The Death of the Internet?

Online Freedom and the Problem of Technology
Hugo Chesshire

Steve Wozniak, the computer pioneer, co-founder of Apple Computer, Inc., and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation1 gave an interview with RT in August of 2012 in which he lamented the current state of the internet, looking back upon the decentralization, freedom and innovation he found in its early days and the power it offered to common people. At the outset, he said, the internet was a breath of fresh air – it was so free, nobody owned the internet space. Countries didn’t own it, they didn’t control it. It was world -wide, [but] it was people-to-people… the ‘little people’ all of a sudden had this incredible resource, and we didn’t have to go through other people selling it to us and delivering it to us… [Now,] the way we live life and the way we do things, everything political, everything social, the way we do things with other people is all done with your computer, on the internet, with your iPhones, with your mobile devices now, and it’s a totally different world than it was when we had powerful computers but they weren’t a part of your life… I’m just as happy as everyone else to see it… I think that a lot of social interaction will be curbed – let me take that back, I fear it. I fear it will be. The gatekeepers, those who turn on-and-off switches, will allow certain things, disallow other things… I fear that very strongly. Especially net neutrality, issues like that, internet freedom is being interfered with in major ways, and it shouldn’t! I think the internet should have been considered, from day one, a country of its own that isn’t bound by any individual country’s laws. Maybe we could have had an internet government, but it didn’t happen, just like world government doesn’t happen… Space doesn’t belong to anyone. The moon doesn’t belong to anyone. These are really beautiful principles [sic] in life, and as soon as a country figures out how to get a hold of them, [they] disappear. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can move more and more towards net neutrality. The trouble is, a lot of it has to be enforced by the government… and libertarian types say, “Government shouldn’t have any say in control over that. That takes away our freedom.” Wrong! It takes away the freedom of companies who are taking away the freedom from us!2
An organization dedicated to “defending [the] digital rights… of consumers and the general public.” – see 2 Steve Wozniak, interview by RT, August 14, 2012. Retrieved from on November 20, 2012. Emphasis added.


Wozniak’s interview is packed with complex concepts. For example, he complains about the influence of governments over the internet, yet also calls for more government intervention. This is not as self-contradictory as it sounds, but speaks to the ambiguous character of government intervention and something more nuanced than the simple refrains of those who claim that government is always bad – or always good. One might, for instance, compare the online state interventionism of the European Union and the People’s Republic of China – the former has mandated that site administrators advise surfers that their site will give a “cookie”3 to their browser and mandates obtaining consent for this act, while the latter is dedicated to shutting down dissenting sites, blocking social media, and hacking the e-mails of democracy advocates. What I wish to examine here, however, is the nature of the internet and of internet freedom as a technological problem. The internet is a technological realm, probably to a unique extent, offering technological experiences without parallel or historical equivalent – technology that creates new worlds rather than enhancing existing ones. It exists because of very high technology, which depends upon the application of quantum mechanics, engineering at the nanometre level, and upon silicon chips packing millions of transistors into a square millimetre. It depends upon such technology even to access it. However, the framework I wish to use in approaching this problem is more philosophical than technical. The problems to be examined are not the engineering questions of extending internet access around the globe, nor the sociological problems of bring the internet to the global poor, nor those of cryptography and protection from online theft and fraud. Instead, I want to look at the political problems of control over the internet, of free speech online, of accessibility
A “cookie” is a piece of data given to a web browser by a website to track the activity of the browser’s user on that site, for example, logging in to online banking, or a persistent online shopping cart. They can be used for malicious purposes, such as illicit data harvesting.


and control over data, and in a way that questions the philosophical framework through which we view these questions – even whether this framework itself gives rise to them. Are these problems necessary? Are they even solvable? As Wozniak states (correctly, I think), we are entering a new era of the internet in which powerful “gatekeepers” such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Apple exert an increasing amount of control over the content which we can access online and the ways in which we can use the communication channels of the internet. These gatekeepers are neither democratic nor even particularly politically accountable while governments still wrangle over questions raised by the existence of stateless legal entities in a jurisprudential environment bound to the concept of the sovereign, territorial state. I intend to look at the problems of internet access, control, and net neutrality from the perspectives of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul and George Grant. According to these thinkers, the current state of the internet was inevitable and could not have happened any other way. The “collapse” of the internet from Wozniak’s heady days of freedom into the current scenario of centralized and undemocratic control and the exploitation of the internet for profit, consumerism, and junk art is actually an inescapable problem, as it stems from exactly the same mindset that led to the creation of the internet in the first place. If that is so, then to borrow Lenin’s shop-worn phrase, what is to be done? Wozniak’s solution demands some sort of legislative-institutional action to protect online freedoms and restrain the worst predations of the gatekeepers either by state governments or, ideally, by a “government of the internet” free from traditional governments and the geographic boundaries which are nothing more than a set of shackles in this particular arena. Only this can preserve the internet as the medium through which John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas can best be realized, free of censorship, consumerism, “digital rights management,” and all the other


