “internet” has many meanings: hardware, software, protocols, institutional arrangements, practices, and social values. More often than not, which meaning we are using goes unspecified. Someone in a coffee shop might ask the laptop-wielding person next to them “are you getting internet?” when they mean “are you getting a wifi signal?” – which is actually a local, not internetwork, technology. The term “internet” is often used to refer to a host of different technologies, from non-TCP/IP systems of connection like local area networks and mobile phone data networks, to major “internet backbone” connections involving core routers, fiber optic long distance lines, and undersea cables. An “internet connected computer” can mean variously a computer running its own TCP/IP server with its own IP address, or simply any kind of gadget capable of sending some kind of data to and/or from global data networks. (A recent news clip referred to “an internet connected umbrella” the handle of which glows when rain is expected, as if “the internet” is the distinguishing technology here rather than, say, the equally essential microchips or wireless technologies.[1])

      The range of multiple meanings go well beyond the technological. A recent headline read, “The 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet.”[2] This locution assumes that the internet is a separate space or forum apart from other kinds of discussions of literature – even though the community of literary reviewers and their readers actually spans across outlets that vary both in terms of technology (print, digital) and economic organization (profit, non-profit, advertising supported, subscription, etc.). “Netroots,” a portmanteau of “internet” and “grassroots,” generally refers to progressive left-wing activists who use a mix of traditional and internet forms of political organizing; one does not talk about the Tea Party as a Netroots organization, though it also makes heavy use of the internet. The “internet” foregrounded in “netroots” is thus actually a modest part of a politically inflected whole.[3]

      My point here is not simply to denounce the vagueness with which we use the word.[4] Rather, the blurriness in how we use “internet” has a history and a function: it has allowed the word to become a metonymy – a part that stands for the whole – for a complex, shifting, intertwined mix of institutions, technologies, and practices. In this it is similar to “the Church,” “the press,” “Hollywood,” or “television.” In each case, the use of a part – a building, technology, geographical location, or box in our living room – stands for the whole whatever-it-is. This metonymic pattern is much more than a convenience. It is an assertion of power. It treats fluid, complex relationships as a self-evident thing, and thereby can cover up instabilities and contested elements within the institutions being considered. This reification, in turn, can help perpetuate, for better or worse, a specific set of social arrangements. The metonymy shapes the processes it purports to describe. Unpacking “the internet” as a keyword,[5] therefore, offers a window into both the history of the last thirty years and some key political issues of the present.

      Early History: an internet vs. the Internet

      The root word “network” itself has a history of multiple meanings, in the last century principally divided between an understanding of networks as webs of face-to-face contact without any necessary implication of technological mediation,[6] and networks as technological systems that materially interconnect individuals across distances, such as railroads or telephone systems.[7]

      The dual sociological and technological meanings of “network” served as a backdrop when the word internet emerged in the 1970s. From the beginning the term expressed some of the tensions and hopes involved in the intertwined problems of technological design and the organization of social relations. “Internetwork” appeared among computer engineers as shorthand for a network of networks or interconnected network. This was not just a technical problem. It was a social condition, namely that the first connections of computers across distance occurred in a context of private corporations which sold competing systems based on incompatible telecommunications standards. An internetwork was thus something intended to overcome the existing incompatibilities among computer systems from different firms and institutions. Soon shortened further to “internet,” it thus began life as a colloquial term for a particular kind of technological solution to an institutional (rather than purely technical) problem.[8]

      A 1977 technical document by Jon Postel, for example, opens,

      This memo suggests an approach to protocols used in internetwork systems. . . . The position taken here is that internetwork communication should be view [sic] as having two components: the hop by hop relaying of a message, and the end to end control of the conversation. This leads to a proposal for a hop by hop oriented internet protocol, an end to end oriented host level protocol, and the interface between them. . . . We are screwing up in our design of internet protocols by violating the principle of layering.[9]

      In this passage one can see not only the shift from “internetwork” to the more shortened “internet,” but also a move from speaking of “networks of networks” in general – “internetwork systems” – towards speaking of the specific system being constructed – “our design of internet protocols.” Later in the memo this use of “internet” to refer to a specific system becomes even clearer: “An analogy may be drawn between the internet situation and the ARPANET.” In this last passage, “the internet” is clearly being used to refer to the specific system being designed at the time, and thus contrasted with its predecessor network of networks, the ARPANET.

