Situating Beliefs in a Democratic Internet
In August of 2011, a high-speed fiber-optic cable was completed, forming a connection between Venezuela and Cuba beneath the Caribbean Sea. The cable was to bolster Cuba’s nascent internet infrastructure, one ranked low on both bandwidth and accessibility spectrums. An eight-month, 70 million-dollar project , the move would end the country’s standing as the only state in the Western Hemisphere untethered to an internationally networked optic connection with the world wide web. Though the cable’s genesis was publicized by the government as an infrastructural achievement, the completed project has reportedly improved nothing, with little or no tangible uptick in bandwidth speeds.
In Cuba, issues regarding access to the internet are associated with a particular flow of ideas and beliefs. This flow networks activists looking to expand access, governmental administrations working to limit it, scholars in many fields, and laymen spreading anecdotal knowledge writ large. There is now peculiar sort of a vacuum in Cuba, a “lack” of internet shaped by perceived needs of local activists, government, in the shadow of the relevant globalized discourse. Cuba is a nation where public speech and journalism are permitted only if they “conform to the aims of a socialist society”, while low-bandwidth access to the entirety of the internet is officially restricted to an extremely minute portion of the population. An intranet, a network of content entirely constructed by Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, is readily accessible to a large swath (but not the entirety) of the island’s inhabitants. The past decade in Cuba has been marked by a renewed interest in controlling information by the state, as arrests of journalists associated with independent news organizations and blogs have become commonplace. A perception of the radical political potential the medium holds is further solidified by actions on both sides: the activists pushing for and the forces prohibiting against. What can we see as the force is responsible for this perception, its dissemination, its tangible power to compel action? The absence of expansive, “open” internet connection for Cuba’s citizens is notable for this place, this moment, and the specific historical context if the idea itself.
Concurrently, several seemingly relevant moments happened globally. The unstructured, leaderless internet-activist group “Anonymous” provided low-tech internet access by short-wave radio to those cut off by the state authorities in Tunisia and Egypt. The group was also responsible for bringing countless authoritarian state websites down, and spreading for the newly mobilized populaces. Wikileaks, an organization promoting radical transparency across the globe, leaked wave after wave of sensitive information in the U.S. and abroad. The organization proved such a perceived threat that the U.S. government convinced MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, in a completely unprecedented move, to cut off means to donate to the organization.
This Cuban situation, alongside these other contemporaneous moments in our immediate collective memory color impressions of what is taking place here. The moment demands a genealogical investigation of the “democratic” internet: an exploration of how the ideas surrounding this amalgam of communication technologies has taken on a distinctly political connotation. The moment is easy to take as penultimate, some sort of culmination of millennia of communications technologies. I argue the situation is much more complex than this wide-spread essentialized view.
There are many nuances of difference to deal with in our present situation. The material means of transporting information, the political contexts of its deployment, the demographic adoption of the technology, and the contemporary/local interpretations of “democracy” all need to be sorted to arise at something close to a holistic perspective with the topic. I will attempt to trace the discourse intertwining the internet with that of democracy, moving the current conversation past it’s often one-dimensional iterations.
The Problematics of Trying to Coherently Trace “Democratic Internet”
What might we be talking about when we say the internet? Just what are we referring to when we speak of democracy? Both terms are loaded contemporary catchalls in the English language to the point of absurdity. For this paper, I’ll reference “the internet” as both a loose collection of communications technologies (including messaging, sharing content, and various geo-informatics) alongside access to the medium itself. I contend notions of access to are considerably easier to grapple with, and are likely how most users are cognitively interacting with the idea. The general parlance equates the term with the world-wide-web, but the aesthetics of hyper-linked individuals and content spreads farther than what occurs within one’s browser. There is something important to consider in thinking about the internet as means to communicate, in terms reserved generally for language and sociality. The technology merges these spheres of interest. The internet is also quickly being quickly fast-tracked to the neo-liberal human rights lists alongside food, clothes and medicine/, and should be appreciated as many institutions are beginning to, as a resource like clean air or water.