incursions into the idealized virtual agora – if that opportunity has not passed, as Wozniak seems to feel it may already have. Presumably, Wozniak’s preferred form for the government of the internet would be a liberal democracy. It is hard to imagine that a man so devoted to free speech and who holds the American Bill of Rights in general, and the First Amendment in particular, in such high esteem would propose anything else, and neither should we expect the co-founder of the largest and most valuable publicly traded corporation in the world to favour some dictatorship of the proletariat of the internet.4 However, Heidegger, and especially Ellul, are quite fatalistic about the prospects of technology, and believe that perhaps there is no real salvation from the technological problem. An issue so deeply rooted in human nature (which may not be fixed but is no less immutable for all that) could not be resolved or even sufficiently addressed by institutional approaches. The contest of ideas here, then, seems to be the problems that these thinkers pose against the solutions of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, probably the foremost liberal democratic philosophers. Wozniak’s appeal for a liberal democratic institution, or a series of such institutions, to solve the problems of the internet seems to be particularly Kantian in nature, as it is offered in the hope that laws and governance can produce an environment for human flourishing and the abolition of predation and strife, much as Kant himself did. Even if this is a goal which may be some time in the reaching, Kantians must nevertheless have faith that it will be reached eventually, and, as such, that this can be a permanent solution. Rawls, too, believes that the problems of injustice can be corrected for by the application of just, fair institutions framed in the correct way. The solutions he puts forth are metaphors to make us ask the right
Susana Kim, “Apple (AAPL) Becomes History’s Most Valuable Firm on iPhone 5 Rumors,” ABC News, August 20, 2012. Retrieved from on December 5, 2012.


questions and think in the right way, but nevertheless, if we can do this, then permanent solutions can be obtained. If the space of the internet is encountering problems of injustice, then liberal democratic institutions ought to be able to overcome this problem, as Wozniak seems to believe. The question is whether they may actually do so, or if the fatalism of Heidegger and Ellul is the truer account, and they are doomed to fail.

The Technological Problem of the Internet
Wozniak’s brief reference to the original heyday of the internet hints at a greater problem which may have made the gatekeeper-centric outcome inevitable. Since the time period he refers to predates the World Wide Web, we should take a network of similar vintage as an example: Usenet. Usenet is an “old” internet technology, preceding the World Wide Web by over a decade. It was started in 1979 by two Duke University graduate students, Tom Truscott, and Jim Ellis. The system is like a hybrid between a forum and an e-mail system; users post messages (individually known as posts or articles; collectively referred to as news) on various discussion boards known as newsgroups, for instance, talk.politics.theory. The posts are not held on a single server, but are distributed over a large and ever-changing array of servers that forward posts to one another as they are made. These servers are widely distributed amongst universities, other public institutions, and private companies, but due to the nature of the network, no single server owner has any power over the network as a whole. The sudden refusal of any particular provider to participate would not impact the network. Usenet itself is now in decline; most internet service providers have dropped support for it, citing low levels of use in favour of blogs and online forums. Those who wish to access the service must now find an independent news provider and pay an additional fee to that firm on top of the price of basic internet access.


Usenet is an example of the early internet, and its usage and mode is symbolic of what the early internet was about. Access was restricted only by one’s access to the internet itself. It was a space for discussion of an unlimited number of topics (if the newsgroup you wanted did not exist, simply create it yourself) by an unlimited number of people separated by any geographical distance and time, since one could read and respond to a message at any point – thanks to the efforts of archivists, it is theoretically possible to reply to a post made decades ago. Wozniak described it as “a breath of fresh air,” and it was. Nothing like it had existed before – a mode of communication that could take the format of a letter, be received with the immediacy of a telephone call, be read by a readership rivalling that of a major daily newspaper (and theoretically unlimited at that), and be responded to by potentially anyone capable of reading it in the first place. This was an agora that could potentially encompass the entire world and be accessed by it at its leisure. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the internet was strictly for enthusiasts only, and the telecommunications technology of the time was only capable of text communication. A Hayes Smartmodem, state-of-the-art in 1981 and capable of a 300-baud transmission rate, would take about an hour-and-a-half to transmit a five-megapixel JPEG image such as might be taken with an average cellphone camera of 2012. With the advent of the World Wide Web in 1993 and better telecommunication technologies, internet usage exploded in the mid-1990s. In 1993, the CBC reported that the internet was growing at a rate of ten per cent every month. 5 The burgeoning internet was increasingly colonized by financial interests, and the word “colonized” is used deliberately for reasons that should become apparent.

CBC News, “Birth of the Internet,” July 25, 2007. Retrieved from on December 5, 2012.


We may contrast the spirit of Usenet with the modern situation which Wozniak finds so upsetting. The distributed server network has been replaced by centralized servers operated by companies such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Apple, Microsoft, and so forth. Instead of a distributed network where no single server owner/operator can impact the service as a whole, imagine the impact to social networking if Facebook disappeared, or how web searches would change if Google closed its doors, how independent internet video would virtually disappear without YouTube, or how digital music distribution would be affected by the disappearance of iTunes. These are the “gatekeepers” whom Wozniak referred to, so-called because their existence as content providers of such enormous reach and power gives them incredible capacity to shape and change the information that flows through their servers. It is certainly not necessary to document the concerns that this raises, for a simple search of news sources reveals a seemingly endless number of stories fretting about the possible abuses of power by the gatekeepers, including violations of privacy and information-gathering, censorship, baitand-switch tactics to squeeze profits out of consumers, and so forth. George Grant, in his Defense of North America, elaborates upon the “primal” of North America created by the combination of the Protestant/Calvinist strain of theology and Baconian science happening upon the untamed wilderness of the Americas. Rejecting Greek ideas of nature and how humanity fit into the natural order, Baconian science led us to conquer nature as much as Calvinist theology sought to conquer ourselves. This primal gave us an expectation of a certain kind of freedom which was perhaps never realized, as the conquest of the land yielded metropoloi where literal squalor vied with the metaphorical poverty of mindless consumerism.