      In the next decade, a colloquial use of “internet” to refer to a specific institution under construction continued alongside other uses. (And more colloquialisms emerged during this time, such as an even further shortened “the Net.”) During this period, confusion between “internet” as a general principle vs. a specific system became of enough concern for engineers of the day to begin to capitalize the latter: an internet vs. the Internet.[10] But this use of “Internet” to refer to a specific system remained relatively colloquial through the 1980s. At a key moment in 1983, when the existing ARPANET was split into military and research-oriented halves, press reports described the military side as “Milnet” and the civilian side as “R&DNet.”[11] While “R&DNet” as a term never caught on, its direct descendant – funded by the National Science Foundation or NSF – was officially described as NSFNET through the 1980s. In May 1989, the Federal Research Internet Coordinating Committee released a “Program Plan for the National Research and Education Network”; in this instance the committee devoted to internetworking in general uses “Internet” in its self-description, but the proper noun, the specific thing being proposed, is called NREN.[12]

      For the next two years, “Internet” remained an insider’s colloquial term for one internetwork among many others, such as BITNET, BBS systems, USENET, etc. As late as December, 1992, a famous exchange between Vice President elect Al Gore and the CEO of AT&T about whether or not government should be involved in the construction of nationwide computer networks, did not contain the word “internet.”[13] The first issue of Wired, released the following month, referred to the internet only occasionally in passing, largely as one instance of computer communication systems along others, not as the network of networks, not as the center of the “digital revolution” that the magazine was created to celebrate.[14] A May 1993 article in Newsweek about the future of computer networks did not mention the internet at all.[15]

      The metonymy consolidates 1993-95

      All this changed between the fall of 1993 and late 1995, when the contemporary use of “internet” emerged explosively into broad usage, and “the Internet” went from being an internetwork to the network of networks. By early 1996, the remaining consumer computer communication systems from the 1980s like Compuserve and Prodigy were all selling themselves as means of access to the internet rather than the other way around, the U.S. Congress heavily revised its communications law for the first time in more than half a century in the ’96 Telecommunications Act, major corporations from the phone companies to Microsoft to the television networks were radically revamping core strategies to adapt to the internet, and television ads for Coke and Pepsi routinely displayed URLs.[16] The previously colloquial and unstable term became the fixed name of a global phenomenon.

      Though the word became fixed, the phenomenon it referred to was not. For example, the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 was often said to be in part motivated by the rise of the internet, and it referred to “the Internet” several times, defining it rather circularly as “the international computer network of both Federal and non-Federal interoperable packet switched data networks.”[17] (X.25 networks, inherited from the 1970s and still in use at the time by banks and other large institutions, were international and packet-switched but were not what the ’96 Act was referring to.) The use of “the international computer network” instead of “an international computer network” thus indicates a referent that was assumed rather than precisely delineated.

      What changed in the 1992-96 period was not so much the technology or its reach, but the way it was imagined: the shared assumptions, ideas, and values invested in the term took on a new cast and intensity, which in turn shaped collective behavior. It is true that in 1996 there existed a system of material TCP/IP-based computer networking technologies of increasing effectiveness. But the number of nodes and users in that system had been growing logarithmically for several years before 1992 when “internet” was a relatively obscure term, and by the end of 1996 the total number of users remained less than 1% of the world population, and less than 8% of the U.S. population.[18] By 1996 “the internet” was crystallized as a term, but it was not by any stretch an established central form of communication or means of doing business, and the specific wires and computer systems of which it was made would largely be replaced and transformed within a decade. The material technologies associated with the “internet” therefore were not by themselves as yet all that dominant or settled. The designs, hopes, and money that started flowing towards the thing called the internet in 1996 were based on future expectations, on a shared set of beliefs and visions, as much as on material facts. The Internet thus was as much a set of ideas and expectations as it was any specific object, yet the habit of referring to it as an object – the metonymy – played a major role in coagulating those ideas and expectations.

