It’s the Information Economy, Stupid
I’m not a fan of abstractions. Nominalisms like “free speech” and “human rights” don’t usually get much more than a yawn from me. So this isn’t a post about principles - it’s a post about activity and privation. It’s also not a post about abstractions - it’s a post about a very real, crucially important battle that is being waged right now, at this very moment, a battle that is part of a very real, crucially important war, a war that stands to define the shape of capitalism for the foreseeable future.
Let’s not mince words: information is the most important currency of the 21st century. Maybe in 100 years, when we’ve used most of it up, oil will return to the top of the pyramid, but at the moment there is no commodity worth more than the endless strings of 1s and 0s that make up your digital life. The war over the future of the Internet can potentially affect every facet of your daily existence from your ability to send e-mail to your ability to vote.
Please don’t make the error of thinking that this war is about copyright enforcement. That may be the form that the current skirmish has taken on, but the stakes of this war are considerably higher than whether or not you should be allowed to download the latest season of Project Runway on BitTorrent. This is a war about fundamental questions of democratic society, about the ownership and restriction of public utilities, about whether multinational conglomorates will succeed in smashing the rhizomatic, decentralized models of commerce and communication that the Internet has provided for the last 20 years, and about control of what is, for better and for worse, the most powerful tool for revolution that exists in the world today (well, OK, second most powerful after Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus).
The basic problem looks like this.
An increasingly large part of our daily lives takes place on-line; this will not be news to anyone. Communication, shopping, entertainment, travel arrangements - these were just the tip of the iceberg. US citizens can now pay taxes on-line. In some places you can vote on-line. Within a very short time, college admissions will be entirely digital; even today, I’m not sure it’s still possible to apply to a top-tier university without Internet access. In other words, in the next few years, the Internet will no longer be an option; it will become a requisite tool to which one must have access if one is to enjoy the full range of rights and responsibilities available to you as a citizen.
The question at the heart of the war is this: given that access to the Internet will soon be crucial to the basic operations of daily life, do we want that access to be mediated by corporations whose only concern is maximizing profit? Do you want your ability to vote, to receive tax refunds, and to apply to college to lie in the hands of a private company that has the ability to arbitrarily block your access to any website it chooses? What if ten years from now Presidential elections are entirely on-line, and by unfortunate coincidence a massive technical outage strikes certain neighborhoods, say, those neighborhoods primarily inhabited by people of color?
At the moment, you still have the option of logging out of Gmail or not having a Facebook account. But the days in which the Internet is an option are rapidly disappearing. The on-line/IRL divide is dwindling to nothing, and very soon connectivity will be not a possibility but a fact of life. If we don’t fight tooth and nail to build an open and public Internet now, we will be living with the consequences of that failure for many, many decades.
The privatization of governmental responsibilities has become so ubiquitous in the United States that we tend to lose sight of the fact that communication infrastructure is a public utility. YOU OWN THE AIRWAVES. Not in a bullshit, ideological, “Take back what’s rightfully ours!” kind of way. Literally. Time Warner may own the cables, and they may provide service and maintenance for them, but those cables are hanging off of poles sticking out of public sidewalks paid for by taxpayers and running underneath the pavement of public streets paid for by taxpayers. Let me say it again: communication infrastructure is a public utility. It belongs to taxpayers. Your democratically elected representatives, who are supposed to be protecting your best interests but whose tongues are lodged so far up the corporate lobby’s asshole their epiglottis has turned brown, are giving away your property to companies that want to use the communication infrastructure not only to make money at your expense but also limit personal freedom and potentially severely impact your ability to participate in your own society.
How many people are even aware of the fact that in the middle of the 20th century the United States government gave the television networks the airwaves in exchange for an ephemeral promise that their programming would serve the best interests of the viewers? A quick glance at FOX’s show roster will prove how well that worked out. The most pernicious brilliance of capitalism is its ability to bottle something that already belonged to you and not only sell it back to you for a profit but actually make you grateful that you’re being provided with the service. But it is not a given that access to the Internet must be mediated by private companies that sell you the right to use a public resource.
The Internet, let’s remember, was developed by the US government with taxpayer money. The Internet belongs to you. And your elected representatives are doing their best to give it away to the highest bidder. Not only will you not see a dime from the billions of dollars in profit this will generate, you will actually be charged for using a resource that was yours in the first place.
The only way to resist this encroachment is to take action. First, inform yourself. Then, decide what you can do to help. The most important war of the 21st century is being fought above our heads at this very moment, and the consequences of losing it are too grim to enumerate. Don’t just call your Congressman and ask that they vote against PIPA and SOPA. Call your Congressman and make it clear that the Internet belong to you, that you intend to retain ownership, and that your district might be sending someone else to Congress next term if your Congressman thinks otherwise.
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