Even though the pioneers are all gone and the pioneering spirit is irrelevant to modern, urban, mass-consumption society, that primal remains with us and shapes our attitudes.6 It is for this reason that I describe the internet as having been “colonized,” for Grant’s description of the scientific-Calvinist mindset and its effect upon the untamed land of North America can also be read as a metaphor for what happened online around twenty years after he wrote it. The internet was akin to an undiscovered continent (albeit without inconvenient natives to be displaced or disposed of – unless one counts Usenet), arising in virtual space, but appearing in our consciousness from nothing in much the same way as the Americas appeared in the consciousness of Europe in 1492. Millions of internet users, growing in number every day, were seen as an opportunity both by already-large firms such as Microsoft or Time-Warner and by entrepreneurs. A few of the latter managed to found successful companies, such as, but most failed in the 1997-2000 dot-com bubble. This mass of potential consumers seemed to be viewed with the same mindset as the discovery of new lands potentially rich in natural resources, resulting in something like the Klondike Gold Rush – the rapid spread of rumoured fortunes to be made, without doubt vastly exaggerated, followed by a haphazard and ill-planned scramble to capitalize on the phenomenon before it became too late with the result that most left with nothing. The “primal” of North America is an explanation not only of why the story of North America and of the internet happened as it did, but why it could not have happened any other way. The dominance of this mindset is such that any untamed wilderness will be approached as an opportunity to colonize, capitalize, and exploit. For every Richard Stallman, there might be a hundred Mark Zuckerbergs; for every Steve Wozniak, a thousand Larry Ellisons. Every natural

George Grant, “In Defense of North America,” Communio: International Catholic Review 38 (Summer 2011), 347-351.


resource exists to be transformed into goods, and every person is a consumer who said goods can be sold to or a potential consumer whom marketing may transform into an actual consumer. It is not possible to see an untamed wilderness and leave it as unspoiled beauty; the wilderness must be colonized, conquered and transformed, and what is more, there is a race to do so, for if we do not do it then someone else will, and then we shall lose out. Perhaps Grant’s response to Wozniak would have been that a society which could have created the internet could only have responded by turning it over to commercialism. Entities regarding the internet would work to build and expand an empire within it, as “gatekeepers” such as Facebook, Microsoft or Google are very arguably doing, because that is the nature of the society which created the internet in the first place: to conquer and expand, to bring order to chaos. Martin Heidegger has similar thoughts on this phenomenon, which he attributes to a technological mindset: the Gestell, the enframing, of the technological. Technology, for Heidegger, is a mode of revealing, in a philosophical sense.7 In that way, it affects and constrains what is revealed, and revealing is crucially important to Heidegger, as might be expected for a philosopher to whom truth is a mutable or a relative concept rather than an absolute. Technology reveals a truth. A truth, to Heidegger, is relative to the observer; two people can observe something and each derive a separate and perhaps incompatible truth from it, but the truths are no less true for all that. Truth is a revealing which includes all the ways we can relate to the world. Technology, too, is a way of revealing. 8 Grant and Heidegger are both considering the way in which we perceive and understand the world. To Heidegger, it might be something like a photographic filter: the filter reveals something of the world to us, and what it reveals is true, but the filter also conceals and the revealing of truth necessitates a hiding of some
Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 318. 8 Heidegger, “Question Concerning Technology,” 318-320.


other truth. The problem of the technological is to begin from the position that a particular truth is an absolute truth, and the only truth; the mathematical, upon and in which science grounds itself, is the fundamental presupposition of the knowledge of things, but rather than a knowledge that we acquire, it is a knowledge that we bring with us and which shapes our perception of the world rather than allowing us to form a perception.9 Science is supposedly concerned with the discovery of fact and truth, but the questions we ask shape the answers we find. The particular answer that the technological question tends to find is the Bestand, the standing-reserve. 10 Standing-reserve is the truth of something, but a particular truth: the quantifiable, measurable, and useful (in the sense of utility and industry). Heidegger gives the example of a forest. While the forest might be seen a certain way by the naturalist, or the biologist, to see it in the technological way and to see its standing-reserve is to see it as a resource, a quantity of lumber that can be harvested to build into finished products.11 It is not exactly a capitalistic or entrepreneurial way of looking at the world, although the entrepreneurial is certainly derivative of the standing-reserve, but a way of looking at the world as a potential for transformation in the interest of utility maximization. If the scientific mindset brings a question with it, it is surely, “What can we do?” When looking upon the world in the scientific mindset, we ask, “What can we do with this?” Perhaps, then, there is a similar element of inevitability in Heidegger’s analysis of the technological. Wozniak’s lament is all the more sorrowful because, again, it could not have happened any other way. If the internet began as a venue for free speech, open human community, and all that that entails, the technological mind would see only the standing-reserve

