Eternal September // @A_MAZE_Festival

Last month was a long and busy month that started in Canada and ended in South Africa.

Along the way, SecuShare’s {1} Daniel Reusche and I agitated for decentralized social platfors at Berlin’s Campus Party {2}, I presented the first Octo demo {3} at the latest reSource transmedial culture {4} event with Jeff Mann, Jonas Frankki and Baruch Gottlieb, also, Baruch, Jonas and I built the Miscommuniction Station {4} as an online project of the Abandon Normal Devices Festival.

Finally, Baruch and I traveled to the A MAZE / INTERACT festival {5} to present and represent iMine {6} and R15N {7}.

Now I’m back in Berlin and looking forward to tonight’s Stammtisch. And it’s September.

Tuesday, Septemeber 6944, 1993 to be exact {8}.

6944 days, or 19 years and 9 days after the Eternal September began.

A MAZE was fantastic, and the Braamfontein district of Johannesburg where the festival took place was an incredible place, not only to enjoy a great party in a really unbelievable community, but also to reflect on where we are now, nearly twenty years since the commercialization of the internet began to deliver a year-round flow of “newbies” to the Internet 1.0 that nobody yet called “the web”.

The Jargon File defines “The September that never ends” as “All time since September 1993. One of the seasonal rhythms of the Usenet used to be the annual September influx of clueless newbies who, lacking any sense of netiquette, made a general nuisance of themselves. This coincided with people starting college, getting their first internet accounts, and plunging in without bothering to learn what was acceptable. These relatively small drafts of newbies could be assimilated within a few months. But in September 1993, AOL users became able to post to Usenet, nearly overwhelming the old-timers’ capacity to acculturate them; to those who nostalgically recall the period before, this triggered an inexorable decline in the quality of discussions on newsgroups. Syn. eternal September.”

Once the internet was available to the general public, outside of the research/education/ngo world that had inhabited before September, the large numbers of users arriving on the untamed shores of early cyberspace “nearly overwhelmed the old-timers’ capacity to acculturate them.”

Even in Africa, you’d have to go pretty far out of your way to find a community where it’s not September yet. Internet access is certainly not as ubiquitous, reliable or fast as it is it “the West,” but the African people do use the Internet, and are part of its culture.

The Jargon File mentions “Netiquette,” a quaint term from the innocent times of net.culture, yet Netiquette was not simply a way of fitting in like table manners at an exclusive dinner party. The cultural context of that Internet that made acculturation necessary was it’s relative openness and lack of stratification.

Netiquette was required, because the network had relatively little constraints built into it, the constraints needed to be cultural for the system to work. There was much more to this culture than teaching new users how to not abuse resources or make a “general nuisance of themselves.” Nettiquette was not so much about online manners, it was rather about how to share. Starting from the shared network resources, sharing was the core of the culture, which not only embraced free software and promoted free communications, but generally resented barriers to free exchange, including barriers required to protect property rights and any business models based on controlling information flow.

As dramatic as the influx of new users was to the “old-timers” net.culture, the influx of capital investment and it’s conflicting property interests quickly emerged as an existential threat the basis of the culture. Net.culture required a shared internet, where the network itself and most of the information on it was held in common. Capital required control, constraints and defined property in order to earn returns on investment. Lines in the sand where drawn, the primitive communism of the pre-September Internet was over. The Eternal September began, and along with it, the stratification of the internet began.

Rather than embracing the free, open, platforms where net.culture was born, like Usenet, EMail, IRC, etc, Capital embraced the Web. Not as the interlinked, hypermedia, world-wide-distributed publishing platform it was intended to be, but as a client-server private communications platform where users’ interactions where mediated by the platforms’ operators. The flowering of “Web 2.0” was Capital’s re-engineering of the web into an internet accessible version of the online services they where building all along, such as the very platforms whose mass user bases where the influx that started the Eternal September. CompuServ and AOL most notable among them.

The Eternal September started when these Online Services allowed their users to access Internet services such as Usenet and EMail, Web 2.0 instead replaced Usenet and EMail with social platforms embedded in private, centralized web-based services that look and work very much like the old Online Services.

Scratch-off the Facebook logo, and you’ll find the AOL logo underneath.

The internet is no longer a open free-for-all where old-timers acculturate new-comers into a community of co-operation and sharing. It is a stratified place where privileged users have preferential access, including broadband at-home, servers online, users who can control there own “domain,” can run their own mail and web services and access the internet as a whole, including the old platforms such as Usenet and IRC. New users, who may have broadband at home, but have no services and need to use online services like facebook or gmail to communicate at all, subject to the terms of use of those companies. Users who have no broadband at home, and rely on internet cafes and libraries. And at the lowest tier, Users who can only access the mobile internet, on locked-down iPhones and other smart phones, where apps stores control the available apps users can us, and the apps tightly control the users that use them. And of course, each bit of data is paid for from the users’ precious mobile airtime.

As the African people finally cross the digital divide, the once-vibrant cyberspace they arrive in has already been colonized, enclosed and captured by the profit motive. The culture of sharing and co-operation destroyed by the terms of service of online platforms, by copyright lobies pushing for greater and greater restrictions and by governments that create legislation to protect the interests of property and “security” against the interests of sharing.

The culture of co-operation and sharing has been replaced by a culture of surveillance and control.

We once believed that perhaps getting the Africans onto our Internet would help them in their struggles, now perhaps we can hope their capacity for struggle will allow us to find ways to make the Internet a transformational force again. Yet, like the urban centers of cities like Johannesburg, once access is finally won, the centers have been abandoned. The common squares and open markets have already been deserted in favour of protected suburbs and gated communities. Access is allowed not to extend freedom and welcome, but to facilitate exploitation.

If the modern Internet can’t be the liberating force early net.culture believed it could be, maybe we can hope that as the African people come online, their experience in working within environments where inequality, repressions and privilege rule will bring a transformational consciousness to us. They might be our last hope.

If you’re in Berlin this evening, join us at Cafe Buchhandling {9}, while we reminisce and reflect on the unforgettable experience we had in Johannesburg at AMAZE / INTERACT. I’ll be there around 9pm.


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