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

During the summer I traveled to the Monostori Fortress near Komárom, Hungary to attend IslandCQ 2013 “Crisis! Re/Constructing Europe.” This text is for the IslandCQ 2013 publication. Rather than simply transcribing my presentation, I have created this text to cover some of things we talked about, and to expand upon them and take the topic further. This text is a remix and extension of three previous texts, two from my blog, and one co-written with Baruch Gottlieb.

Remixing and forking both software and text is an approach I have used for years, and indeed most of my texts contain fragments of other texts, some of which I have written myself, some co-written with others. I inherited this technique from the long history of radical art, from practitioners of cut-up, like Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, to Dada and The Situationists International, and into my own generation with the Neoist Network.

The Internet and free software, to me, were a natural extension of my already existing support of free communications and anti-copyright. When I encountered the Internet for the first time I immediately embraced it, its distributed architecture, its capacity for allowing free speech, and perhaps most significantly, its culture of sharing. The Internet embodied the social relations to match my political and artistic convictions.

However, when I encountered the Internet, though I didn’t know it, it was already dying. It was clear to me that there were challenges, to be sure, but I didn’t yet realize how bad the prognosis was. To me, my fight to save the Internet was against the cencorius desires of other users and the timidity of the small companies providing internet services. This was a fight that seemed winnable. However, what I didn’t know at the time, was that the real fight was against Capitalism, and as such, the inevitable end of the Internet was already evident.

A good example of my early participation is a text I posted on Usenet, it was republished on Wired Magazine’s HotWired site, which claimed to be the world’s first commercial web magazine. In it, I argue that sysadmins working for internet service providers should focus on keeping their servers running, and sanction users that are abusing system resources, but not interfere with content, because if they did so, if they assumed the role of online censor, they would jeopardise the spirit of the Net, and also jeopardise the viability of their own service.

In some way I was right, assuming the Net worked the way we thought it worked, worked the way that John Perry Barlow thought when he wrote “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” or the way John Gilmore thought when he wrote “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” or the way Richard Barbrook thought when he wrote “Within the Net, people are developing the most advanced form of collective labour: work-as-gift.”

Unfortunately, I wrote my article in September. The 790th day of September, 1993, to be exact. What would have been October 31st, 1995 on the pre-September calendar.

The Jargon File defines “The September that never ends” as “All time since September 1993. One of the seasonal rhythms of 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.”

Once the internet was available to the general public, outside of the research/education/NGO world that had inhabited it before September, the large numbers of users arriving on the untamed shores of early cyberspace “nearly overwhelmed the old-timers’ capacity to acculturate them.” 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, it wasn’t like table manners at an exclusive dinner party. The cultural context of that Internet that made acculturation necessary was its 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.” Netiquette 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 to 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 were 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 were 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 were building all along, such as the very platforms whose mass user bases were 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 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 CompuServ logo underneath.

The Internet is no longer an open free-for-all where old-timers acculturate new-comers into a community of co-operation and sharing. It is a stratified place where the culture of sharing and co-operation has been destroyed by the terms of service of online platforms and by copyright lobbies 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.

Much later that September, the 6,820th day of September, 1993, to be exact, I gave a talk with Jacob Appelbaum at the 6th annual Re:publica conference in Berlin. In part, I responded to the earlier presentation by Eben Moglen, the brilliant and tireless legal council of the Free Sofare Foundation and founder of the FreedomBox Foundation, who gave a characteristically excellent speech. However, in it was something that just couldn’t be right.

Moglen claimed that Facebook’s days as a dominant platform are numbered, because we will soon have decentralized social platforms, based on projects such as FreedomBox, users will operate collective social platforms based on their own hardware, retain control of their own data, etc. The trajectory that Moglen is using has centralized social media as the starting point and distributed social media as the place we are moving toward. But in actual fact, this transformation had already occured very long ago.

During the twilight of the CompuServ era, both personal and commercial users migrated en masse to the Internet. For instance, in a letter to their customers that is still available online the software company BASIS international, “The Big Little Software Company,” writes: “BASIS plans to move completely off CompuServe (CSi) and onto the Internet. This is a logical consequence of the many changes that have taken place in the online world over the past few years.”