      Internet as social vision: interactivity, forum, telos

      So what did the term “internet” refer to, if it did not only refer to an existing technology? One connotation of the term was a particular experience of interactivity that was widely accessible and designed to be used in an unplanned, playful or exploratory way, rather than merely as a means to a known end.[19] Most occurrences of “Internet” in the ’96 Act are accompanied by the phrase “and other interactive computer services.”[20] While not made explicit, the “interaction” referred to here was not just any social interaction. In its sociological sense, talking on the telephone is an interaction, a bank official transmitting financial data via an X.25 network is an interaction, but these were already old hat and thus not what was being referred to. The “interaction” in question assumed a certain ease, immediacy, and unplanned type of horizontal connections via connected computers, and wide availability and open access – a fear of which with regard to children was seen in the “Communications Decency” portion of the ’96 Act which forbid pornography on the internet and was subsequently found unconstitutional.

      A second important connotation of the internet that emerged was a spatial metaphor, tied to an understanding of it as a kind of forum, rather than, say, as a conduit. In the syllabus of the 1997 decision that overturned the Communications Decency part of the ’96 Act, the U.S. Supreme Court defined the Internet as “an international network of interconnected computers that enables millions of people to communicate with one another in ‘cyberspace’ and to access vast amounts of information from around the world.”[21] (The term cyberspace occurs twice more in the Decision, without quotes.) Here, to articulate what the internet is, the U.S. Supreme Court casually adopts a spatial metaphor from science fiction (replacing the conduit-oriented “information superhighway” metaphor that dominated in the culture a few years earlier). This spatial metaphor helped ground the Court’s description of the internet as what it called “this new forum,” as a space within which citizens interact and deliberate, which thereby underwrote the Court’s judgment that the internet is worthy of stronger free speech protections than, say, broadcasters.

      During this period, the internet also came to be described as having a kind of agency, a force of its own or a teleology. The surprising way in which the internet emerged into broad public consciousness in this period is arguably due to a set of peculiar historical circumstances.[22] But those circumstances were eclipsed by the pressures of the time; it all just seemed to happen as if from nowhere. The resulting shared sense of surprise underwrote a habit of speaking as if it all came from some kind of force attributable to technology alone, without human agency or design. The first, January 1993 issue of Wired magazine flamboyantly attributed to the “Digital Revolution” the disruptive force of “a Bengali Typhoon.” Over the course of 1993, as the internet came to broad public attention, the magazine began to make such attributions of agency directly to the internet, and thus while not inventing the sense of internet-as-force certainly contributed to its momentum. And this all led to a proliferation of slogans such as “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,”[23] and a generalized sense that the internet, whatever it was, contained within it a set of inherent traits that had a causal force on society. An entire genre of punditry emerged that exploited the discursive possibilities of this sense of telos: speaking as though one had special insight into the mysterious internet suggested one had a unique insight into the future, imparting a kind of speaker’s benefit similar to that Foucault pointed out accrues to being an expert on sexuality.[24]

      Much of this talk is now easily seen as hyperbolic: it is now routine for various governments to censor their internet, and the late 1990s claim that the internet had somehow suspended the laws of economics led to a record-setting stock bubble, with painful consequences when it collapsed. But the sense that the internet has a kind of social force of its own, separable from the intentions and social context of the individuals that construct and use it, persists to this day.

      What emerged at the end of the 1992-96 period, in sum, was a meaning of “internet” that unreflectively mixed a shifting set of technologies, protocols, and institutions with connotations of accessible exploratory interaction, a forum, and a sense that the whole “thing” had a teleological causal force. Because this was at a time when the actual systems that we now use were just beginning to be built out, the mix can be seen to have played a constitutive role in those systems’ creation.