Martin Heidegger, “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 276-278. 10 Heidegger, “Question Concerning Technology,” 322. 11 Heidegger, “Question Concerning Technology,” 321-324.


of that space and seek to maximize the utility of it. The Athenian agora or the Roman forum were places where citizens gathered to discuss politics and matters of great import (along with local sports and gossip, no doubt), to hear speeches, watch public events and shows, and so forth, but they were also venues for commerce where traders and merchants would work. Perhaps classical modes of thought allowed the two to coexist. Aristotle, for example, was concerned with classification and finding the places of things in the natural order, including the place of humanity, and such an approach might encourage a coexistence of entrepreneur and philosopher, even in the same space. Here, we discuss politics and philosophy, and here, we sell goods to the wives and the household slaves of the politicians and the philosophers, and while the two might eye each other perhaps uneasily, both understand that each has a place in society and in this particular space. The advent of Baconian and Cartesian philosophy and of modern science, hand-in-hand, upset this particular order. The understanding of the natural order now takes a back seat to the bending of nature to the will of humanity and the conquest of the natural world. The ancients attempted to work out when the great river would flood each year and when to plant their crops; the moderns would dam the river or divert its course. Rather than seek to exist in some sort of harmony with the natural order, we seek to change it. It is possible to take this theory too far, of course, and this is not to say that any society barring the most absolutely primitive did not seek to change nature in some minor way so as to suit them a little better, but the idea of a natural order of things seems to certainly have been stronger in the classical era. Moreover, efforts to change nature with primitive technologies became ends in and of themselves as technology developed. It is also possible that the gradual replacement of theology with science may have been at least partially responsible for this change. Augustine’s work in bringing Greek


philosophy into the Christian tradition gave a sacred quality to the natural order, now God’s order, which did not brook too much interference. In any case, this changed with the end of the Christian epoch and the advent of the scientific, which returns us to Heideggerian thought. The shift occurs with the advent of positivism. The great scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries understood that facts exist in the light of fundamental conception; positivism argues that we can work with facts by themselves, and that concepts are merely expedients.12 This change accompanies the desertion of inquiry into the natural order in favour of the search for scientific first principles. Aristotle’s theories of motion, for example, hold that objects move in a manner natural to or arising from their being and found in natural places; Newtonian physics replaces this with a rejection of any fundamental difference between earthly and heavenly bodies, a rejection of a “natural” place or a “natural” mode of movement for any object, and states that, rather than nature giving rise to motion, it is motion that gives rise to nature: the natural order is owed to the motion of objects which obeys first principles.13 These are the positivist facts which are not only independent of nature, but from which the natural order itself is derived. All bodies, places, and moments are alike, and none of them are special.14 This rejection of any sort of a natural order in favour of mathematical first principles necessarily changes the way in which we view the world. The natural world is no longer a source for knowledge of what the world ought to be, and so there is no “ought” at all. To bring this back to the agora, if the merchants and the philosophers happen to coexist, this is no reason to suppose that they must. If it seems that they naturally occupy the same spaces, then from that we cannot derive that they ought to occupy the same spaces. The agora is no longer seen as a
Heidegger, “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics,” 272. Heidegger, “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics,” 283-287. 14 Heidegger, “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics,” 291.
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discursive space with room for many modes of human social interaction, but as standing-reserve, a potential to be exploited. Baconian and Cartesian science are interested in the quantifiable, since standing-reserve must be quantified so as to be measured and assessed, and it so happens that while trade and commerce are quantifiable in weights, measures, and the monetary value of transactions, discussions of philosophy and politics are not. It is a simple matter to assess which merchant is “better” by simply asking, “Who has made the most profit?” It is not so simple to assess philosophy or politics, however. The philosophy of Aristotle is still influential, but his scientific theories, quantifiable and disprovable, are a joke to modern science. Philosophy and politics raise questions that science cannot answer: questions about the nature of justice, fairness, right action, and good living. The picture is made complete by the advent of the social sciences, and particularly by 18th and 19th century attempts in the social sciences to match the accomplishments of the natural sciences, particularly by copying their methods and philosophy. This could be seen, for example, in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a proposed prison design symbolic of a particularly chilling vein of social engineering. The Panopticon was designed so that a single, central observer could observe any prisoner whenever he wished, but that no prisoner could ever know if and when he was being watched. The fear that one might be observed at any time, Bentham hoped, would produce model behaviour, and I use this term deliberately, since the idea was to make behaviour conform to a model. Once, it was considered productive and useful to try and discover the nature of the human soul from observation of humanity, as Plato and Aristotle did, just as they surveyed nature to try and find answers as to how the world ought to be; now, the goal was to engineer and manipulate the human soul so as to conform to an ideal form derived “objectively” from positivist facts. If the mighty river could be damned, then so could “morals [be] reformed -


