INTERNET AS HYPER-LIBERALISM

Published in 1996 at the first German online magazine, Telepolis, this article attacked the liberal political ethic of cyberspace, at the peak of the Great Internet Hype. See for instance Sasha Chislenko on liquid intelligence of the coming Mind Age, for a sample of the messianic expectations circulating at the time. The prophets of revolutionary cyberspace were discredited by its inevitable commercialisation. By now, no separate theory of 'cyberspace' is needed, ordinary business economics usually suffice. That implies that the anti-liberal conclusion here is still relevant: the internet is a political construction, which can and should be destroyed.

Der Hyperliberalismus des Internet
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Internet kak Giperliberalizm
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Neoliberalism
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Critiques Of Libertarianism
ABSTRACT: Liberalism, as an interaction-maximising ethic, has produced a number of structures, including the free market. Internet, as a 'marketplace' for ideas, shows the characteristics of liberal structures clearly, and intensifies them. However, it is still subject to linguistic and cultural barriers, rather than creating a global community. More fundamentally, liberal structures are contra-innovative, and in fact the structure of the Net shows a technological conservatism. The Internet is a political or ethical concept, rather than technological concept. It threatens to impose itself on the world. It is the Net itself which is wrong: freedom from censorship, or equality of access, cannot make it good. The conclusion is simple: the Net must be cut, and Europe is the place to start.


Thirty years after Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology, new ideologies continue to appear. One is 'Net-ism', the aggressive promotion of the Internet, (cyberspace, interactive media worlds, and so on). It is not entirely new: its basic features are liberal, and its model of an Internet/ cyberspace future is hyper-liberal. The Net (as it is) should be judged by this ideology and its claims, not by the internal problems of the 'Internet community'. The political-ethical question is not how this community should regulate its members, but: who protects the rest of the world against the Net, the Net-ists and cyber-liberalism?

This goes beyond the question of 'whose Internet?' Inequality of Internet access is recognised: the users come from the best-educated, best-paid 2% of the world's population, and their student children. To use the Net you need money, a terminal, ability to use it, ability to read English (or at least Latin script). The precedent of the telephone suggests universal access will take generations. And even universal access is not control: that will probably remain in the hands of the same 2%. So there is a real problem of access. However, the Net ideology assumes unrestricted access: the point is that the Net is defective, even on this assumption. It is important to distinguish between the real existing Internet, with obvious faults such as unequal access, and the Net of ideology, the universal electronic community. For the advocates of the Internet, the future ideal justifies the present reality. For me, it is precisely the potential Internet, which disqualifies all attempts to construct it.

The present reality of the Net is certainly not a global community, nor even approaching it yet. For that, either a universal second language, or automated translation, would be necessary: neither is imminent. The present status of the Net is like that of CNN, when it began. At that time, many people thought global television had arrived. Since then, as costs fell, CNN has been followed by French, British, German, and Arabic global channels. In retrospect, CNN was (and is) a national US channel with global reach - the same characteristic, in fact, as the so-called 'multi-national' companies. The present dominance of English on the Internet is probably temporary. As national-language use extends, national Internet usage will extend, alongside relatively less international use, and continuing US domestic use. Again, however, Net ideology assumes universal communication, and that is in itself wrong. The real problem would be, if a global community did emerge.

So what exactly is wrong with the Internet?

Firstly, the existence and effect of 'Net-ism', the political lobby for Internet. This lobby or movement first emerged in groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org/, and in official commissions such as that of Martin Bangemann, which first formulated European Union policy, www.ispo.cec.be/infosoc/backg/bangeman.html. There is no official or comprehensive statement of Net-ism as ideology, but two documents come close: Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age, co-authored by Alvin Toffler, www.pff.org/pff/position.html, and People and Society in Cyberspace by G. A. Keyworth of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, www.pff.org/pff/tsot-1.html. These documents represent the initial phase of cyber-liberal ideology.

