This essay spectacularly failed to place in the Bodley Head/Financial Times competition of last year. It was written to be non-academic and readable, so I hope someone enjoys it.
It is mostly about the internet, although in quite wide terms. The Snowden Revelations now show a lot of it is mislead, but not irrelevant . Hopefully the thing overall is entertaining, if you are an especially bored person.
I will endeavour to get out more.
If we are to take our history lessons at face value, and with a hefty romantic salting, then our image of post-Conquest England should see a sombre isle of defeated Saxons toiling in the reek, whilst in the distance rise from the mists great towers. These are the motte-and-baileys, the symbols of military overlordship, of feudal dominion, of the foreigner. We are told that these towers are built to fulfil many a purpose – they are the medieval equivalent of a colonial iPhone, complete with a multitude of apps. When the Saxons are getting uppity, the forts protect isolated Normans from harm, but later serve as muster-points for vengeful knightly armies. When the Saxons are pacified, castle-courtyards serve as tax centres, marketplaces, bureaucratic forums. At all times, the towers’ silhouettes dominate the landscape, raised as they are on great mounds of earth, overlooking the harried English.
It is this overlooking which concerns us. William the Conqueror exported his castle from Europe, where princes and petty-lords had already spent great time and effort developing apps to control their little people. Towers were perfect. The little people would look up from their labours to see these great works, these marks of mastery, and realise for the tenth time that day that they were outgunned. Better, their resentful glances might reach the tower’s summit and see a glint of mail, a flag tugged by the wind, even a face in the shadows, and fear that they were being watched, that even the smallest act of rebellion represented by pausing their field-ploughing was observed by an unassailable watcher. How cunning the tower? Even far-off, even in poor light, a fieldhand might assume that from their elevated position, his master’s guards still watched.
The psychological use of iCastles in rule peppers history. Marcher-lords slowly built their way through the valleys, each new stone a message to the Welsh that their independence was dwindling. The Crusader nobility threw up great complexes across the Levant, from Krak des Chevaliers in Syria to Kerak in Jordan, creating a network of European architecture as a defiant statement to the hostile desert. In pursuit of Manifest Destiny, the juvenile United States created umpteen forts across Indian Country, adapting their use from trading posts to invasion platforms to daunting reservation offices. Their multi-purpose efficacy survives today – Camp Bastion covers an area of Afghan land larger than Manchester. Barack Obama, for all his peaceful rhetoric, presides over a military which maintains no fewer than 560 permanent overseas bases.
They’re getting it slightly wrong, of course. Jeremy Bentham, British social reformer and founder of utilitarianism, could have told them so in 1787 when he designed an elaborate prison as a somewhat bizarre side-project. His design, the futuristic-sounding Panopticon, would perfect the Norman keep’s watcher-watched dynamic. The Panopticon was a circular, hollow building, rather like a stone doughnut. Prisoners would live alone in cells in this doughnut, unable to see one another but in clear view of the central gap. In this central gap Bentham proposed to build a gaoler’s tower – Motte v2.0. The gaoler would be hidden or shadowed, such that no prisoner on the periphery would know if he was being watched at any given moment.
“A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”
So Bentham claimed. He supposed that prisoners, never sure if they were being monitored, would have to moderate their own behaviour perpetually. He was so certain of this ‘self-watching’ principle that he promised investors that the gaoler need not even be present. He imagined the blueprint could and should be applied to hospitals, asylums and schools.
Although no Panopticon was ever built, it caused such a stir that the modern French philosopher, Michel Foucault, seized upon the idea. In his critique of modern societies, Foucault argued that panopticism was the central ingredient to disciplining populations, and that all edifices of the state, from post offices to barracks to pylons to the rather more obvious CCTV, were keeping us in line.
He was slightly wrong, too. Both Bentham and Foucault had forgotten one of the most pervasive social experiments of their millennium – God. God was all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent. God wielded considerably more power to ‘discipline and punish’ those disobeying him than either an Industrial Revolution gaoler or a Twentieth Century state. God was, in the minds of all the devout, the most perfect Big Brother conceivable. His churches and ministers, auxiliary forts. Yet, in that time, with eternal incentivising carrots and infinitely beastly sticks, man still sinned.
There are two main camps in the “Internet debate”. By far the more popular are the cyber-utopians, who believe that connectivity is a great force for good, a force which enabled the Tahrir Square protests, stoked Iran’s Green Revolution and is, blog by blog, eroding the authoritarian tendrils of the Chinese politburo. With a cheerful ‘iPod liberalism’, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed that,
“You cannot have Rwanda [‘s genocide] again because information would come out far more quickly…public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken. Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.“
Such idealists are opposed by sceptics – who might perhaps prefer the label ‘realists’. Evgeny Morozov, for example, is a Belarussian academic who publicly attacked Brown. Morozov argues that there is no clear causal link between ‘connectivity devices’ and the inevitable rise of democracy. Indeed, he shows that all autocracies besides Burma/Myanmar and North Korea support internet installation, and deploy it to facilitate control.