As for “democracy”? Do we mean the ability to participate in government broadly, or simply some facility to voting? Are there allusions to, for example in the instances of Libya or Tunisia, forms of local, state, or complete self-governance afoot? Should we question the push of the technology into the developing world as shades of techno-imperialism? Are we rhetorically doing with the spread of the internet what the “spread of democracy” has done to Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade?
Further, is the internet meant to facilitate participation on already “democratic” spaces, or to spark it in their absence? Might citizens vote by newer, secure neutral means from the privacy of their homes? Maybe extend the ability to write and pass laws (on any scale) to directly to the grassroots?
Tracing Material Manifestations of Linked A Hyper-linked Communications
Hyperlinks are the sinew of the internet, the feasible paths imposing logic onto nearly impossible amounts of content. The “link layer” of the massive network heuristically called the internet (or world wide web), has existed in design since before the famed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative of 1972. A continuation of communication techniques afforded by the telegraph, hyperlinks as a technology first rose in design out a privately funded Project in the early 1960s, tellingly named Xanadu. Arguably radical from inception, the project in turn took inspiration from a prophetic Vannevar Bush article, “As We May Think” in The Atlantic in 1945. Bush, surveying a bevy of post-war technologies, forecasts a growing consolidation of information, a networked archive of images, forms, and information into one set of machinery. The aesthetic of the network supposed is one of relationality, of mass assemblage, of form applied to chaos:
The pivot made by Bush is to theorize mass organization of ideas, a thrust into the bounty of time afforded any profession burdened by information exchange. Specialization, in the sense of labor, becomes less necessary. Efficiency reigns, communication becomes horizontal, and the prologue to the coming cybernetic movement hatches. Machinery and communications are noted designed to be analogous form of the human mind. A certain connectivity becomes expected, as networked logic becomes integral to the expectations of information itself. The ways of the new machines quickly become everyday for waves of early-adopters.
Before we can get fully to that point, it’s worth noting that the aforementioned Bush-inspired project Xanadu never actually materialized a working prototype. The NLS (oN-Line System) used within the U.S. Defense Department’s DARPA initiative is frequently the institutional moment fingered as the spiritual grandfather of what we recognize as the internet. It featured the first hyperlinks and integration of “mouse” technology. The technology was first displayed publicly by Douglas Engelbart in1968, the single initial 90-minute demo of fantastical communications including: a 20 foot tall digitally-sourced projection, a multi-window graphic-based interface, text editing, a dedicated broadband connection, and video-conferencing. The communication types displayed by these military trials laid the would only be reached in varying capacities by consumers some 3 decades later. Most importantly, it signaled a shift away from the focus of speed and power of computational devices. Moving forward, there as now space in the computer sciences for modes of interactivity, communication, and augmentation to gain funding.
The size of the computational device was the next hurdle to overcome. By the mid-80s, Apple had pushed personal computing devices successfully into professional-class homes, and the adoption of modems enticed those savvy enough to explore linked communications. “Communities” began sprouting up for those with the means to access. Public internet communications, still run off the defense department’s ARPANET servers, began providing channels such as IRCs and UseNet (essentially proto chat-rooms and message boards) to find like-minded individuals. Popular topics of heated discussion, as they were and continue to be: pets, science fiction, conspiracy, pornography, music, and politics. Howard Rheingold, as participant, writer, and explorer of these spaces since 1985 has an in-depth analysis of these early days in The Virtual Community. He reflects both on how quickly the spaces became familiar as fairly normative social arenas, and the new quirks hyper-linked communications brought with it:
And the rest of the story is well familiar. Netscape and AOL successfully monetized and proved a business model for online communications. Broadband killed these IP providers as many switched to cable connections. Now entrenched, massively adopted technologies, there is now glut both content and community to be found: a complex gathering of homogenous home videos, sermons, presentations, art, archives, and virtually any other communications one could imagine. Shared content is generated by a proliferation of technology, allowing two novel, materially determined elements: 1) a flattening of distribution models to the point where content can be tailored (and found) by formerly unknown audience and 2) the chance for content which would never have made it through old methods of broadcast to be consumed by massive quantities of audience.