health preserved - industry invigorated - instruction diffused - public burthens lightened Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock… all by a simple idea in Architecture!” 15 The Panopticon was supposed to be not only a contribution to penology but to society in general, a model from which the whole of society could be reformed. So, too, might Adam Smith’s enormously influential Wealth of Nations be received. The work is rather like the application of Baconian science to work and economics. The craft of the artisan is replaced with the time-and-motion studies of Taylorism. Human work is now viewed as standing-reserve, labour is seen as a natural resource whose utility must be maximized. The result is that human work becomes entirely devoid of its human element, the worker is reduced to the status of a machine and alienated entirely from the product of his work, as Marx lamented.16 The application of the scientific enframing to the social sphere, to human labour and to economics, returns us both to the agora and to the internet. It seems that the internet came to be seen in terms of standing-reserve. Instead of a medium for discussion and discovery, it is regarded by the gatekeepers in terms of economic potential. The discussions of Usenet cannot be quantified in terms of their value, but e-commerce can, and so begins the conquest of the gatekeepers. It is difficult to see what Facebook messages or wall posts offer that Usenet does not, and yet the latter is in decline while the former is undisputedly waxing. Upon regarding the situation, Heidegger would undoubtedly remark that the technological minds at Facebook (and the companies which preceded them, lest it be said that I give Facebook credit for originality that they do not deserve) had perceived the phenomenon of online communication and regarded it as

Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings, ed. Miran Bozovic (London: Verso, 1995), Letter I. Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972), 75-77.
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a standing-reserve. The potential to exploit it lies in channeling it through a service where it can be monetized. If communications can be made to flow through centralized Facebook servers rather than through the decentralized and nebulous cloud of Usenet servers, then content can be analyzed and scrutinized for marketing potential, so that the tailored advertisements can appear on one’s Facebook page, crafted out of a cloud of keywords which Facebook’s analytical software has plucked from one’s wall posts and messages. Just as the technological mind looks upon the forest and sees lumber, so, too, it looks upon netizens and sees consumers. There is something quite teleological in Heidegger’s assessment, however, and even something hopeful. Technology has the potential to be that which saves, if only we can manage to raise our gaze to the unfolding of technology rather than its marvels alone. “So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it.” 17 Not so for Jacques Ellul, however, who is much more pessimistic about technology, and whose only promise of salvation even seems confounded by his own criteria. According to Ellul, the problem of technology is not the use of technology, for this confuses technology and the machine. The machine can be used for many purposes, but only one is technical, and technique has no end other than itself. Moreover, technique does not make moral judgements but creates a technical morality: how replaces should.18 The technologies of the internet in particular are advanced technologies possible only in a society that has already made great advances in electronics and miniaturization, which require a good understanding of quantum mechanics, the ability to cost-effectively engineer at the nanometre level, an understanding of the role of software, and so forth. Even thirty or forty years ago, these were not widely understood enough to produce anything like modern computer hardware or software to
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Heidegger, “Question Concerning Technology,” 337. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage, 1964), 96.


make the internet possible. It was only with the creation of computers for the Apollo program that the separation of software from hardware became understood, for example; this was on then state-of-the-art hardware that was quite literally hundreds of thousands or millions of times less powerful than a modern cellphone. The point here is that a society capable of producing such technology sits at the apex of a pyramid of supporting technologies which had to be mastered at earlier points in time – a society steeped in technique. Eratosthenes’ measurement of the circumference of the earth depended only upon sticks in the ground and something to measure the angles of their shadows with, Galileo’s observations required instruments that were hand-crafted, but the internet is a superstructure built upon a technological and industrial edifice of dizzying size. If Ellul is correct, to progress this far would have meant that the technical morality would have replaced philosophically-derived moral judgements long ago. Technical progress is geometric and the technical progress of any given civilization is irreversible.19 There is no going back, and there is no standing still, only a galloping forward at a geometrically increasing rate – a reiteration of Moore’s Law if ever there was one.20 So the stage is set for our present conundrum, and like both Grant and Heidegger, Ellul would probably say that it was inevitable that a development such as the internet, as dependent upon technique as it was, would be degraded in some way and would lose the social and even spiritual aspects it may once have had in favour of the technical. He might have been surprised that it took so long. Ellul’s work has a more specific bearing upon this particular problem, however. He originally discussed “technical automatism” in reference to Marxism, but it seems
Ellul, 89. Intel executive David Moore predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits would double approximately every two years. This prediction was made in 1965 and has proven eerily accurate for over four decades.
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that the lessons can be applied to this situation as well. In this phenomenon, humans are stripped of choice in methods, in organization, and so forth, yet are satisfied. 21 The deprivation of opportunity for an authentic participation in the human social experience does not give rise to unhappiness. So might be described the transformation of the internet. What began as something quite human, despite its dependence on the technological, is reduced to the technical. If we take as read Wozniak’s likening of the early internet to a “breath of fresh air,” revitalizing and revolutionizing discussion and human interaction, then the advent of the gatekeepers removes the choice from it (like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Subscribe to our YouTube channel!), and yet everyone is happy with this state of affairs, blissfully participating in Facebook discussions or watching YouTube movies without seeming to wonder why their options for participating in and enjoying these media are so constrained. Moreover, as Karim Karim remarks, the information society is in the midst of a great conjuring act wherein data and information are conflated with knowledge and wisdom, and individual happiness is promised just by tapping into the vast wealth of online information. 22 The information revolution has been heralded as a saviour, and this is to suppose that the solution to our problems is to widen and deepen technique. It might seem like the gatekeepers are providing greater choice, or greater ability to sort and select information, but it is not that simple. On Usenet, for instance, if I want to share a video I have created or a song I have composed, I simply upload it to the decentralized server system and anyone with access can now watch it or listen to it; there is no centralized authority