He suggests that the Chinese bloggers highlighting local-government corruption are serving the Politburo, both by aiding them address inefficiency and by allowing them to enhance their aura of legitimacy by showing concern. Morozov highlights the Thai website ‘Protect the King’, which encourages citizens to report websites critical of Rama IX. The Thai government blocked 3,000 websites within a day of the loyalist site’s launch. With similar Stasi echoes, the Saudis organise campaigns to report offensive videos and force YouTube to delete them. Most chillingly, Ahmadinejad’s charming fellows are used digital forensics to pinpoint and persecute Green Revolutionaries by asking loyalists to identify protesters caught on video, and to link these faces to the names broadcasted across Twitter and Facebook. These social platforms are too public for revolution.
To put a moral spin on the whole internet is impossible. This is where Foucauldian thought comes in – to show us quite how radical a change the internet trumpets. The devices we use for online access might not be instruments of the state. The state might not control connectivity, or even monitor users’ online behaviour. Yet still, the technology has created a global, consensual, benign-cloaked version of the Panopticon for each connected human.
This doesn’t just apply to embattled revolutionaries, risking exposure to Link In another dissident. When we “Like” a joke, when we upload our holiday photos, share a status, record a video of our Oasis guitar cover or Tweet congratulations to an Olympian, we are submitting to be observed. Not to be observed by one castellan in his motte or one gaoler in his shadowed tower, but by the legion anonymous gaze of two billion users. We may draft our publications, we may ‘sandbox’ them again and again to see how they will turn out by preview. The total exposure of some publications might be limited to our ‘Friends’, but even so we know that our actions are crystallised in the ether, permanent, available for judgement in perpetuity. They’re watching us while we sleep.
Stranger still is that we combine this extreme, voluntary omni-opticism with a profound anonymity. It is now possible to live one’s mental life almost entirely abstracted from the physical world – gaming on screen, relationships through wires, virtual lives, virtual money, virtual jobs. Our ability to create, and to switch on/off, nameless ‘profiles’ with zero relationship to our physical circumstances is not only a facilitating tool for paedophiles and hackers – it allows us to live beyond the formal disciplinary boundaries of law and society which state buildings embodied.
And we do.
Case in point: the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts. When French Closer published paparazzi snaps of the future monarch topless, physical print-media reacted with red-faced, heavy-breathing outrage. This was an affront to national pride, to royal privacy, etc. etc. Injunctions and directives flew every which way as pundits merrily pontificated on the disgust middle-Britain had for the perverted frogs. But really? A YouGov poll claims 26% of British men have seen the photos, along with 15% of women.
The web alters our understanding of “private”, allowing deviations that would have been unthinkable in any other age. Individuals with interests or impulses deemed so taboo that they might otherwise never internally admit them can indulge in secret deviations, unmoderated conversations, even to contact and form virtual communities of such deviations and by their shared popularity, legitimise them. This is not exclusively sexual. Ex-Muslims love internet fraternities. They cannot publicly renounce Islam for fear of apostasy and blasphemy laws – and death. The simulated turnkeys are both sympathetic and merciful.
The internet exposes the Saxon prisoner to a panoply of linguistic evolutions. Video-stills from blockbusters become ‘memes’, each signifying their own complex message or emotion. Technical and slang language develops, some specific to types of web-pages and some universal. Grammar, spelling and syntax twist and turn so intensely that linguists might suggest that the boundaries of our conceptual minds are widened.
Does this mean that the internet offers absolute mental freedom?
Foucault claimed our freedom was limited by ‘epistemes’, the sum total of all the linguistic boundaries, childhood experiences, media consumption and cultural exposure you ever had. Epistemes represent the ultimate discipline, the conceptual and cultural limits governing how it is possible to think and act. Such limits are not imposed, but inherent to who and what we are.
Dualism serves as a good example. Western-speakers are influenced by a long Abrahamic memory of souls and afterlives, so understand a vivid cleavage between the ‘mind’ and the ‘body’. Thus we are able to say “I stroked her arm”. Monists would struggle to fully understand – to them, mind and body are one and the same. The closest they could come (to mutilate a theoretical translation) would be “I stroked the-arm-that-is-part-of-her”.
