Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is the internet a truly democratizing technology?

Boring title I know. However, I believe this is an extremely important discussion to have. Are technologies political things? Many people claim that the internet has radically changed things. That through the internet now all sorts of political activities can happen. Things are freer and more open. Is this true? Is this a result of technology? Does this technology have to be democratizing? I'm going to argue that while there are political implications of many technologies, there are other factors to considered when talking like this.

Can a road have political implications? Most people would argue that, no it's a road, you use it to get from point A to point B, or just for fun. Well, what if you have to use public transportation and some one designed a bridge so that the bus couldn't go over it? Would it be political then, or would the person who designed it be instilling political capabilities into a technologies? I would say in this case, the technology was used to prevent the lower class from reaching a nicer area in New York. A designer named Robert Moses designed many bridges for NYC from 1920-1970 that prevented exactly this type of traffic from occurring (Winner, 1986).

Other cases include using assembly lines to control how workers work and the steam engine to force people to work at a steady pace, or a takt time. Other technologies such as an automated tomato picker forced a lot of other changes in California. For instance it laid off workers, forced small farms to combine into larger farms to use the technology, which drove down the cost of tomatoes which big farms were taking advantage of, and also changed the tomato itself. It actually forced the development of a harder tomato so it could survive the automated picking. Which really pissed people off.

Ok, but we're in the age of the internet. Big deal, what's your point with all these old technologies? Arab Spring. Protesters were able to rally using the internet. The US government created these things called suitcase internet This allows users to create a mesh network and connect to websites so users are able to get around the walls that governments put into place. Wikileaks is another source of political technology. Sure, it's just a site where you can upload files, but you could say that anything is just a site. The point is that there are norms and expectations around Wikileaks that allows some one to feel secure if they leak something to.

Additionally, governments are starting to and continuing to control the internet and how it is used. Eric Schmidt, of Google, is worried that this sort of governmental control is only going to increase. Hacktivists such as Lulz Sec and Anonymous are only going to increase the likelihood of this. The US government itself has a conflicting approach to hackers. In the cases where these hackers are going after groups that are not within the US or not the US government, the State Department has been extremely supportive. However, as soon as these groups change focus to the US, they are declared terrorists groups, or something close, which much be destroyed. NATO recently declared much the same thing.

We are in the beginning of a struggle over the future of the internet. Hacking groups are standing up for regular users and attempting to change the direction of governments. There have been a few successes coming from unexpected locations. This op-ed has some of them. The TL;DR of the article is that the UN lambasted some of the UK's laws, and that an Australian ISP backed out of a filtering agreement with the Government.

Clearly there are many different uses for the internet. These uses can be good and bad. However, these uses have political ramifications. The choice to hack, the choice to be social on the internet, and the choice to educate yourself all impact how the future of the internet goes. I don't support hacking. However, it is forcing transparency and increasing awareness of people both in and out of cyber space, what is actually going on in the Interwebs.

Also, the UN declared the three-strike laws for copyright, where if you get caught three times you lose internet for life, to be a violation of human rights.

Winner, L. (1980) "Do Artifacts have Politics?" Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1: https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/download/attachments/75695134/Langdon+Winner+Artifacts+and+Politics.pdf

Soft War: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504943_162-20073030-10391715.html

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