Ellul, 82. Karim H. Karim, “Cyber-utopia and the Myth of Paradise: Using Jacques Ellul’s Work on Propaganda to Analyse Information Society Rhetoric,” Information, Communication & Society 4:1 (2001): 130.
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or company upon whom the content or its transmission depends. This is not the case with the gatekeepers, however, who retain control over all the content that passes through their channels, who make it ever-more difficult or impractical to share content without them, and who are ominously beginning to appropriate the intellectual property rights to the content that moves through them. For example, Facebook recently amended its terms and conditions to include the phrase, “you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP [intellectual property] content that you post on or in connection with Facebook… we may use them without any obligation to compensate you for them.”23 The vast amount of content uploaded by Facebook users for the non-technical purposes of sharing moments and memories with family and friends is appropriated by technique, sorted and ordered to become the world’s largest royalty-free stock photo and video archive. Ellul also claimed that as technique progressed, the individual who would be alone would find it increasingly difficult to disengage materially or spiritually from society; the technical would invade his whole life.24 As the development of the internet has progressed, again, this is broadly applicable to the online world. The universality of technology is not applied equally to all people in society but seems to be generational: while older generations may refuse to have an e-mail, Facebook or Twitter account, it would be extremely rare to find a modern, Western citizen under the age of thirty who did not possess all three and use them regularly, if not compulsively. Moreover, and here we return to Ellul’s prediction, such a person would find themselves cut off from a great deal of human interaction, socialization, news and current events, and so forth, were they to renounce smartphones, e-mail, new social media and the internet.

Facebook, Legal Terms (2012). Retrieved from on December 20, 2012. 24 Ellul, 139-140.


It might be said that this is reading something into Ellul’s work that is not there. The Technological Society was written in 1963, when transistors had only recently replaced vacuum tubes, integrated circuits had not yet been invented, and ARPAnet – the first packet-switching network – was still a blue-sky hypothesis. However, the internet surely remains one of the ultimate expressions of technique, and as it becomes increasingly true that, for some, offline and online worlds and identities become blended, Ellul’s arguments become more and more applicable. This merging of the offline and online, over a dividing line once defined quite sharply, seems to be proceeding rapidly in a certain segment of the technologically-aware population. Apart from the meteoric rise of social networking and micro-blogging sites as a standard mode of socialization, information-gathering, and so forth, there is the increasing merger of online and offline shopping and banking, for example – activities that once took place entirely in the physical world. With the advent of e-readers from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and so forth, and online content services such as Netflix (for television and movies), Steam (for videogames), or e-stores for companies such as Sony, Adobe, Microsoft, or Apple, the shopping “experience” can now be entirely digital. One visits the online store, browses for the content one is looking for, completes the purchase online with an encrypted credit-card checkout, and receives the content either streamed or downloaded to disk over a broadband connection. The purchase, once the exchange of money for tangible goods, can now be entirely virtual. More interesting (or alarming) is the blurring of offline and online identities. In her study of Second Life, an online virtual world in which users role-play an avatar interacting with other avatars also role-played by real people, rather like a multi-player virtual doll-house, Marya Schechtman finds that many residents in Second Life claim that their avatars are themselves, and that the boundaries between Second Life and “real life” are blurry. The terms “real life” and “in


real life” are employed by users to distinguish events from those in the virtual world, but ethnographer Annette Markham, cited by Schechtman, believes that these are almost devoid of ontological meaning – “everything that is experienced is real.”25 The existence of the avatar is part of a self-constructed narrative of existence and experience by the author who created it.26 This attempt to merge online and offline identity is highly problematic, and seems incompatible, for instance, with hackers or “griefers” – users who intrude upon online worlds such as Second Life in order to spread discord and havoc. These people thrive on the creation of discrete and entirely separate online personas, which, far from being extensions of their offline selves, rely upon being untraceable to a real person. However, putting aside this issue and the attendant questions of escapism, the fact that at least some evidently feel this way is supportive of the idea that the online world is increasingly becoming a part of the human experience, and that Ellul’s commentary on technique is applicable to it. There is perhaps even some merit to the idea that escapism in the virtual world is a response to the inauthenticity of the real world. Ironically, those who spend an obsessive amount of time in Second Life or World of Warcraft may be trying to create a personal narrative which has more meaning and authenticity than the technique-dominated life they live in the real world. If so, then the outlook is as bleak as when viewed through the lens of either Heidegger or Grant – if not bleaker. The technique-dominated society exerts an irresistible pressure upon the individual to conform to technique; irresistible because struggle against it must take place on a personal level despite the fact that only “an uncommon spiritual force or psychologic al

Marya Schechtman, “The Story of my (Second) Life: Virtual Worlds and Narrative Identity,” Philosophy and Technology 25:3 (2012): 329-343. Retrieved from on December 15, 2012. 26 Charles Ess, “At the Intersections Between Internet Studies and Philosophy: “Who Am I Online?,” Philosophy and Technology 25:3 (2012): 277.


education” could resist its pressures. 27 There are no structural options available to confront technique; “the onus of choice and salvation [is] on the individual.”28 Individuals fleeing the real world to inhabit a virtual, make-believe one is an alarming trend that surely feeds the problem of technique rather than addresses it in any way.