However self-conscious a writer is of their own episteme (and existential philosophers are painfully self-aware), it is impossible to fully escape. Thus, whilst the internet might provide an escape from certain power mechanisms and control centres, from the government watch-towers or Ayatollahs’ fatwas, this represents only a change. New powers, new controls. An altered episteme, depending on your online activity and exposure. Your new altar is free speech. The guardsmen are those who read your Jimi Hendrix: Greatest Hits album review, who uploaded the XXX HORSE ANAL XXX you subtly watched on the train, even those on the internet with whom you have never interacted, but might. And you are their watchman, too. Your new episteme is in place, more subtle than Pink Floyd’s irate schoolmaster or the knightly Norman thug, but more sinister in its discretion.
For Foucault, the ‘Medical Gaze’ was a great expression of power. He described psychiatrists assessing mental patients with this gaze, treating a human being not as a person but as a scientific object, a collection of readings and figures to be noted and understood in a manner inconceivable to the subject. The gaze is a general government tool – your birth records, tax code, address, exam results (even the fact you took them, and where, and when) combine to instil in bureaucracy what the Frenchman termed ‘knowledge-power’. That little hyphen demonstrates his belief that the two concepts are entwined, inseparable. Power exists as a feature of everyday life, and depends on superior knowledge – that you might talk down to your lessers, exploit others’ secrets, appear in authority or backhand your disobedient wife all requires a confidence in knowing.
Whilst the internet user’s submission of countless droplets of knowledge-power might seem obvious, the fertile depths that same user might plunder are considerably more destabilising to our episteme. Before the internet, knowledge was the province of the Establishment, and the elite used it in control – of curricula, of historical narratives, of media reporting. One need only glance at the research of the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm to see the depth of this power – how, for example, at the turn of the 20th century a Scottish identity was fabricated for nationalist purposes, complete with its own tartan, bagpipes, poetry and haggis. We see it in Israel’s existence, in American exceptionalism, in Nick Griffin’s soliloquies regarding ‘indigenous British’.
Revolutionaries knew the vitality of controlling knowledge. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Communist, wrote from prison that a revolution could not be completed by force of arms alone. He saw Lenin’s Russia as a failure – the Bolsheviks controlled the state, but the Russian people were confused, unconvinced or outright hostile to collectivist ideals, and through foot-dragging, wrongthink and minor resistances, made pure Communism unworkable. Gramsci advocated a ‘war of manoeuvre’ before any coup – the manoeuvres must overwhelm and replace the intelligentsia, for it was the intelligentsia who led a populace in cherishing capitalism and spurning its alternatives. He called for revolutions of the mind before storming the Winter Palace.
Gramsci could not begin to achieve this. Despite memorable examples of upper-class communism such as the Cambridge Five, it remained a working-class movement, and the then-prevalent power structure excluded the aspirant class from traditional academia. State education perpetuates the structure, but the internet undoes all this. I’m reminded of Matt Damon in the film Good Will Hunting. Arguing with a pretentious yuppie undergraduate, Damon points out,
“The sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna…come up with the fact that…you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fucking education your could’ve got for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library.”
The internet is the largest, freest public library. And more to the point, internet users respect learning regardless of diplomas, degree-certificates and plummy accents. Now anyone can learn about French philosophers and Italian dissidents. Now anyone can report the news – tweeting from the middle of a riot, snapping shots of a drunk minister, or, better, comparing traditional and novel information streams to analyse how the mainstream media is skewing their story.
Take the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. The Western media reported the consulate attack as a violent flare in Libyan protests against the inflammatory film, The Innocence of Muslims. They claimed protesters fired a rogue RPG and that Stevens died after a smoke inhalation-induced heart attack. But organic reports and photos emerged almost simultaneously, showing Stevens surrounded by a faceless mob, being beaten. Some of the lynchers’ bore “Islamist” insignia, although without explicit Al-Qaeda affiliation.
As this alternative story bruised the internet’s awareness, mainstream channels such as Fox changed their story. This was not a mob demonstration gone wrong; the consulate had foreseen a planned attack and begged the White House for reinforcements. America’s right wing seized the story, embellishing the Islamist and planned aspects until the event was a long-premeditated Al-Qaeda assassination, and one Obama should have prevented.
Despite evidence of Stevens being tortured and his corpse paraded, the photos were counter-intuitively reinterpreted as proof that some Libyans had tried to carry him to hospital. The mob-angle remained excluded from the mainstream, and its proponents were labelled conspiracy theorists or crackpots. However, given the online attention the unofficial version received, Mitt Romney’s attacks on Obama’s leadership during the Presidential campaigns were confused and eventually muted.