Net-ism is wrong because it is coercively expansionist. There is no inherent or inevitable technical or historical trend to a single communication network. On the contrary: never before in history, have so many separate networks been technically possible. Linking all networks together is a conscious choice by some people, a choice then imposed on others. The logic is identical to that of colonial governments, which forced peasants into the agricultural market, by imposing cash taxes. (To pay the tax, the peasants had to sell cash crops such as sugar). This logic says in effect: 'no one is free to stay outside the free market'. Today, not just governments, but business, social movements, intellectuals and artists, all want to impose the Net. This broad movement is obviously more than profit-seeking (and a non-profit Net would also be wrong). It is an ideological movement seeking ideological imposition. That imposition itself, the universalism, the expansionism, their involuntary nature, the basic unfreedom to exit - that is what makes liberal structures wrong. That applies to the free market, and it applies inherently to the Internet.

The basic model for the Net is taken from classic liberalism: it is an electronic 'laissez-faire, laissez-aller' free market. Activists in the US quote explicitly from the Anglo-American liberal tradition - see any issue of Wired, the most influential periodical for the new media world, www.hotwired.com. That tradition determines their attitude toward the state: they want a night-watchman state in electronic form, minimally regulated. (And classic problems of liberal societies, such as the conflict between sexual morality and 'sex as product' have appeared again in cyberspace). This entire model is ethically untenable. The Net affects others, beyond its users, so the users may not make the rules themselves. No internal regulation (or lack of it) can be justified a priori, as a substitute for external regulation. Internet users cannot decide to exclude the state (or anyone else) as regulator, just because they do not like that regulation. There are other people and other issues to consider, not just the Internet users themselves.

It is useful at this point to summarise the characteristics and goals of liberalism: it seeks to (a) maximise interaction; (b) to maximise the number of those interacting; (c) to maximise the number affected by each transaction; and (d) to maximise the zone where interaction takes place. By creating chains of interactions, it transmits cause and effect - it collectivises action. A concrete example: the ethics of global distribution of wealth and income. You (as an individual) cannot correct global inequalities, by buying one pack of coffee - not even if you check every purchase for trade inequalities. You can not (for instance) improve the condition of the rural poor in Ethiopia, by individual purchasing strategies. You have no individual control over the economy you live in, and therefore no individual control of your life. Similarly, you have no individual control over the Internet, and can therefore take no moral decisions concerning it. This is what makes liberalism and its structure unethical: they destroy the moral autonomy of the subject. If the Net can be proved liberal, it can be proved unethical.

For cyber-ideology, however, the greatest advantage of Internet, is an advantage that is derived from liberal models. Liberals see ideas and opinions as objects of exchange: if a liberal has an opinion, he or she wants to 'express it' and exchange it with others. The priority of dialogue and communication, in neo-liberal theories (such as communicative ethics), parallels the priority of market exchange, in classic liberalism. (In this sense communicative ethics, and dialogue ethics, have already set the political-ethical framework for cyberspace). The information society is a liberal society of hyper-exchange: the citizen transmits, receives, and forwards a stream of ideas and opinions - as a sort of Nick Leeson of communication. It is certainly true that only the Internet (or something like it) could make this possible: however, that does not make it morally or politically right.

Communicative ethics

What is fundamentally wrong with communication and dialogue? Why is it wrong to exchange ideas? Because the basic assumptions are false. The liberal model of dialogue and communication assumes first that ideas are unitary (one idea is similar, in the way it can be treated, to any other idea). Secondly, it assumes that ideas benefit from exchange. Ideas are not units like bricks, and they do not benefit from being transported. It is only necessary to divide ideas into two simple categories to see the error: the two categories of plans and arguments. 'Plans' are proposals for change: 'arguments' are ideas proposed to stop plans. Exchanging ideas benefits arguments (and conservatism): separating ideas benefits plans (and change). It is not necessary to examine the 'true nature of ideas' here: these two categories accurately describe at least some reality of politics. Almost any newspaper, any TV news show will show some politician arguing against some innovation. Engaging in dialogue, as a general moral precept, is unethical. Not all communication is good, and probably, most is bad. Certainly, bad for change. The best strategy for change is usually isolation from political pressures, and liberal societies are designed to make this difficult. Internet worsens this conservative advantage.