In their letter, BASIS spells out a lot of these changes: “While our CSi presence has served the company well in the past, its pay-to-access structure is increasingly harder to justify with the Internet providing almost limitless content at a negligible incremental cost. People are moving away from CSi in significant numbers, making it a less effective platform from which to address our current and future customers. We believe that moving our existing support infrastructure from CSi to the Internet will give us better access to our customers and our customers better access to us.”

It goes on to explain how it will now use open platforms like email, Usenet and IRC instead of CompuServ’s proprietary and centralised applications. This letter was published around the same time HotWired reposted my Usenet article.

Contrary to Moglen’s trajectory of social media, the fact is that we already had distributed social media, we already abandoned the centrally controlled platforms such as CompuServ and AOL, and moved to the Internet, and despite this, our decentralized platforms have since been replaced, once again, with centralized social media. Why? Because Capitalism.

The Internet is a distributed social media platform. The classic internet platforms that existed before the commercialization of the web provided all the features of modern social media monopolies. Platforms like Usenet, email, IRC and finger allowed us to do everything we do now with Facebook and friends. We could post status updates, share pictures, send messages, etc. Yet, these platforms have been more or less abandoned. So the question we need to address is not so much how we can invent a distributed social platform, but how and why we started from a fully distributed social platform and replaced it with centralized social media monopolies.

The answer is quite simple. The early internet was not significantly capitalist funded. The change in application topology came along with commercialization, and this change is a consequence of the business models required by capitalist investors to capture profit. The business model of social media platforms is surveillance and behavioral control. The internet’s original protocols and architecture made surveillance and behavioral control more difficult. Once capital became the dominant source of financing it directed investment toward centralized platforms, which are better at providing such surveillance and control, the original platforms were starved of financing. The centralized platforms grew and the decentralized platforms submerged beneath the rising tides of the capitalist web.

This is nothing new. This was the same business model that capital devised for media in general, such as network television. The customer of network television is not the viewer, rather the viewer is the product, the “audience commodity.” The real customers are the advertisers and lobby groups wanting to control the audience.

Network Television didn’t provide the surveillance part, so advertisers needed to employ market research and ratings firms such as Nielson for that bit. This was a major advantage of social media. Richer data from better surveillance allowed for more effective behavioral control than ever before, using tracking, targeting, machine learning, behavioral retargeting, among many techniques made possible by the deep pool of data companies like Facebook and Google have available.

This is not a choice that capitalists made, this is the only way that profit-driven organizations can provide a public good like a communication platform. Capitalist investors must capture profit or lose their capital. If their platforms can not capture profit, they vanish. The obstacle to decentralized social media is not that it has not been invented, but the profit-motive itself. Thus to reverse this trajectory back towards decentralization, requires not so much technical initiative, but political struggle.

So long as we maintain the social choice to provision our communication systems according to the profit motive, we will only get communications platforms that allow for the capture of profit. Free, open systems, that neither surveil, nor control, nor exclude, will not be funded, as they do not provide the mechanisms required to capture profit. These platforms are financed for the purpose of watching people and pushing them to behave in ways that benefit the operators of the platform and their real customers, the advertisers, and the industrial and political lobbies. The platforms exists to shape society according to the interests of these advertisers and lobbies.

Platforms like Facebook are worth billions precisely because of their capacity for surveillance and control.

Like the struggle for other public goods, like education, child care, and health care, free communication platforms for the masses can only come from collective political struggle to achieve such platforms.

This is a political struggle, not a technical one.

One comment

  1. Rahul Varshney

    What if the basis of every network was a mutual insurance cooperative corporation? The gap between the “pure” (for-profit/commercial) capitalism that is the net today and the net you envision is the cooperative. Cooperatives still earn profit, but the profit goes back to the members of the cooperative.

    Shouldn’t each community own its own network and determine the rules themselves? This gets us out of the trap of a centrally planned net, and frees the net once and for all.

    Many many mutuals/coops creating many many nets, and those that are mutually aligned will naturally band together.

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