Chris Anderson, writing of this particular force as “The Long Tail” for the last decade, asserts hyperlinked distribution as fundamentally having new economics, media flows with drastically different outcomes than that of broadcast media. Some containers may stay the same, but the possibilities for content have now shifted. Entrenched broadcast technologies, such as cable television are able to offer a relatively small variety of content, bound to expectations of assemblages between multi-national corporations and expected audiences often in the millions. The content by a large must be consumable to a broad swatch, and able to be efficiently monetized in a way that reflects the aforementioned large footprint.
The costs of creation and dissemination now afforded by new technologies approach negligible amounts. The requirement for large audiences wanes alongside bloated profit margins and formerly niche content. Most importantly to the topic at hand, the same can be seen occurring radical or excluded political ideas, which are allowed more space to be fleshed out, gain traction, and enter discourse.
Contemporary Academic Context, and Its Relevance
As a technology, a “place”, a community, and a matrix of meanings, anthropological studies of the internet both reify and suggest new possibilities for fieldwork itself. Relevant anthropological projects sit at a nexuses of several types of inquiry, as any methodology attempting a more contextualized approach much take into account many intrinsic registers with the subject matter. The topic of media itself is necessarily pan-disciplinary, with overlapping relevance for scholars of communications, politics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and marketing. I will survey my particular field, and move to the broader scene of research permeating the field.
Anthropologists such as Tom Boellstorff have wrestled with the analysis of the virtual as analogous to the “real”, as groups of online users begin to form distinct communities as any other space. Other scholars of the field like Ken Wark take a historical-material approach to the emergence of these kinds of people, allowing broad flows of technological, social, and economic contexts to shape the phenomenon. Alan Klima, with The Funeral Casino, and Brian Larkin with The Signal and the Noise, though neither speaking about the internet, both build a space within anthropology for a relationship between forces of audience, content, creation, and distribution.
Though hugely relevant to my personal interests, it would be ridiculous to give these mostly recent types of studies any large weight in shaping a global discourse regarding the political potentials (or lack thereof) of the internet. The social sciences, until very recently, have a genuine absence of real, sustained engagement with the topic of media. A fuller accounting for this absence reveals a gradual dissipation of social science media studies for 50 years now, since the adoption of social psychology techniques. Investigating this glaring omission from research, sociologists Pooley and Katz coldly survey the wreckage of once was (the Frankfurt/Chicago schools) attribute several factors to the desert of relevant study in the last half century:
The paper is remarkable in its autopsy of a long-dead academic body: the qualitative and human-focused accounting of the forces media inflicts and we in turn inflict upon. Looking over the ruins, it’s remarkable how quickly a passionate, dedicated inquiry by the social sciences into a clearly necessary field has been decimated by flows of funding towards corporate market-research and an inability of the American university system to handle inter-disciplinary study with any sincere conviction. The field was left to small band of specialists, mostly to be subsumed by the professional-leaning specialization of communications programs in the coming decades. The article was written half a decade ago, arguably in an arena just beginning to show the early signs of rebirth. Sociologists like David Gauntlett, alongside the aforementioned Brian Larkin, Alan Klima, and interdisciplinary polygots like Lawrence Lessig and Clay Shirkey have reinvigorated a critical engagement with media, riding a wave of public attention.
All and all though, I want to historically situate the moment with those before it. The current state of affairs in academia, though potentially undergoing a certain renaissance regarding the subject at hand, cannot yet be seen as significant enough to be directly having ant the general public. For a more contextualized view, we should take a step back to previous adoptions of new communications technologies.