      All these tendencies combine to give the word “internet” an outsized gravitational force in the description of any emerging social practice that has anything at all to do with computer networks. The sense of the internet possessing a kind of agency or telos in particular remains vivid in political and social debates. For example, contemporary net neutrality proponents proclaim “save the internet!” – which presumes that the internet, like a National Park or a species of animal, has a kind of natural state of openness, inherent in the internet itself. (It is only recently that less teleological arguments have been advanced, such as the argument that net neutrality would help uphold the values of democracy.) An assumption that the internet has a natural telos is also evident in the still common framing of internet trends as if they represented a natural unfolding rather than economic and social choices. The term “Web 2.0,” borrowing from the tradition of numbered software upgrades, carried with it a sense of an unstoppable progression. A current discourse about a coming “internet of things” similarly implies a kind of “next phase” logic of progression, while implying that the use of wireless and data technologies in home appliances has grand implications, rather than representing merely a continuation of the more than century-long trend in the automation of consumer durables.[25]

      Conclusion

      In the future, the word internet might fall into disuse, and historians may wonder why this ill-defined thing called “the internet” received so much attention. From 1990-2015, after all, the mobile phone and television both grew dramatically in reach and impact globally, and as of this writing they each still have more users than the internet, however defined. Furthermore, platforms like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Netflix may not be framed as things “on the internet,” but as the quite distinct institutions they are, with different social, economic, technological, and political implications. A future is conceivable in which an internet expert is no more intriguing than a plumbing expert.

      Yet future historians will not be able to explain the political, economic, or social histories of the 1990-2015 period without considering the impact of talk about “the internet.” Laws were passed, stock bubbles inflated and collapsed, political campaigns launched, and a host of influential and broadly shared expectations about politics, economics, and social life were shaped by the term internet and the sets of assumptions it carried with it. The word may be vague, but it has mattered nonetheless.

      At this point in history, scholars should avoid referring to the internet as a self-evident, single object. But they should also pay explicit attention to the hopes, values, and struggles that have been embedded in both the term and the phenomena. The “internet” may not be the answer, but the questions the term raises are nonetheless crucial. The question of how society designs technologies while organizing social relations, implicit already in the first casual uses of the term in the 1970s, remains a crucial intellectual and political problem. The “internet” may not be the solution to the problem of democracy, but a democratic future will still need to consider, among other things, questions about technological systems of interconnection and related political legal, and economic questions. And finally, it is significant that one of the great technological triumphs of history was to a significant degree shaped by widely shared hopes and visions of democracy and horizontal interactivity, by desires for open fora. The internet may not be inherently democratic, but the fact that we have imagined it as so, that we have invested it with widely shared hopes for democracy, deserves our attention.


      Footnotes

      1. Kristyn Ulanday, “The Internet of Things,” The New York Times, July 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/video/garden/100000003003809/the-internet-of-things.html.

      2. http://flavorwire.com/467152/the-35-writers-who-run-the-literary-internet

      3. It has become the norm to speak of information and events as on the internet: “I found it on the internet”; “I was arguing with someone on the internet”; “I looked it up on the internet,” “check on the internet.” While we say “I talked to her on the telephone,” we would not say “I found it on the telephone.” The telephone is not viewed as its own place so much as a tool to get in touch with specific individuals across space. Arguably, one could say the internet is more telephone-like: it is the conduit, whereas individual websites or platforms provide the conditions within which we are getting information, interacting with others, and so forth. “I saw it on Facebook” or “I looked it up on Wikipedia” are in that sense more accurate. Yet finding or doing something “on the internet” as if it were a location rather than a conduit remains an entirely common way of speaking. The locution for the internet is more like how we say “I saw it on television” than with cinema, where we are more likely to say “I saw it in a movie.”

      4. For a lively example of denunciation, see Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (PublicAffairs, 2013), 21.

      5. The internet is thus a keyword in two senses: the sense that “the problems of its meanings [are] inextricably bound up with the problems it [is] being used to discuss,” (Williams, 15) but also that its meanings are “primarily embedded in actual relationships, . . . . within the structures of particular social orders and the processes of social and historical change.” (Williams, 22).

