Does the Internet Have a Political Disposition?

Photo credit: The Cultured Traveler

This question may seem as strange as asking, “what does technology want?” or “does the Earth care if I drive a Prius?” But it is a question worth considering, and Mike Barthel answers in the affirmative. He argues that the structure of the internet gives it a libertarian disposition:

If you’ve spent any time around the comment sections of political blogs (which, sorry!), you know that they’re frequented by a lot of people boosting Ron Paul or calling for drug legalization. We tend to think that the problem is that those people are libertarian. But… [i]t’s not that a lot of people on the internet are libertarian. It’s that the political ideology of the internet itself is, in some deep way, libertarian.

This seems too strong to me. I see the internet more as a landscape upon which political behavior can occur, rather than a determinant of outcomes. Barthel disagrees:

We’re accustomed to thinking of the internet as being a neutral place, a blank sheet upon which we are free to write and do whatever we desire, whether liberal or conservative, corporate or anarchist, commercial or free. The internet is just a tool, and it is up to us what we do with it. But tools are not neutral…. The development of the internet and of web culture, in other words, partially determines how it is used.

Rather than thinking of the internet as a tool, I would liken it to geography. This point of view still allows for Barthel’s position, and in fact many scholars argue that geography has a major influence on political outcomes (for a recent example, see here). That type of thinking leads to statements in the study of political conflict like, “mountains (or forests) cause civil war.”*

My position is much more akin to that of James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed. Scott describes the history of peoples in upland Southeast Asia fleeing to the mountains to avoid governance by the lowland kings. In the words of the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远,人穷志气短。: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” I have gotten a bit far afield from Barthel’s original argument but my point is that people with political dispositions use geography, they are not controlled by it. In other words, libertarians flee to the internet for the same reason that Southeast Asian tribes fled to the mountains–because it is an as-yet ungoverned place. In Barthel’s words:

The internet has chosen, time and time again, efficient corporate power over any form of (visible) state control.

Perhaps in the end Barthel and I are closer to agreement than disagreement. At the very least, he makes several important points. The first is that corporate governance of the internet is not necessarily any more benevolent than state control. The second great point is near the end:

This is not to argue that the internet is bad, though it would be great if we stopped thinking the internet is entirely and always good. Rather, it’s to suggest that if you are the kind of reader who thinks the government is, generally speaking, better than corporations, we might apply that to the internet as rigorously as we do the offline world. Governments in China, Pakistan, Egypt, and sure, even America have intruded on our legitimate rights online, but that doesn’t mean governments are inherently hostile to online activity. It just means we need to work harder to make sure those decisions are responsible and just…. We used to think that strong, persistent collective organizations dedicated to protecting our rights were the best way to ensure we weren’t trampled on by moneyed interests. Now we think everything will be OK if we flip out on Twitter en masse, or change the background color of our avatar. That’s fine for now, but if the internet really is becoming a central part of our lives and a place where we conduct our most important activities, then maybe we should have the same protections there as we do when we’re not on our computers.

I could not have said it better.

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*Note: I’m only partially kidding about this geography-civil war nexus. For a recent example, see the first page of this recent paper by a top scholar in the field.