The Repeating Tropes of Shifting Media
Sprat was a man of letters, assigned to a post at Westminster Abbey in the late 17th century. He wrote a History of the Royal Society, about a group he helped found having enlisted many contemporaneous thinkers, writers, and clergy. The work was an outline of the bourgeoning scientific scene as Sprat saw it, a blueprint setting standards for clarity and conciseness in the field. The tenets describe a certain feel to the time, a swirl of a fast-paced modernity to those inside and with access to it. Though the printing press had been invented centuries prior, it would take considerable time before large groups of the population would feel it’s social effects. More and more, as the reformation and counter-reformation spread shockwaves through Western society, the effects of the written word upon a populace were taking shape. Sprat’s thoughts regard the changing times, but also offer what can be read as an impetus to imbue a certain urgent newness into the language itself. A step back can reveal an ongoing conversation, the negative, the positive, and the even the status quo, as a dialogue had upon the adoption of every major advance in communications technology.
For example: Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and moments in The Phaedrus dialogue are easily seen as a critique of the virtual space created by increasingly further adopted technologies of writing. He has concerns that the written word has the appearance, but not the reality of wisdom. It is framed as a tool for reminding, rather than remembering. Plato’s concern is detachment from kind of natural or normative state, an iteration echoed by Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra some 2500 years later. One can find these detractors alongside proponents in every paradigm of communications technologies situated by anxieties about both “the real” and some form of moral panic.
A quick glance through any “big-box” book store will reveal the following categories of writing about the internet:
- A wide-eyed, full-throated radical utopian vision. The promotion the medium as savior or revolutionary, a harbinger of freedom, participation. A cure for modernity’s ailments.
- A demarking of this particular technological progress as more of the same. The internet as just another in a long progression of communication technologies, each one promising new hopes but ultimately delivering a resounding reiteration of an unchanging essentialized modern experience
- The internet as a problematic dulling, distancing, all-swallowing amalgamation of detachment, moral decline, and/or debased cognitive abilities.
Further complicating the issue the medium itself, a thing resonating in a myriad of registers both material and means. This particular subject, when looked at critically, reveals our conception of the thing to be a heuristic for a multiplicity of uses and meanings by many users, audiences, and scholars. The distance between the virtual and the real/actual here is worth acknowledging. A realm of an ontology of the virtual becomes another staging ground for the critical eye, a schema allowing studies to look through, at, and inside the internet.
The question at hand, after millennia of deliberation and cyclical discourse, should no longer be if interacting in a mediated form is analogous to actual space, with all of its historically contingent formations of politics. It has become an argument ad nauseam to wonder about our “virtual” reality(s) or progression towards something else unknown.
My own prior fieldwork involving the observation of distinct qualities as related to political usage of the internet carried traces of Habermas’s ideal of the bourgeois public sphere, only contained within the nascent arena of online communities. The work was a virtual ethnography of the DailyKos.com progressive political community in 2007, comparing interactions on the website to those of attended meetings in “real space”. The attempt was to articulate new means of participate in an idealized public sphere, but the field work revealed the utopian hopes of those involved to be deeply indebted in economic privilege and infrastructural access. This no doubt echoes similar situations in the printing press, fax machines, radio, and television.
The popular discourse surrounding the topic, particularly in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”, has provided a new narrative for wired citizens to perform, a connected activist with near super-powers of agency, mobilization, and organization. These technologies come bound to particular discourses and histories, and each injunction should be carefully realized as such. Virtuality, and mediation itself regarding communications technologies should be understand as something akin to Kuhn’s paradigms or Foucault’s epistemes.
The Undeniable Grassroots Moment
As much as I’m inclined to develop a cautionary view towards the “revolutionary” aspect claimed by some in the recent discourse regarding the internet, I’m hard-pressed to doubt it’s role in facilitating specific kinds of politic change. The aforementioned conflicts mentioned at the opening of the paper involving Tunisia and Egypt sparked a wave of speculative op-eds as to the role of twitter and the internet at-large “sparking” these revolutions. The idea has gained much prevalence that a Wikipedia page for the term “Twitter Revolution” has been replaced by a disambiguation tab, expanded now to include Moldova and Iran as well. This chatter is not evidence in and of itself of potential. A closer look reveals that in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, unrest is certainly facilitated by the dissemination of political content (images, video, declarations) to a constituency who otherwise would not receive this content. State control of traditional media is near-total in these places, and alternative means of distribution certainly accelerate subversive potential. The breaking point though, in both cases, was the moment that the internet is shut off. 