      6. The tradition is usually said to have begun with Georg Simmel. See e.g., Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology, 1973, 1360-80.

      7. E.g., NBC’s Red and Blue radio “networks” of the mid-1920s – though the U.S. 1927 Radio Act and subsequent legal documents referred not to networks but to “chain broadcasting,” putting more emphasis on the economic and contractual relationships than technological ones.

      8. The continued availability of purely social connotations of “network” and its derivatives, however, is evident in the title of the “Human Rights Internet,” appearing in 1981 or earlier, which was a clearinghouse for information about human rights abuses worldwide; to my knowledge it was organized entirely without the use or consideration of computers. See http://www.hri.ca/ or e.g., David Ziskind, “Labor Laws in the Vortex of Human Rights Protection,” Comp. Lab. L. 5 (1982): 131.

      9. http://www.rfc-editor.org/ien/ien2.txt IEN # 2.3.3.2  “Comments on Internet Protocol and TCP,” Jon Postel, 15 August 1977

      10. So, for example, in 1989, an IBM technical manual stated, “when written with a capital ‘I,’ the Internet refers to the worldwide set of interconnected networks. Hence, the Internet is an internet, but the reverse does not apply.” TCP/IP Tutorial and Technical Overview (ISBN 0-7384-2165-0), cited in “Capitalization of ‘Internet’,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, June 30, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Capitalization_of_%22Internet%22&oldid=614895170. A discussion list created in 1990 to discuss technical and institutional problems with the evolving system was called “Commercialization and Privatization of the Internet” (“com-priv” for short). In this title, the emphasis was already on the Internet, not an internet. Thomas Streeter, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (NYU Press, 2011), 110.

      11. William J. Broad, “Pentagon Curbing Computer Access; Global Network Split in a Bid to Increase Its Security,” The New York Times, October 5, 1983.

      12. Streeter, The Net Effect, 107.

      13. “THE TRANSITION; Excerpts From Clinton’s Conference on State of the Economy,” New York Times, December 15, 1992, New York edition, sec. B.

      14. Using the “premiere issue” distributed as an iPad-only reissue in 2012 as a guide, only two out of seven feature articles mention the Internet at all, each case in the sense of a specific system alongside others, such as BBS’s, Britain’s JANET, and so forth.

      15. Jim Impoco, “Technology Titans Sound Off on the Digital Future,” U.S. News and World Report, May 3, 1993.

      16. Streeter, The Net Effect, 133-134.

      17. Most of the 106-page ’96 Act addresses well-established telecommunications systems, e.g., “the general duties of telecommunications carriers.” Federal Communications Commission and others, “Telecommunications Act of 1996,” Public Law 104, no. 104 (1996): 84.

      18. http://www.internetworldstats.com/emarketing.htm; Farhad Manjoo, “Jurassic Web,” Slate, February 24, 2009, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2009/02/jurassic_web.html.

      19. The once-common term “information retrieval” captures the opposing sense of the use of online communication for a pre-planned purpose.

      20. e.g., “The rapidly developing array of Internet and other interactive computer services available to individual Americans represent an extraordinary advance.” Ibid., 83.

      21. Reno, Attorney General of the United States, Et Al. v. American Civil, U.S. (U.S. Supreme Court 1997).

      22. Streeter, The Net Effect, 119-137.

      23. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Gilmore

      24. One might rewrite what Foucault said about the repressive hypothesis by replacing references to sexuality with “internet revolution,” thusly:

      [T]here may be another reason that makes it so gratifying for us to define the relationship [between technology and society in terms of revolution]: something that one might call the speaker’s benefit. [If the internet is revolutionary], then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom. . . . [when we speak about the internet] we are conscious of defying established power, our tone of voice shows that we know we are being subversive, and we ardently conjure away the present and appeal to the future, whose day will be hastened by the contribution we believe we are making. Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law, slips easily into this discourse.” History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, pp. 6-7.

      25. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_Things

      -Contributed by ,  University of Vermont Department of Sociology-

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