Institutionalist Responses to the Technological Problem

If true, this would seem to render any attempt to correct these problems by the introduction of liberal institutions futile. At a functional level, such institutions would ideally aim to preserve net neutrality, curbing the powers of gatekeepers and content providers to police and control online expression, returning control to users, and ensuring that channels for information remain exactly that and do not become opportunities to dam, divert, or augment the flow. At a more abstract level, this would be an attempt to stem the tide of technique itself and preserve something human, social, philosophical and even spiritual from the deluge of the technological. We might find such proposals in the arguments of two great liberal-democratic institutionalists, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, whose theories I will draw upon to assess the possibility of such institutional safeguards succeeding. Kant’s position on the possibilities of political institutions as vehicles for the realization of human perfection may be summarized in his Eighth Proposition in the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose: The history of the human race as a whole can be regarded as the realisation of a hidden plan of nature to bring about an internally – and for this purpose also externally – perfect

27 28

Karim, 116. H. Mowlana, Global Information and World Communication (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997), 10.


political constitution as the only possible state within which all natural capacities of mankind can be developed completely.29 The natural capacities of mankind are, according to Kant, reason and the capacity to develop it; we might very reasonably conclude from this and from Perpetual Peace that the institutions he envisions might bring an end to war and strife, usher in an era of reason, and complete the project of the Enlightenment. This seems to be what Wozniak wants to see: the construction and implementation of liberal democratic institutions in order to govern the internet, perhaps granting cyber-citizenship to all “netizens” and enshrining their right to expression and communication without the onerous interference of the gatekeepers. The internet, in the ideal form that Wozniak, Stallman, and other technological idealists think it could or once did realize, is a commendable extension of the enlightenment project. John Stuart Mill would doubtless have approved of this medium for instantaneous communication between people vastly separated in time and space, free of censorship and without access cost or barriers (barring literacy, at least until voice recognition software is able to deliver on its promises, or access to computer and network hardware, at least until the political calls for internet access as a basic right are met). In a brief foray into questions of how technology can bring humanity closer on our spherical and finite earth on whose surface we cannot escape from each other, Kant remarks upon the capacity of the ship and the camel to bring diverse people together for peaceful exchange and discourse, to be governed by public law and further the advancement of cosmopolitan constitution. 30 Surely he would have been enamoured of the internet. Jürgen Habermas discussed Kant’s anticipation of a global public

Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Kant: Political Writings, 2nd ed., trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 50. 30 Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” in Kant: Political Writings, 2nd ed., trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 106.


sphere, and how it would help bring us closer to perpetual peace when injustice anywhere can be seen everywhere.31 What we have seen in the Arab Spring, for instance, gives some weight to this view. Many dictators felt the weight of world opinion brought down on them by a deluge of photographs and videos of their abuses spread around the globe in the space of hours. John Rawls is also hopeful for the prospects of just institutions for mending political problems. The concept of the original position is meant for politics as a whole, but perhaps it can be applied to this particular problem. To briefly recap, the concept is that, in the original position, we find ourselves behind a veil of ignorance, through which we can see neither the positions of others, nor our own. What sort of society would we construct, not knowing where we might end up in it? The society that emerges from building such rules would be fair, as we would not confer a significant advantage on any group if we did not know that we were members of it.32 It seems a little Hobbesian, inasmuch as it conceives of humans as basically selfish and needing of laws to restrain their worst desires, but leaving aside the question of the basic essence of the human soul, how would this work online? Could it bring about Wozniak’s vision? The Rawlsian model would call for the framing of internet law from behind a veil of ignorance, such that the framers ought to work as if they did not know if they would be users or gatekeepers. Such a project ought to ensure “fairness” in the use of the internet. We would imagine that it should produce guarantees of net neutrality, of free speech, and of unhindered access. After all, we would not like to find ourselves so hindered, and even if we were attempting to “game the system,” so to speak, it is drastically more likely that when the veil was lifted, we should find ourselves to be an ordinary internet user or, at most, a very minor content provider,
Jürgen Habermas, “Kant's Idea of Perpetual Peace with the Benefit of Two Hundred Years' Hindsight”, Perpetual Peace: Essays on Kant’s Cosmopolitan Ideal, ed. James Bohman & Matthias Lutz-Bachmann (Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 1997), 124. 32 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 15-18.


such as a fansite, rather than a major investor in a giant media conglomerate. Rawls, as with Kant, would probably imagine that institutions and law can solve these problems, or at least keep them permanently curtailed even with the proviso that they would need constant scrutiny and updates. If law and liberal-democratic institutions can be entrusted with the guarantee of international peace, surely they are up to the task of net neutrality. The problem with these ideas is that they are part of the same technological thinking that, according to Grant, Heidegger and Ellul, makes this problem inevitable in the first place. Diane Morgan remarks that Kant is “criticised for being a human-machine himself, but his system is also deemed overly mechanistic, dangerous, inhuman. To compound matters yet further, he is criticised as providing an inadequate and reductive account of technology, one that fails to understand its creative potentiality as poesis, as a ‘bringing forth’ or ‘mode of disclosure.’”33 Put simply, Kant not only fails to understand technology in the way that Heidegger analyzes it, but his prescriptions simply involve more blind faith in the technological. Kantian institutions would perpetuate the modes of thinking that produced them in the first place, grounded as they are in the ideas of the framing of rules, of bringing order to chaos, and of finding absolute, objective truths. For example, we might find that a government of the internet found its laws circumvented and bypassed as quickly as it could enact them by legal trickery, jurisdictional gaps, or mere failure to accurately set penalties. In the last case, it is difficult to find a penalty whose weight is sufficient so as to be more than a mere externality but sufficiently small so as not to discourage activity altogether. Wozniak’s comparison of internet government to world government is actually quite apt, in that the latter seems to be impossible and, where halting attempts at it have been made, proven inadequate to the tasks set before it.
Diane Morgan, “Kant, Cosmopolitics, Multiperspectival Thinking and Technology,” Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 12:2 (2007): 36.