The standard response of liberalism, and now Net-ism, would be the claim that it guarantees (a) political neutrality, and (b) equality of the participants. The typical liberal argument that a formal equality (i.e. citizenship) justifies other inequalities is also applied to the Net. A formal equality - access, or communication - is claimed to justify the Net - even if it is still in the future. In reality, as with the free market, it is usually those with the weakest starting position, who suffer most from unlimited interaction. There is no doubt that the free market amplifies social inequality in the short term. Its defenders claim this is outweighed by a long-term improvement for all - using arguments such as the trickle-down effect, or Rawls' permitted inequalities. The ability of the market to amplify inequality was fortunately limited in the past, by physical limits on the exchange of goods. However, for three centuries it has been obvious that unlimited trading of stocks, or speculative goods (even tulip bulbs), can lead to extreme inequalities in a short time. The Internet removes the physical limits on amplification almost entirely, permitting a great increase in diode or triode effects. (That is, inequality amplification driven by the start inequality itself, diode effects; or driven by third factors, triode effects). Less theoretically, the winners in this process will almost certainly be the same well-educated, well-paid elites that were the first to use Internet. Worse, the general losers will be innovative minorities.

Unity and monopoly

It is then that another principle of liberalism takes effect, one which links it to other ideologies. Innovative minorities are disadvantaged in liberal societies. Yet no-one may leave, even if they suffer from all the intense interaction. No-one may exit the 'arenas of interaction' - the market, liberal-democracies, the global economy, Internet. 'Arena' is one metaphor for this situation: it suggests people are forced into an interaction that they did not choose. However, some people, indeed many people, enter these arenas voluntarily: but that does not allow them to drag others in with them. However, the metaphor of the Net itself is even better: 'nets' and 'webs' are used to catch prey.

If the prey simply walks away, liberalism ends: there is no market without participants, no liberal-democracy, and no Internet. Liberalism's answer to this prospect is simple: make escape impossible. There may be only one economy, the free market economy. There may be only one form of state, liberal-democratic. There may be only one Internet. One thing unites all texts about Internet: the word is always in the singular. So too, almost always, the word cyberspace. The intention, usually stated explicitly, is to unite all communication networks, all communication. In economists' terms, the Internet is a monopoly by definition.

A monopoly, if it is to stay a monopoly, must allow no alternatives, and it must not divide itself. Monopoly implies unity: monopoly implies expansion to the limit. A global economy is not a global economy, if there are two of it. Being global means being one unit, and being unchallenged. This is an aspect of more than economics: there is a long history, in western and non-western thought, of Unity as a valued principle, Unity as the end of all things. Its modern variants (philosophical anticipations of the cyberspace concept) are often derived from the work of Teilhard de Chardin. These evolutionary-holistic ideas are diffused throughout New Age movements: from these movements, they have influenced holistic visions of cyberspace, and ultimately the idea of a global brain.

Another old (less abstract) principle is the principle of political unity. It also links with liberalism's' monopoly claim. It is here that the significance of concepts such as digital citizenship, digital democracy, and digital polis becomes evident. Clear also, why the political elite in Europe is willing to promote these ideas, which at first sight are contra-elitist. (The EU Information Society Project Office co-ordinates, and informs about, these policies: www.ispo.cec.be/ispo/ispo.html). The de facto unit, which forms the liberal free market arena, is the nation state. Liberalism and nationalism are 19th century brothers in arms.

Market strengthens nation: citizens influence each other through interaction, and that can lead to a process of convergence. The nation-forming role of mass products and mass media, in the European nations in the 19th century, is well known. An increase in interaction can intensify this process, and this is what Net-ism values. Intensification of convergent political participation can strengthen the position of elites. So, among the advocates of the Net, liberalism blends into organicism, pan-organicism, and forms of ultra-communitarianism. All of these ideologies share an emphasis on unity, on non-escape, and on non-division: one global market, one (global) community, one global brain leading to one cosmic consciousness.

Such abstract concepts can give problems when 'translated' into practice. The Net, for instance, is praised by its neo-liberal advocates for overcoming barriers: however, dissolving the barriers around their own private property is not on their agenda. The cyber-ideologists are inconsistent. They praise the common community in cyberspace, the common information economy, the common global society: but not common property (and certainly not Communism). This inconsistency is perhaps a banal fact of political life, but it emphasises the political use of language. Claims can be stated in different ideological 'languages': in the familiar language of rights, or the language of obligations, but also disguised as alternative futures of the universe. Concepts like 'cosmic consciousness' can be used to argue for almost anything.

