The Internet is not a Place (any more)

March 22nd, 2011  |  Published in Everyday life, Politics

Easily the most tiresome conversation that has resulted from the Arab revolutions of 2011 is the argument about whether these uprisings are “Twitter revolutions” or “Facebook revoutions” or whatever. On the one hand, you have lots of mainstream media organizations playing up the importance of social networks as some sort of spontaneous revolution-fuel, while ignoring the long years of organization that went into, say, the Egypt uprising. And then you have people arguing that actually, Internet communication isn’t really a good basis for political organizing, or that it will become a tool of authoritarian governments, or that Twitter is trapping us all in a neo-liberal feedback loop of circulating affects.

Today I saw this silly op-ed, about how “the tweet will never replace the street”. This is an absurd straw target, of course; as NPR media strategist Andy Carvin remarks (on Twitter!), “Why is so hard to get that many revolutionaries in the mideast simply don’t separate their online lives from their offline ones?”

This really gets at what I find to be the fundamental irrelevance of these debates: they ultimately depend on a questionable metaphor. They all proceed as though “the Internet” and “the Real World” were clearly separate spaces. That underlying metaphor of the Internet as a separate social space goes back at least to William Gibson’s coining of “cyberspace”. And it does a pretty good job of portraying the way the Internet felt when I first encountered it in the 1990’s. But I think the most noteworthy thing about the period we’re in right now is that this boundary is being erased. In another ten or twenty years, the metaphor of “the Internet” as a separate space may not even make sense to us anymore.

This is a theme that Charlie Stross has written a lot about, and he lays out some of the important themes in this 2009 speech. He notes that the spread of high-spead Internet connections, along with devices like the iPhone, is effacing the line between the Internet and the Real World. Looking forward to 2030, he says:

Welcome to a world where the internet has turned inside-out; instead of being something you visit inside a box with a coloured screen, it’s draped all over the landscape around you, invisible until you put on a pair of glasses or pick up your always-on mobile phone. A phone which is to today’s iPhone as a modern laptop is to an original Apple II; a device which always knows where you are, where your possessions are, and without which you are — literally — lost and forgetful.

Now, one can be excited or terrified about this vision, or some combination of both. But what’s significant about it is that it makes absolutely no sense to ask whether the Internet is important for real world politics in this context. The Internet is the world is the Internet.

To step back into the present: obviously we don’t yet live in a world of always-on augmented reality. But things like Twitter are a step in that direction. There is something fundamentally different about Twitter–where you can post updates and communicate with people from anywhere, as something integrated into everyday life–compared to the way the Internet was when I was a kid, when “going online” meant going down into the basement and getting lost in the screen. Newsgroups and listservs and BBS systems and the like really did feel like separate “spaces”, and so the metaphor of the internet as a place made sense. That’s why that Chappelle’s show sketch “If the Internet was a Real Place” is funny.

The whole misbegotten debate about Internet-versus-real activism strikes me as a consequence of the inevitable generational lag in our intellectual life. The people who are now in a position to dominate the conversation are the ones who were the first to grow up with the Internet–but it was the old Internet-as-a-place. I suspect that as the generations following mine assert their own approach to these questions, they will look at these distinctions very differently.

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