This is part of an essay called The Sentient Web. I wrote it three years ago to explore my feelings about the internet as a locus of resistance. The essay was intended for a general audience, but the magazine it was intended for never published it. It was optimistic about the internet; I’m not entirely sure I agree with the sentiments expressed in it anymore. I hope the post is not too long
In 2003, intrigued by the Right’s suggestion of a shadowy community behind the antiwar movement, I began to probe the internet for references. I found, to my astonishment, an entire alternative identity. As a body it had all the permeability and translucence of a mono-filament net, but an equal reality. I blundered into it and felt, immediately, the strength and flexibility of its connections. It buzzed with ideas, with consonance and dissonance, with its own language and signifiers. At meetings and protests this web comes briefly into the sun to do what nets do best – resist – a hundred small groups, each with its own rationale and purpose, but each recognising its kinship with the others. Suddenly visible to the media, it is derided for its woolly morality, its lack of realpolitik, its diverse membership, its idealism, its tendency to follow the peace-drum blindly. From the lofty standpoint of The Dominant Analysis these people are both mad and stupid. But they never go away. They never flag. Resistance is only the most public expression of their thinking. Their various and sometimes contradictory faiths are arrived at by complex means, in reading, in meeting, in trust, in dialogue, in community. That they sometimes believe as much in peace as in herbal medicine is a lot less bizarre than believing in individualism and buying Nike. They live in a web without a centre, operating outside the government- and corporate-sponsored static, a weightless counterweight, a powerless force. Their values are those of community – trust, friendship, dialogue, cooperation. The paradox of this unseen presence is its frequent effectiveness against the odds. It is not because of the conscience of corporations or the idealism of government that every European state has, by one name or another, a Ministry of the Environment. And matched with the myriad power of Empire and Corporation, I believe, it empowered the General Assembly of the UN (the free world?) in the Spring of 2003 and may have prevented a rolling invasion of the Middle East.
The greatest achievement of the modern corporation-state has been to reduce us all to units, to undermine cooperation, to make us dependent for our validity not on love, friendship or community, but on the media and consumption. In the last circle of hell Dante encounters the traitors Ugolino and Ruggieri. They are frozen together in a hole in the ground, in an embrace, gnawing each other, punished by a forced community rejected in life. They betrayed each other and their city for profit and power.
The world wide web is the medium in which the alternative community breathes. But how hospitable is it to them?
At the very least it allows the unsuffraged what Said called ‘permission to narrate’. But the world wide web is full of narratives, or rather stories, fuller of them than it is of pornography – although we could regard pornography as a narrative too. Counters record the number of ‘hits’ ‘taken’ by each site. Lists are generated of ‘most popular’ downloads, referrals, citations. Blogging multiplies the footprint of any individual story. Because the search engines record instances of the search-phrases, and because sites like Amazon record lists generated out of searches; because, in the long slow conversation of the hopeless every problem relates in some way to their own, and therefore a contribution to any one debate grows ganglia that extend into ever more particular situations; because freedom of expression appears absolute (even though it is controlled by the search engine’s algorithm, and consequently by the engine’s intent); because of all these the world wide web provides only a flawed and partial alternative to the print and broadcast media. No narrative is capable of surviving the blizzard of stories. There is no beginning, middle and end. The experience of surfing is of a kind of cultural entropy, as Marshall McLuhan predicted it would be, a post-modern village in which the inhabitants rarely, if ever, meet except in the most sordid of circumstances.
And increasingly, there is the feeling that to engage with the web is to feed an organism. Humans have become ancillary, cellular, contributory objects rather than subjects. The possibility of a sentient web has been posited long before now and it is already actually impossible for humans to turn it off without risking their own extermination because the only switch-off absolutely guaranteed to work is a global catastrophe capable of generating enough electromagnetic energy to fuse every connected computer in the world. The web’s resemblance to a neural network has also been noted.
