Here’s an insightful excerpt from an essay written by Wu Ming 1 of the Wu Ming Foundation on the techno-fetishism that still prevails in the public discourse about the Internet today. This fetishism is what often keeps us from perceiving the power structures that are built into the infrastructure of the net and can lead to a dangerously naive view of corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple, like we recently saw in the aftermath of the death of Steve Jobs.
“Whenever we talk about the Internet, the “mythological machine” in our discourses — powered by the ideology that we breathe every day, wheater we like it or not — reproduces a myth: the idea of technology as an autonomous force, a subject with its own spirit, a reality that evolves on its own, spontaneously and teleologically. Somebody even had the great idea of nominating the internet (which, just like any other infrastructure and network, can be used for everypurpose, including war) for the Nobel Prize for Peace. This rhetoric conceals class, property, and production relations: we can only see their fetishes. Here’s why the pages Karl Marx devoted to commodity fetishism are still useful (my italics):
«There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.»
“Fantastic form of a relation between things”. Like the computers interconnected to form the web. Behind the phantasmagory of the Internet lies a set of definite social relations, and Marx means production relations, exploitation relations.
The net rhetoric hides these relations. It is indeed possible to talk about the Internet for hours, days, months, touching only marginally the issue of who owns it, who is really in control of the nodes, the infrastructure, the hardware. The pyramid of labour — including slave-like labour — incorporated into the devices we use (computers, smartphones, ereaders etc.) and as a consequence into the Internet itself, is even less discussed. Eveyday, corporations expropriate social wealth on the net, and oppress the working class at each corner of the Earth behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they are considered less “corporate” than others. Until we realize that Apple is like Monsanto, that Google is like Novartis, that praising a corporation is the most toxic narrative we can choose, wheather we are dealing with Google, Fiat, Facebook, Disney or Nestlé—-until we realize all this, we will stay in the net like fish.
Because of net-fetishism, the spotlight is always on the practices of liberationpervading the Internet — ie the kind of practices we Wu Ming have put time and effort into for twenty years —, which are customarily described as the rule. In this way, people dismiss as exceptions all the practices of subjugation , eg using the net to exploit or underpay intellectual work, to control and arrest people (see what happened after the recent UK riots), to impose new idols and fetishes, to spread the dominant ideology, to enforce the same financial capitalism that’s destroying us. On the net, the practices of subjugation are the rule as much as the others. In fact, if we want to nitpick, we should consider them the rule more than the others, if we take into account the genesis of the internet, which evolved from ARPAnet, a military computer network.
The question is not wheather the net produces liberation or subjugation: since its creation, it has always been producing both things. That’s the net’s dialectics, one aspect is always together with the other, because the net is the form capitalism has taken nowadays, and capitalism itself is the contraddiction in process. Capitalism developed itself by setting individuals free from the old feudal bonds, and at the same time by imposing new kinds of subjugation (to the controlled time of the factory, to the production of surplus value etc.) Under capitalism,everything works like this: consumption sets free and enslaves, it brings about liberation that is also new subjugation, and the cycle starts over on a higher level.
Therefore, the struggle should consist in fostering practices of liberation to be played against the practices of subjugation. This can be done only if we stop considering technology as an autonomous force and realize that it is moulded and driven by property relations, power relations, and production relations. If technology could develop outside of these relations, thanks only to its being innovative, the steam engine would have been adopted in the 1st century AD, when Heron of Alexandriainvented the aeolipile—-but the antique mode of production did not need machines, since all the necessary workforce was provided by slaves, and nobody could or wanted to imagine any concrete development of that invention.
By fetishising technology as an autonomous force, we remain trapped within the old conceptual frame “Apocalyptic vs. Integrated”. If you make the slightest critical remark about the net, the “Integrated” will mistake you for an “Apocalyptic”, and will accuse you of incoherence and/or obscurantism. The former accusation resounds in such phrases as: ‘Aren’t you using a computer right now?’, ‘Don’t you buy books on Amazon too?’, ‘You own a smartphone too!’, and so on. The latter is expressed in the form of such useless preaches as: ‘Try to picture a world without the Internet…’ On the other hand, any argument about the positive aspects of the net will be welcomed by the “Apocalyptic” as a piece of servile, “Integrated” propaganda. Let us always remember Heron of Alexandria. His story teaches us that, whenever we talk about technology (and about the Internet in particular), we are actually talking about something else, ie social relations.
Let us ask again then: who are the bosses of the net? And who are the exploited of the Net, and by the Net?
It is not that difficult to find out: it suffices to read the “Terms of service” of the social media you’re using, read the licenses of the software you keep on your computer, digit “Net Neutrality” on a search engine—-and, dulcis in fundo, keep in mind stories like those of Amazon’s warehouses and Foxconn’s factories. Only in this way, I believe, we will avoid such bullshit as the “Internet for peace” campaign or the horrible, “softly” totalitarian scenario prefigured in Casaleggio & Associati‘s infamous video Gaia: The Future of Politics.
Let us not deceive ourselves: only violent conflicts will decide whether the evolution of the net will impose the supremacy of the practices of liberation over those of subjugation, or the other way around.”