The United States government saw it fit to restrict payment to Wikileaks, an unprecedented move. Authoritarian regimes in North Korea, Cuba, and China (to only name a few) drastically inhibit access and content. Credit Card Companies, the Church of Scientology, and the Westboro Baptist Church have all come under some form of Anonymous attack. There is a definite tension between the horizontal, distributed information dissemination of web activists and the closed, ideologically homogenous top-down structures found in these various institutions.
“None of us are as cruel as all of us”, ominously warns a masked individual belonging to Anonymous in the film We Are Legion. It’s hard not to see political potentials emanating out of these corners of the net, exemplified by the work of Wikileaks, anonymous, and most recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement. But the moment is nascent, at best. At worst, these are fleeting moments, brief flickers of radical potential before institutional powers learn to calm the populace or redistribute their authority.
William Gibson, while claiming the neologism cyberspace in the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, denotes it notably as a blurred, secondary, mélange of difference and familiarity (67). He marks both the tendency of othering this virtual space while drawing the boundaries towards a mediation of others. Virtual space, hyperlinks and many new platforms of communication afford new possibilities for content, audiences, interaction, communication, and as such, politics.
Some of the most sophisticated and specialized technologies human beings have known are currently sharing bandwidth between the revolutionary networking of oppressed populations, pornography, and pictures of pet cats. Are there inherent politics afforded by this space, and from what do we make them? How might we even begin to track the movement and evolution of these notions? That is to say, how do we begin to track the ideas surrounding just what the internet is, does, or affords us? Is there something innate in the material of the technology with inspires these thoughts, or might we locate the discourse embedded in those responsible for spreading the thing?
Ian Hacking, in arguing for his notion of “Human Kinds”, suggests that expert knowledge, along with the West’s drive to categorization, has created “kinds” of people who both act in and according to a reflexive relationship a the discourse that informs them. Hacking here is speaking of disciplines such as psychology (or any other social specialization) and the resulting making of people such as those suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Hacking’s human kinds are the recently nominalized, categories of people clearly acting in some sort of reciprocal relationship with and inside the knowledge flows of what they are. I’d like to put forth the notion that a very particular type of actor now exists a result of expert knowledge, that of the dissident, communicative internet-enabled citizen.
Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State has repeatedly raised concerns in foreign nations regarding any legislation restricting communications technology. I think there is a human kind (via Hacking) to be observed here, which is the national subject vis-à-vis internet connection. What expectations in this fasion now exist regarding one’s ability to organize those around themselves following the “Arab Spring” movements? The real question is to what degree of belief in one’s capabilities to change their immediate surroundings and political climate is in bound to their internet access? To what degree is a population able to be effectively controlled if this notion becomes widespread, read about, or witnessed?
Regardless of a material reality, activists and governments alike believe the power of a contemporary conversation contending a direct relationship between access to certain means. The reality is surely complex, but if we are to believe Hacking, the facts could be irrelevant in the face of overwhelming discourse. Historically, though borne in part from Defense Department spending, the internet has for decades been home to radical political discussion and involvement. Those with access to the medium have the potential to become a certain human kind, resplendent with particular attributes and prescribed capabilities. This is, as far as I read it, a near-perfect example in which to observe, qualify, and expand the subtleties of Hacking’s interactive kinds.
Hyper-networked communications, and more broadly, human relationships with standardized, processed information is arguably at the largest crossroads since the invention of the printing press or the practice of cave drawings. It is easy to be caught up in these type of proclamations and feelings, and as such one can never be completely certain of the implications held by recent technologies. The best process for analyzation remains unclear upon completion of this project. Political ramifications ultimately depend on an astounding array of variables in each situation. It remains difficult to parse just how much we can attribute to the context, the means, the moment. The question begs a holistic, interdisciplinary answer. I hope to have begun that work here.
