Originally published in 21C, 1997
The global Internet’s awash with email lists, chats, and online conferences for discussion of governance and what goes with it: the politics of issues and of personalities, trad partisan thrashes, visionary thrusts (e.g. Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace), theoretical rants and practical spins. But is this all just talk talk talk? Or do we see action emerging from this hash?
So far no distinct political FORCE or suite of positions has emerged (unless you take seriously the dreamy anarchy of technolibertarians, who thrash about many issues but always return to one, taxation-as-theft). Though dedicated political activists increasingly use the Internet to build organizations and share information, and a growing number of orgs and individual users are finding ways to leverage net access, net.activism has found success on a limited playing field, where the issues are mainly Constitutional (First and Fourth Amendment issues, censorship, search and siezure): issues that can be supported as absolute values requiring no partisan wrangling. The movement, as it stands today, is a RIGHTS movement, without regard to the messier political questions of welfare and healthcare, environment, defense, taxation, etc.
Contemporary politics has a forest-for-trees relationship with technology; in fact, the politics of a postindustrial society is itself a technology for organizing and managing those messy piles of unique, increasingly opinionated individual products of universal education and the global media wash. Though elsewhere (third world) dictators, unrefined jerks, still rule with brute force and terror, they’re like relics, fading from the scene as the postindustrial postmodern wash pumps through media pipes worldwide.
What happens when you funnel information into a culture where force and coercion were the key determinants of power? Force is an external, but information, education and democratization work to internalize control, making the individual responsive to sophisticated forms of communication (sign the social contract, then read the daily updates). This is a reality of the cybernetic world: "they put the control inside!" as a character in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow says. Cybernetics is the science of communication and control theory, and there’s a clear theoretical link between ‘cyber’ and ‘polis’ that predates the age of ‘a Pentium in every pot, a web in every Pentium.’ Broadcast media (a prototype cyberactive technology) changed the face of politics in the era following WWII; during the war Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill made especially effective use of radio as propaganda tool, and the concept of ‘news’ was redefined by folks like Ed Murrow and his ‘boys.’ What does news/propaganda/agitprop do but pipe suggestive memes into the heads of individuals with the expectation that the distribution of information will change the power equation big time. The mob reads the handwriting on the virtual wall, and opposes the dictator, whose machinations, once exposed, lose their mojo.
Once you’ve flattened those hierarchies, though, propaganda mode can backfire as manipulation of information replaces brute force as the source of power. After WWII broadcasting and politics coevolved, producing today’s carefully managed media circus that dilutes information with showbiz glitz and leaves a cynical populace and an ever-widening credibility gap. The average high school graduate has more facts and more cognitive skill than the best and brightest of a century ago, and broadcasting’s morphed into narrowcasting and, with the Internet, many-to-many communications that defy control by propagandists. Those who get their information from the Internet have a vastly different (though not necessarily more accurate) picture of the world than those who read newspapers or watch television, or even those who listen to NPR everyday while driving to and from work.
Originally a defense network, then used to support research and development, the Internet was no household word when the first seeds of net.activism were planted in the late 1980s, when a few adolescent "hackers" let their digital explorations carry them to the point of intrusion, just to show that they could do it. Once they’d hacked into a system, they would grab a ‘trophy’ and show it to their friends and rivals, which meant emailing it across various systems.
Just such an incident led to the creation of the seminal online activist organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). John Perry Barlow was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and regular participant in discussions on the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), the BBS on which the concept of virtual community was formed and tested. He had links to the hacker community which led the FBI to question him about the theft of Apple Computer proprietary software by the NuPrometheus League. It was clear to Barlow that the FBI did not understand enough about the technology of computer networks to distinguish prank intrusion for criminal espionage, and this concerned him. Flash! Cyberspace is an electronic frontier, unsettled, poorly understood by those who don’t ‘live’ there. When the powerful misunderstand, great harm can result. Barlow talked this through with Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, and activist/entrepreneur John Gilmore, and EFF was born from those talks. Initially misunderstood as a "hacker defense fund," EFF grew through three major iterations. First, as grassroots activist org, with Kapor and then Cliff Figallo at the helm. (No time to explore the implications here, but consider that Figallo, a communitarian from Stephen Gaskin’s farm, had been director of the WELL, a true fountainhead of the virtual community concept, a conferencing system formed originally by Steward Brand and the Whole Earth bunch, virtual home of Bay Area deadheads, with whom Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, had clear affinity.) Grassroots EFF morphed as a Washington, DC wing was added, with former ACLU activist Jerry Berman at the helm; for a time EFF tried to accommodate two approaches to activism, the grassroots model, from their Cambridge office, and the Washington lobby model, from their D.C. office, with some hope that the two could derive strength from each other. However at a facilitated retreat in 1992, just before a meeting in Atlanta with potential EFF chapters, the group decided to focus on lobbying, legal work, and building industry coalitions. The organization would drop the grassroots aspect of the organization and close the Cambridge office.
The DC/Beltway version of EFF lasted until, in 1994, financial and personnel problems, along with flak from the activist community over support for compromise Digital Telephony legislation, led to a split. Jerry Berman formed his own Center for Democracy and Technology; EFF moved to the Bay Area and continues to work effectively as an activist organization, considering a possible return to grassroots development, but focusing primarily on development of a Silicon Valley pro-user response on issues of privacy, access, free expression, etc. This is market-oriented political activism: convincing the Silicon Valley companies that their markets depend on a free and open cyberspace.