The problem is that Kant has not elevated his thinking beyond the mechanistic, as Heidegger demands that we must if we are to tackle the problem of technology. Heidegger is not adamant that the problem is insoluble, but it will remain so as long as we look at technological problems rather than the problem of technology. Kant is particularly vulnerable to this, as he tends to see machines as tools, designed and used by external forces and entirely incapable of generating any sort of ontological changes in those who design and use them.34 Machines are further distinguished from organisms in that the former have no formative power; while humans cannot be seen as means to an end, machines can only be seen as means to ends.35 Such a view cannot adequately answer the critiques of Heidegger or Ellul for it ignores them completely, and it is hard to read either and fail to concede that they have a point in stating that the technological has become an end in and of itself.


Purely institutional solutions cannot work, since they derive from the same flawed modes of thought that brought us to the problem in the first place and fail to apprehend the true nature of the problem. The proposed solution is the creation of institutions to solve the issues created by other institutions – to dig out of a hole. The “wilderness” of the early internet was colonized, organized and rationalized by the gatekeepers whose power Wozniak now opposes. The decentralized became centralized; disorderly flows of information between individuals were corralled into orderly flows of information through a few central gatekeepers. These gatekeeping institutions appeared and brought technique to the internet, and now that their power has grown

Immanuel Kant, Schriften zur Naturphilosophie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), 96. Cited in Diane Morgan, “Kant, Cosmopolitics, Multiperspectival Thinking and Technology,” Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 12:2 (2007): 36. 35 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J.C. Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 22-23.


too great, Wozniak proposes new institutions to apply technique to the gatekeepers. Obviously, we ask, what happens when those institutions become too powerful or controlling? It is quite reminiscent of Hobbes’ prescription for a strong state to bring order and prevent people from fighting and killing one another, but what happens when the strong state is captured by a Stalin, a Mao, or a Hitler, when the cure becomes worse than the disease? It is unsurprising that the technologically-minded (and, in a technological society, that must include most if not virtually all of us) would be captivated by technology, stuck in technological modes of thought and given to a search for technological solutions to problems that were the result of technology and the technological mindset. This, essentially, is the position of Heidegger. The solution to this particular problem is more likely to be found in philosophy than in institutions, for, as Heidegger remarks, the problem of technology is basically unsolvable until we can change our way of thinking. This might amount to a changing of human nature, which sounds daunting, but Heidegger believes that this is possible and has occurred many times with the advent of various epochs, although this is probably something beyond our power to change deliberately. Attempts to engineer such change are absolutely to fail, for social engineering and efforts to manufacture and synthesize the change we wish to see are products of the technological mindset as well, and are about as likely to succeed as the project of creating New Soviet Man. As the Soviet dissident and satirist Alexander Zinovyev observed, those efforts did have some success in changing human nature, but to a form virtually the opposite of that which was envisaged. So, too, might efforts to reform the internet through governance and liberaldemocratic institutions. For Ellul, the project is bound to fail for the simple reason that an overcoming or even a resistance offered to the technique-dominated society must be personal, at the level of the dreams

and hopes that have historically offered escape from persecution, but the scope of technique is such that it is probably beyond the scope of an individual to resist.36 Ellul offers no real structural solutions, which is probably deliberate yet all the more tragic: genuine solutions have no hope of working while solutions that do stand a chance are not genuine. Building institutions to combat the predations of institutions seems foolhardy when said institutions will be inhabited by the same flawed human beings who built the original institutions, or allowed them to be built. To desire a continuation of the information age with all it has to offer while side-stepping its pitfalls seems a very technological conceit, and a thinly-veiled attempt to have our cake and eat it. It seems the same as our desire to live in a mass-consumption, resource- and energyintensive society while somehow avoiding resource shortfalls and planet death. We have tasted the fruit, and there is no going back; a civilization does not willingly relinquish technological advance, but by now the lesson of technological advance is quite obvious: technological solutions bring their own technological problems. Attempting to govern and legislate the internet gatekeepers away will certainly bring about further problems which may be even harder to solve. The technological society is enamoured with the prospect of the easy fix, but virtually nothing touted as such has proven to be so in the long-term. We can either accept that online freedom will be an endless battle against new dangers, and that it may not be a battle that we can ultimately win, or turn our backs upon the technological epoch entirely, and probably give up the internet altogether. It is an edifice of almost purely technological construction, both literally and philosophically, and a society that adopts another epoch will probably have no use for it at all.


Ellul, 377.



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