 "Wired, at Last." Editorial. The Economist 3 Mar. 2011: The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 03 Mar. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
 "Cuba: Freedom of the Press." Freedom House. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
 Frank, Marc. "More Cubans Have Local Intranet, Mobile Phones." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 05 Nov. 2012.
 "Cuba: Another Imprisoned Journalist on Hunger Strike / CPJ - CubaNet News - Noticias De Cuba / Cuba News." CubaNet. Comittee to Protect Journalists, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
 Reuters. "WikiLeaks Blames U.S. Lawmakers for Visa/MasterCard Blockade." American Banker RSS Web. 6 Dec. 2012. The complete lack of precedence for a move like this should perhaps be underlined further. Wikeleaks has not been classified as a terrorist organization, or even had any domestic/international charges brought against them. For contrast, one can quite easily donate using either credit card or PayPal to the historically violent KuKluxKlan (http://kkk.bz/?page_id=342) or American Nazi Party (http://www.americannaziparty.com/support/index.php).
 The actual UN declaration: http://www.regeringen.se/content/1/c6/19/64/51/6999c512.pdf
 Sengupta, Somini. "U.N. Affirms Internet Freedom as a Basic Right." Bits: NYtimes Tech Blog.
 Wolf, Gary. "The Curse of Xanadu." Wired, 1993. Conde Nast Digital
 Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." The Atlantic. 1945. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/3881/1/>
 Tweney, Dylan. "Dec. 9, 1968: The Mother of All Demos." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital (video of the demo at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJDv-zdhzMY)
 The financial qualifications here are significant. Free services, though now ubiquitous, were non-existent in the early days of public internet usage. Because hosting and maintaining servers was so expensive, early communities often charged members fees for membership, in addition to 2$/hour charge most IP services required
 Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000. Print.
 Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail : Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion, 2006.
 Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life : An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
 Wark, McKenzie. 2004. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
 Further Notes on Why American Sociology Abandoned Mass Communication Research. Jefferson Pooley, Elihu Katz. Journal of Communication 58 (2008) 767–786 a 2008 International Communication Association
 Sprat, Thomas. History of the Royal Society. First published in 1667. More recently by Kessinger Publishing, 2003. P. 18.
 Weiss, Joshua. "“Parameters of Discourse in the Virtual Public Sphere" Thesis. State University of New York, 2008
 Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere MIT Press, 1991
 Morozov, Evgeny. "Iran Elections: A Twitter Revolution?" Washington Post. The Washington Post, 17 June 2009. Web. 06 Dec. 2012
 Keane, Bernard. "Inside the Hive Mind." Crikey. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
 Zuckerman, Ethan. "The First Twitter Revolution?" Foreign Policy. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
 "Twitter Revolution." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
 "Google: Libya Has Cut off the Internet completely." TechSpot. Web. 07 Dec. 2012.
 Staff, CNN Wire, and Barbara Starr. "Hackers Target Global Analysis Company." CNN. Cable News Network, 26 Dec. 2011
 Dibbel, Julian. "The Assclown Offensive: How to Enrage the Church of Scientology." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital
 Wang, Regina. "Anonymous Targets Westboro Baptist Church Over Newtown Picket Plans." Time Magazine News Feed
 We Are Legion. Dir. Brian Knappenberger. Luminant Media, 2012. DVD
 Hacking, Ian. “Making Up People.” Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individulity, and the Self in Western Thought, edited by Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, and David E. Wellbery. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986. The concept is fleshed out further with “The Social Construction of What?” Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, where he introduces a reciprocating feedback loop between the subject and it’s relevant information flows.
 Mark Landler, Edward Wong; Mark Landler, Edward Wong. "China Says Clinton Harms Relations With Criticism of Internet Censorship." The New York Times. 23 Jan. 2010.