Despite such billion-year perspectives, the short term will probably see (as already suggested) reinforcement of existing national cultures. The existing (mainly US-American) Internet will develop national variants. Soon, experiments with digital democracy will encounter the same problems with borders as free-trade liberalism did. Unity as principle can accept some co-existence of levels of unity, but less so as interaction increases. In recent US politics, for instance, two kinds of free market liberal are in conflict: those who see the market mainly as model for the internal national economy, and those who want full global free trade. The first group are protectionists, the second expansionists.

This latent problem of inconsistency seems to be ignored, by advocates of digital democracy as model, itself a part of the Net ideology. No-one can logically argue that the Net unites the world, and then call for electronic voting per nation state - yet cyber-ideologists often put these contradicting views in one text. The current choice of Net-ism is clear enough: in reality cyber-liberals, like other liberals, choose the nation state. At this level too, the Internet is firmly anchored in the nineteenth century: insofar as they are applied in practice, citizenship and polis are ethno-nationally organised. No digital democrats (so far) advocate allowing 600 million Africans to outvote 250 million US-Americans, in an immigration policy referendum.

Historical veto

In historical terms the coming of the Net is therefore not a turning point. It is a continuation of age-old principles: that people should live in communities or societies, stuck to each other with the glue of identity, and tied to each other by nets of interaction, trade, communication, and competition. These structures - for that is the best metaphor - existed before the liberal ideology, which now promotes them. The Internet intensifies such long-term, very stable, structures. As a structure itself, the Net threatens to equal the free market as a social stabiliser - in its reach, intensity and effect. Exit from Net use, exit from cyberspace, will then become as unrealistic, as a boycott of money would be in present-day America..

Historically, a choice for the Net is a choice for the past. It is certainly not justifiable with historicist arguments, about technological trends. Only a fraction of the physical infrastructure of the Net is concerned with the long-distance links which make it the Internet. If these links are removed, the real technological level of the remaining infrastructure is not significantly different. A policy of dispersal of channels, 'non-multiplexing', is just as feasible as a global single Net. It is a policy question, not a technical one. It is the Internet which imposes a political/ social restriction - an ideal of unity - on communications technology.

The Net is a monopoly, unavoidable, a choice for the past - it is a historical veto. A group, elite, movement, or ideology, does not have the right to impose this veto on the world. It is therefore legitimate, in a political and ethical sense, to cut the Net. The greatest long-distance data flow is the place to make the first cut: a cut in Atlanticism. Consider the following scenario: as a first step Europa (a state covering Europe, not the EU) cuts the links with North America, primarily with the US. This would be, in ethical terms, a post-interactive policy. There then comes into existence a free choice, the choice that liberalism and Net-ism deny: an emergent choice, between Net and non-Net. If the present EU wanted to contribute to this possible future, it could start an emigration programme to the United States, for all those actively promoting the Net in Europe, for the cyber-ideologists.

If there is to be a zone on Earth for those who refuse transition to a post-interactive world, then the USA seems the logical place for it: a homeland for the Net. The physical infrastructure of the Net is still concentrated there. More importantly, Net culture is still largely American: the emigrants will be entering the culture of their choice. The United States is committed to the free market and also to community values: in a wider sense it is already the conservative homeland.

Very probably, Net-ists in Europe would refuse this option, this scenario. It is not a very probable future anyway. The point is, that Net-ism is a universalist expansionist ideology, and the scenario puts it to the test. Net-ism does not want a choice: it wants the Net, one Net, one global Net, one Net everywhere, one universal cyberspace, and nothing less. It seems that, as with the ideology of the free market (and as with liberalism in general), no co-existence is possible with the Net. You are either for the Net, or you are its enemy. This intensification of ideology indicates increasing potential for conflict. In long-term perspective, there is a current intensification of ideology, comparable to that in Europe between about 1880 and 1914. In this situation, it seems good to consider European anti-Internet strategies and theory, and not leave everything to the Net-ists.


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