From EFF’s influence several influential cyberactivist groups have emerged. "Electronic Frontiers" groups span the globe: EFF-Austin, EF-Australia, EF-Canada, EF-Florida, EF-Georgia, EF-Houston, EF-Ireland, EF-Italy, EF-Japan, EF-KIO (Kentucky, Indiana, Idaho), EF-New Hampshire, EF-Norway, and EF-Spain, in addition to CDT and its spinoff, CIEC (the Citizens’ Internet Empowerment Coalition), VTW (Voters Telecommunication Watch), and New York’s SEA (Society for Electronic Access), which was originally named NTE for "Not the EFF."
Online activists focus on issues like censorship, privacy, encryption, intellectual property, and universal net access, i.e. issues associated with transmission and protection of, and access to, information. Organizations and coalitions emerge ad hoc from hot issues of the moment, though momentum’s not always sustained as issues lose their sense of urgency, e.g. activist energies diminished after Steve Jackson won a decision against the government, and after the Communications Decency Act was overturned by a lower court in Philadelphia. However activists still don’t focus on the partisan model to build support. Rather than constructing elaborate philosophies and platforms, cyberactivists build networks, replacing belief systems with cycles of information and opinion.
Given the brief of the history of net.activism, it’s hard to draw conclusions about potential long-term efficacy and feasibility of a broader appeal. Consider the barriers to entry, not only for the activists themselves, but for their constituents. Moving to the Internet with a sense of purpose requires a commitment of money (for the technology) and time (for the learning curve and ongoing maintenance of the information flow). "Netizens" are inherently members of an elite group, well educated, with discretionary money and discretionary time. Some have decent incomes, others are students with decent potential incomes…but it’s not a large group, compared to traditional political parties. Traditional politicians don’t get the smell of cash from the Internet just yet, and many of the issues of relevance to net activists are considered fringe issues. Cyberactivists have yet to establish focused and well-financed (i.e. "real") political clout, and have been unable to influence legislative initiatives in major ways.**
**But what we call ‘technopolitics’ or "net activism" is not about politics as usual and not a short-term blip on the radar of political evolution. A focus on core civil liberties issues narrows the scope of netizen activity so that consensus is possible among those with diverse political positions. On the net.politics scene we see broad-based coalitions formed ad hoc with minimal partisan wrangling and little reference to any particular agenda other than constitutional integrity.**
When Senator Jim Exon and friends proposed a bill to squelch ‘indecent’ speech on the Internet, opposition to the bill was initially unfocused, but had the advantage of established paths through electronic networks to spread the word, the warning, of Exon’s proposal. Activists thought the bill was dead ’til it was glommed onto the Omnibus Telecommunications Act as a rider, a political trick that called for quick response. Shabbir Safdar and Steven Cherry of Voters Telecommunication Watch organized an online campaign with just the focus and energy that urgent issues demand. CDT and EFF joined in, too. They didn’t succeed in blocking passage of the CDA, but the thousands of phone calls and letters to legislators that resulted from VTW’s bulletins led to some revisions, and psyched the ACLU and other opponents of the bill, leading to a court challenge fought successfully by a coalition of activists and civil liberties organizations. The bill was overturned, but that decision’s been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, as Mike Godwin noted, the findings of fact in the lower court decision, informed as it was by highly effective opposition arguments (assembled with substantial online support), make it difficult for the Supreme Court to reverse.
When VTW emailed bulletins to its email list, those bulletins were retransmitted to others who again retransmitted them, so that the CDA updates were reaching many thousands of "netizens." A political force was building, ad hoc, and the campaign was so successful that opposition to the CDA seemed near universal among Internet users. If there were online critics of VTW’s campaign, they found fault only with the lack of focus on other potential problems within the Omnibus Telecommunications Act. However many opponents of the CDA found the OTA otherwise acceptable if not desirable; VTW showed smarts in keeping the message focused on the issue about which broad agreement was possible.
This ad hoc opposition to the CDA demonstrated the potential of online organizations to build powerful organizations around particular issues. This kind of networking’s not new, but computer mediated communications enhance the speed and effectiveness of networking by factors of magnitude. There’s a sense that decisions could be made within global online communities so fast that legislatures and executives will always lag, and will eventually be considered archaic. It’s the virtual equivalent of taking the power to the streets, creating either more effective democracy (if you listen to the angel on your right shoulder) or inchoate mob rule (if you listen to the devil on your left shoulder).
Partisan politics reflects the government’s hierarchical structure: parties, like nations and states, have leaders, committees, hierarchical bureaucratic structures, and set articles or principles to which members of the party (or subscribers to the doctrine) must adhere. Computer mediated chaos politics is way different: there are no established parties, no hierarchical structures, no established principles; groups form around particular issues, but group members may agree with each other only about this one issue.
This isn’t new. Traditional politics emerges from the same tendency to form constituencies around issues; partisan politics hardwires these constituencies and holds them together from election to election, hoping to have the winning numbers. Participation in partisan politics is still limited; no party has the numbers to win an election. Political parties build and sustain power by playing to the ‘great silent majorities’ of the world, appealing and winning votes on focused, carefully researched issues, with more or less charismatic personalities fronting the elections.
With computer mediated, relatively instantaneous communications, you can toss this institutional approach. Netizens respond in blocs to particular issues but are increasingly reluctant to join parties or vote party lines. Technolibertarians particularly share this mindset. Libertarian thinking is widespread in virtual communities on the Internet, its proponents voluble in their opposition to the complexity, intrusiveness, and evident inefficiency of big government. Libertarians are at the edge of a movement to dismantle government bureaucracies and decentralize governance wherever possible. This resonates with the tendency to move away from established, monolithic political parties. Even the big-L Libertarian party has difficulty recruiting small-l libertarians.
Netizens, libertarians, and cyberactivists orgs are not going to replace party politics in the near future, but given the mood of cynicism and the growing opposition to large institutional approaches to damn near anything, and you wonder whether this is the handwriting on the wall.