The internet’s impact on research and discourse reaches far beyond specific high-political quibbles. The Benghazi narrative represents a much wider wrestling-match (or siege?) for knowledge-power control. The internet pits the Twentieth Century episteme – a narrow capitalism, loosely Abrahamic ethics – against everything else. Whether it be the politics of Wikileaks or the alien metaphysics of Hung poetry, we have access to the alternatives. All of them. Take homosexual marriage. Now, through a thousand debates and a million conversations, surfers are taking gay marriage’s justification (autonomy, informed consent and no harm) to its logical conclusion – that polygamy and non-coercive incest might be ‘moral’ too. Or simply, that ‘moral’ is an outmoded concept.
This isn’t just a challenge to the prevalent episteme, but to the traditional development of civilization itself. History has until now been a succession of aeon-length epistemes, each gradually changing with the mores of monarchs: the internet is swift and without a guide. Internet users are legions of impressionable Alices, and each may be jerked down unique rabbit-holes. The unprecedented waterfall of information they have, seen through all their eyes, means we Alices will forge multiple, various, mutating and idiosyncratic pantheons. We are potentially on the brink, not of a new human ‘chapter’, but of a new book. An e-book. How reassuring.
Imagine an old spider, manipulating his vast web, contemplating that silken stickiness through rows and rows of black eyes. The Establishment’s eyes are on the money. And the flies are rebelling.
The digital network offers benefits to business – new grounds for marketing and sale, better models for targeting, clearer metrics for viral advert consumption and return-on-investment. However, the knowledge-power still shifts towards the consumer. The consumer can compare products, prices and reviews across the globe. The anonymous spectre of hackers, who can and have broken into the CIA website, equally threaten bank and corporation security. Online drug-dealers have literally invented a floating currency, the BitCoin, which allows untaxed, untracked trade of narcotics across the globe. Equally damning, is the downloadable sword that cleaves one taut monopoly hamstring. Entertainment is now free. With minimum risk or effort, a hapless user can gather music, films, video games, computer programmes and literature. In stark economic terms this only affects certain markets, but that’s beside the point – the web’s something-for-nothing opportunity undermines the basic requirements of capitalism, and everyone, producer and consumer, can see it.
The arachnid’s reaction resembles Plato’s sophist, or the protagonist of the 1970 satire The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. Give the majority what they want!
The internet allows government and industry never-before-possible access to public mood, inclination and passion. What sells, what is popular, is produced anew. As internet-capable devices become integral to our self-image they’re rolled out ever faster, simpler, shiner. They’re exported to the developing world, laying seeds on the periphery of the many-eyed spider’s gaze.
Cognitive Bias psychology suggests that new information or arguments seldom convince people to change their political convictions – indeed, ‘neutral’ information can polarise opposites. Bowing to this truth, parties move ever closer to the mainstream. Cameron and Brown famously “agree with Nick” and the BBC’s live-public-opinion-snake jerks pleasantly; Romney and Obama make the same promises in superficially different manners. The only interesting flares in the US elections were the non-mainstream comments made by certain Republicans concerning rape and reproduction. Pundits are now blaming them for monster-Mitt’s defeat. Awwh.
Recognising the internet’s challenge, Western governments move to regain initiative. Under the (probably genuine) counter-terrorism auspices, Bush’s PATRIOT Act allows access to emails and ISP information without warrant or notification. Theresa May has proposed a snoopy Communications Bill, rejecting Identity Cards. Controlling the body no longer matters.
These are gross examples of prodding the stable’s door shut long after its occupant has galloped to Hitchin and is munching on my grandmother’s daffodils. E-surveillance will only add a few MI5/FBI eyes among the thousands already watching. Measures might stop the odd bomb-plot, but are powerless to limit idea-consumption, legal communication, or (most) illegal activity. Governments are simply overwhelmed
Who’s really in control, then?
It’s the whizzkids. It’s those who design and run the internet, the forerunners of technology. They are the new kings and princes, each with their own little fief – Larry Page controls the Google Archipelago and its many tentacles; Jimmy Wales opens Wikipedia’s laissez-faire borders; Mark Zuckerberg, the unknown quantity of Facebook; the Twitter oligarchy, tied up to Blogger and Youtube.
But as the episteme mutates, so too their power. These princes do not dominate through the moral directives of religion or a Weberian monopoly over force. They have no conscious authority, no submission, subjugation or obedience. All they control, for now, are the popular rabbit-holes of the virtual warren, and only while these holes remain popular can they continue to softly, softly delineate the limits of online action. They can adapt their fiefs as best they can to what the Alices want, and continue to ride the snorting beast of public passion. But, just as Instagram was bought, Myspace was ignored and Spotify outpriced, the spider aristocracy know that their power is vulnerable to some spotty start-up’s superior technology. If information overload represents the death of the Western episteme, the end of true monitoring, constraint or discipline, then the guardsman must shiver when he stares out from the summit of his digital tower.
His castles are made of sand.