There are people who fear that the web will break free from human control, but the accepted rhetoric is that the web is, and has always been, free, uncensored and uncensorable. Why therefore should we fear a sentient web? It will surely be in the web’s interest to continue to allow our individual interactions, given that it depends for its energy and growth on our processors. It can hardly be more capricious than the system that already exists – it might even be a relief to point to ‘mood swings’ or ‘temper tantrums’ as the reason why the connection has dropped for the third time in ten minutes. ‘The web is having a bad day,’ we might say. ‘We ought to be more sympathetic.’
But the reality is that the web, as we experience it, exists by permission of governments, and through the agency of communications companies. It is only because all interrogation of the network is through search engines that these same engines appear to us to be entirely transparent. For many of us Google is the web.
Government and corporation have the most to lose if the web goes free. Already the geek-driven garage-company atmosphere is giving way to mission-statements and ‘terms and conditions’ in a new corporate colony. There are promises or threats of thirty-second advertising breaks that cannot be clicked away. International agreements are in the making that will translate into protocols to control the content and availability of sites. Government has learned the value of secretly sponsoring seemingly ‘alternative’ web entities that divert dissent, applying a HTML version of Buys Ballot’s Law that allows anger to dissipate in vacuous spin.
Web design is premised on, and exploits, our need for community. The pronoun is always ‘we’. Everything from child-pornography to small computer programs is ‘shared’, even though there is always a price. Corporate sites ring with the ho-hoing of jolly picnickers on a consumer outing. It’s cosy in cyberspace, and affirmation is available to neo-Nazi and nerd alike in equal quantities and in the same terms.
Though we are naturally suspicious of the blandishments of people who think they can buy and sell us, when they seem to be extensions of our selves, merely facilitating our own growth, which is how many people, including educators, see the web, it may be more difficult not to identify with them. The web has a reality of some kind, one which persists and changes in a very biological way, and we are turning to it increasingly as to a second self, not a mirror-image or an artifice, but more like a twin, with all the deep connections and extensions of self that such a relationship involves. But whatever it has or will become it no longer represents, if it ever did, a community in any actual sense – except insofar as corporations represent themselves as the ‘business community’, or governments refer to the ‘intelligence community’.
Still there are sly anarchic jokes. At the time of writing, entering the word ‘failure’ on the main google.com website and then hitting the ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button will take you directly to a George Bush curriculum vitae. Do the same for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and you will receive an ‘error page’ beginning, ‘We’re sorry, weapons of mass destruction are currently unavailable…’ Enter ‘hate’ and you’ll be transferred to tolerance.org, and so on.
In 1984 the Newspeak word for individualism is ‘ownlife’. The system seeks to eradicate it as dangerous and potentially anarchic. But neo-liberalism, so 1984 in diverse and sinister ways, recognises that ownlife is the opposite of community and therefore to be encouraged. In this western heaven mingling is discouraged among the saints. Speech always falls short because it cannot rise above the babble of strangers. Philosophy is unnecessary because it points to the ineluctable conclusion. Only at the great set-piece gatherings – not political, not religious, not military, but sporting – is there any suggestion of community. Soccer focuses the attention of millions on a single simple endeavour. Although actually attended by a tiny minority, the action appears to take place in everyone’s living-room and so the ‘gathering’ is virtual and the vast majority of members of this ‘community’ never meet. Because linking politics, economics, religion, or race to sport is infra dig, the language turns in on itself and becomes increasingly vacuous, sucking in and neutralising terms from elsewhere (from aesthetics, art, war, surgery, sewing, ballistics, mechanics, gardening, the classics, etc.). What takes place is a ritualised struggle of two businesses, but the acceptable narrative completely belies its mercenary nature. Afterwards action on what is referred to as the field of play is examined obsessively. Instant camaraderie is achieved among strangers in public bars and bus-stops, and between colleagues at work. Empathy, a sense of shared heritage, unity of purpose, even the suggestion of emotional sensitivity are all conveyed by a few simple signifiers – a scarf, a shirt, a badge, a car-sticker. When a Roy Keane or an Eric Cantona steps outside the boundaries (by being overtly mercenary or using real violence) collective odium unites one half of the population, solidarity the other. The talk-shows buzz. Newspaper headlines blare in Newspeak about patriotism and fair play. Not Orwell’s ‘Two Minutes of Hate’ but Ninety Minutes of Love.